Local entrepreneur Brendan Smith is no stranger to the ins and outs of the coffee business. He’s not a snob by any means, but don’t let his humility fool you, either — he has a keen palate and a wealth of information.
Though Smith steers clear of Starbucks these days, he credits his time spent working there with sparking his interest in coffee education. Since then, he’s opened and operated a coffeehouse (The Brew Garden, circa 2008), from which he's watched coffee evolve from being “something you drank to get through the day” to a niche pursuit.
Business was the furthest thing from his mind when he took up commuting to nearby cities for a quality cup of joe. His natural love for specialty coffee and socializing meant talking friends into joining him on his quest. On one such occasion, a friend suggested a shop-to-shop tasting, an idea that Smith ended up running with. The concept has quickly developed into the St. Petersburg Craft Coffee Tour, a regular schedule of espresso crawls, launched privately in 2015 and publicly in 2016, with additional dates added as frequently as rising demand dictates.
According to Smith, the weekend tours often sell out, which is why a new branch will soon be added in Tampa.
Each shop hop highlights the distinct approach of the featured coffee destinations, alongside the best products they offer. So far, participating Pinellas locations have included Craft Kafé, Intermezzo Coffee & Cocktails, Southside Coffee Brew Bar, Bandit Coffee Co. and The Bikery.
Smith shares what he’s learned about good coffee, too, including the importance of consuming it within weeks of the roasting date. Every step in whole process — how the beans are harvested, the roast, the brew method, water temperature, all of it — contributes to making a difference in the way coffee tastes. When properly brought out, all the complexities and aromas, like wine, can be appreciated black.
“You get to learn a little bit about coffee and maybe try some things you never knew existed,” he said.
One stop, for example, might include a creation that pushes the envelope of contemporary coffee culture and preparation, such as an espresso mocktail, while another could explore how cold brew changes with the infusion of nitrogen. Smith says he works closely with shop owners to curate an adventurous, one-of-a-kind jaunt every time.
As the name of the tour suggests, craft (or specialty) coffee — which the Specialty Coffee Association of America defines as coffee rated 80 or above on a 100-point scale by the industry’s quality-graders — is the focus. He says there’s a lack of freshness with big-name beans; those are usually a year past their prime before they land in a shopping cart.
“It’s like you’re trying to market the very best frozen produce against someone pulling stuff out of the ground. Maybe you can do some really good tricks and maybe I’ll be pretty happy with it, but it’s never gonna win head-to-head,” said Smith. “How could it?”
Having jumped on two tours myself, I must confess I’m a Keurig-to-craft coffee convert. I never thought drinking black coffee was within the realm of possibility for me, then I received the first cup I’d ever tasted that didn’t have bitterness as the dominating characteristic; there was actually flavor. The Coffee Tour allows everyone from locals and tourists to home roasters and novices, who are guided through the profile of each blend while sipping samples, to experience the contrast between average coffee and fresh beans that’ve been properly roasted, ground and extracted into something worthy of your favorite mug.
And if you’re worried about flying solo, don’t be. The tour is a relaxed social setting where new connections are easily formed.
“It’s very relational. That’s one of the things that surprised me — people who don’t really know each other connect really well,” Smith said.
Looking toward the future, Smith anticipates more St. Pete-based roasters creating top-notch products that out-of-town businesses will pay to have shipped. New shops, led by folks who truly care about what they’re pouring, continue to pop up regularly on both sides of the bay, after all.
He’s working on putting together a back-to-back Saturday (St. Pete) and Sunday (Tampa) tour for the weekends of Dec. 2 and 3, as well as Dec. 9 and 10.
“We’re at the beginning of this, and I think more and more people are developing a palate for good coffee,” he said. “Starbucks came in and convinced people to move from the Styrofoam cup with the red-and-white stir stick that they got at a gas station — that sat there all day long — to what they do. Now this kind of third-wave coffee that’s been alive and well in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and other places is really starting to hit this city.”