Coffee is the cup that seems to keep giving, especially in the faster-paced, 21st century world of high tech devices and short attention spans. But what was once the fuel that got people going in the morning is today a beverage enjoyed throughout the day.
The places where we dive into our favorite brews are more than counters that proffer cups and saucers. The coffeehouse of 2018 is often a multifaceted business where people gather to not only indulge in their passion for roasted beans, but to congregate, converse, relax and more. From its origins as a brew of water filtered through roasted beans, coffee is a drink whose fans are always ready to enjoy new trends and appreciate traditions.
Sip a mug in Tuolumne County
If you stroll Washington Street in downtown Sonora, you have your pick of three coffee shops, each with a unique vision and therefore they cater to slightly different clienteles.
On the northeast end of town, Troy Carle is realizing his unique vision at Union Hill Coffee. Carle grew up in Twain Harte, but lived for a number of years in Seattle. When he and his wife decided to return to Tuolumne County, he had a business model in mind for a coffee shop: simplicity with a focus on quality.
As I approached the shop recently, I passed two women sitting on an iron bench deep in conversation, each holding paper cups with the artistic Union Hill logo, a crossed shovel and pick. The logo, along with the shop’s red door, convey the stylish simplicity Carle is aiming for. His attention to fine detail is evident in the shop’s interior, where he built all of the furniture and used Deutschland lumber to face the counter. The floor is a concrete slab finished with a stylish sheen.
You’ll not find fluffy blended concoctions at Union Hill, which opened in the summer of 2016, but, if you are willing to trust the man, you might discover the pleasures of a citrusy sweet brew derived from Adame Garbota beans.
Carle – who, by the way, runs the shop, too – was at the counter taking an order from Nicki Holt.
“I get either an almond milk vanilla latte or almond milk chai,” announced Holt. When asked why she chooses Union Hill, she said, “I’m from San Diego, and while I love living in Tuolumne County, coming here takes me out of Sonora.” Holt is likely referring the spare elegance of the shop and its menu.
“I’m very careful about what I bring in,” declared Carle.
For instance, right now he’s testing a kombucha drink. Before bringing in something new, he samples the beverage himself. “Then I have a few of my regulars try it. Fads come and go, so I like to make sure before I add a menu item.”
Outside, the two women were still on the bench chatting in the warm winter sun. When I passed again, I asked if they were regulars.
“No,” said Mary Malispina, “We were in Columbia and asked someone if there was a coffee shop we could go to. We were directed here and told it was the best coffee in 50 miles.”
Down the street and kitty corner from Courthouse Park sits Heart Rock Coffee Co., in another of Sonora’s handsome old buildings. Open since March of 1998, the facility is run by the Christian Heights Church and focuses on being of service to the community. In fact, Heart Rock offers a free hot meal every Wednesday from 5:15 to 6:16 p.m. to anyone who walks through the door.
On a daily basis, the place serves coffee and several yummy breakfast items. While I chatted with Bethany Fowler, a counter girl at Heart Rock, one of the regular customers, Karen Fuller, called from a nearby table to say, “The biscuits and gravy are the best.” When asked about her favorite coffee choice, Fuller said, “Anything flavored.”
“Our pecan espresso drink has been quite popular this season,” Fowler said as she tamped ground coffee into an espresso basket and adroitly swung the hissing steam apparatus into the drink she prepared for Jenna Teal.
“I get a large soy mocha with whipped cream,” said Teal. “I like how they make it here. It’s sweeter and less bitter than other places. And I’m getting a cinnamon roll to take to my mom.”
“We get all kinds of people in here, especially the courthouse crowd when there are juries,” explained Fowler. “We’re closed on Sundays, but the service from the church is live streamed here, so people come for that. Our goal is to help strengthen the community.”
A half block from the stoplight at Washington and Stockton streets, Sonora Joe’s Coffee Shoppe presents an unassuming storefront. A sandwich board sits on the sidewalk when the store is open. The usually cryptic messages on the board change from day to day, but the ambience inside is always congenial; some even find it magnetic.
When he opened in March 2010, Joe Impink had in mind a shop that encouraged the arts. Each month, a different art or photography exhibit hangs on the brick walls of this lovingly refurbished downtown building. The acoustics of the rock walls and rough-hewn pine wainscoting appeal to musicians who attend open mic sessions on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. The highly popular literary night on the third Friday of each month draws area writers who sign up for the open readings that follow a featured reader.
The ambience of the shop on a daily basis is casual, offering free Wi-Fi, a shelf full of board games and guitars available to anyone with an inclination to pluck out a song. Along with the usual coffee fare, tea and espresso drinks, Sonora Joe’s serves a nice array of Italian sodas.
The relaxed atmosphere of the family-owned and run business attracts young and old customers of an artistic mindset. However, Sonora Joe’s is not only welcoming venue to artists, it’s a place where folks feel at home doing their own thing while sipping beverages – be it clacking away on a laptop, playing chess or a board game or doing homework. On any given day, the eclectic group of people around the shop seems right a home.
The ever-popular Schnoogs Cafe is a prime meeting place for just about every conceivable group in the county.
“Among our regular groups,” explained owner Sally Arnold, “are retired teachers, the exercise ladies, the morning boys, Bible study, the knitting group and the pharmacy reps, to name a few.”
While not exactly a regular group member at Schnoogs, I’ve met there with my book club and my writing buddy. I’ve conducted numerous interviews at Schnoogs for Sierra Lodestar and met for coffee dates with friends and with my grandkids for home-school lessons.
Arnold is clear about the mission of her establishment.
“When my husband Michael and I opened Schnoogs, we had a vision to create community,” she said. “We wanted a place where people could gather, share stories and eat real food. We felt our obligation was to deliver the kind of product we believed in – organic, free trade. Now it’s clear that people care about this as much as we do.”
High-quality products, like the new quinoa salad, are synonymous with Schnoogs. But the fact that it is a comfortable gathering place with tables and chairs for serious encounters or plush chairs for intimate meetings is also part of the draw. Arnold said that the loveseat by the big plate-glass window has served all kinds of needs, including budding relationships and sorrowful moments of loss.
But the mood of Schnoogs is primarily upbeat and energized as people fuel themselves with good food and drink.
Situated on Highway 108 in Sugar Pine, Alicia’s Sugar Shack is a popular stop for folks heading up the hill to hike, camp or ski. It’s also the go-to bakery for just about anyone in the acounty who wants to order the best-ever celebratory cake. However, for folks who live or work up the hill, it’s the local coffee shop.
“We have a lot of regular groups,” exclaimed Alicia, “like the working guys: the loggers, construction workers and concrete guys. They are here every weekday morning, and I worry if one of them fails to show up. We have a mom’s circle, women who come with preschoolers when their older kids go to school. The school bus stop – for Twain Harte (elementary) and Summerville High – is right out in front. We’ve been open for 10 years, so I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up. And a few of our older customers have passed on.”
The Sugar Shack is definitely a local institution and stays that way by creating a welcoming atmosphere, being a top-notch bakery, and because “My husband stays up on the hippest new stuff,” declared Alicia. For instance, they just purchased a new Faema espresso machine, and they have installed a small kegerator or draft system so they can serve kombucha and nitro cold-brew coffee.
Alicia went on to describe the process for brewing nitro in-house, which she explained is infused like stout beer with a head.
Alicia says business is thriving.
“We keep track of our numbers every year, and we are over last year’s count even without the snow people this year.”
That’s probably because of her business trifecta: sweet, hip and homey.
Two other Tuolumne Coffee Shops deserve mention as great places to enjoy a respite and your favorite brew.
Here is what Bryan Gronemeier has to say about Caffe Blossom in Twain Harte: “We really enjoy Amanda (Fournier) and her creations. We usually order white chocolate mochas with extra whipped cream. She makes a delicious variety of panini and fresh pastries that are also nutritious. We often take the kids with us, as there is seating inside and out. With live music during warm months and a swimming pool next door, you can’t go wrong.”
Here is what Jenny Harrelson, who lives in Ponderosa Hills, has to say about Revive Cafe in Tuolumne: “It’s a quiet, inviting atmosphere. The staff is friendly, and they play lovely music in the background. They also sell kombucha, which is another pull for me. Sometimes friends and I will gather at Revive, get a drink to go, and then head out on a walk out Apple Colony Road.”
For those of us whose very existence is tied into coffee, we can’t imagine mornings without its aroma, an afternoon deprived of its taste in conversations with friends or even an evening listening to poetry at an open mic night.
Many of us, like T. S. Eliot, measure our lives with coffee spoons, from the first time we smelled its unique, tart aroma to the times we spent studying with friends or appreciating a mug of steaming black liquid watching the sun rise, coffee is an integral part of the American experience.
Coffee came to America with the British in the 1700s and has remained ever since, outstripping tea as the hot drink of the nation because, legend has it, of a tea party in Boston that made it somewhat unpatriotic to continue to drink tea.
Be that as it may, coffee has long been an American staple. Pictures of cowboys making coffee over fires on the open prairies permeate our collective consciousness, along with snapshots of truck drivers at counters of all-night truck stops taking breaks to have a cup of joe with a slice of hot apple pie.
Coffee got a jumpstart in California during the Gold Rush, when a young man named James A. Folger came to find his fortune in the goldfields and saw a broader vision in making gold in the form of the coffee. That vision eventually became Folgers Coffee, when Folger sold coffee to miners who had a penchant for the dark brew made over their mining camp fires.
Gold miners paid about 16 cents per pound of coffee at the beginning of the Gold Rush. Even after respectable women came to the Mother Lode – bringing their social ideals and afternoon teas – coffee remained the mainstay drink for the men.
Today coffee still reigns supreme in the Mother Lode, as it does throughout the U.S. Americans are well known for their love of the beverage that has expanded in the past couple of decades to include more than percolated or brewed coffee. Liquid offerings made from coffee beans now include the all manner of concoctions from countries like Italy, where espresso is favored, Turkey, where Turkish coffee is an offering of hospitality, and more.
The coffeehouses of the Mother Lode range in size and offerings, often combining pastries or paninis with flavorful brews. A few places here remain true to the beans that create the hot and cold beverages so many people crave.
The Sutter Creek Coffee Roasting Co. in Sutter Creek sells beans specially roasted at Amador County farmers markets and a selection of bakeries and eateries in the county, and ships custom blends across the country. Mother Lode Roasting Co. in Sonora and Gold Country Roasters in Murphys roast coffee beans that are found in caffeinated waves throughout Mother Lode grocery and specialty stores. These roasters allow aficionados to craft special brews in their own homes.
“We are founded on quality, consistency and great customer service,” said Lisa Schwartz, owner of Gold Country Roasters. “It’s authentic.”
Gold Country Roasters is both a coffee shop with a full menu of specialty drinks and a coffee roasting site that has grown by leaps and bounds since Schwartz bought the business in 2012. Guests get a range of coffee drinks at the shop and the baristas work hard to create new liquid enjoyments for their customers.
“We just kind of experiment,” Schwartz said. “Mostly my baristas come up with the drinks. They just have a lot of fun; then we all get to taste and critique what they come up with.”
Beyond coffee specialties, bean buffs revel in a pure experience at the shop, too, where it’s all about the coffee beans and how they are roasted.
“There’s a trend to lighter and lighter roasts,” said Tonja Peterson, head roaster at Gold Country Roasters. “The lighter roasts are really driven by tech. They’re part of the third wave of coffee roasting, which is really light and gives you a better buzz.”
“The third-wave coffee roasts do directly track back to the producers of origin and there’s some higher attention to quality and taste. It’s very comparable to wine or craft beer,” she continued.
When coffee roasters talk about three waves of roasting, they’re talking about the history of roasting the small beans. The first wave included what Folger began all those years ago, when his company roasted beans for mass consumption. The second wave is considered artisanal coffee, including the Starbucks and the Peet’s Coffees of the world, where the focus shifted from mass consumption to an emphasis on the beans, drink preparation and flavors.
The third wave is one in which the coffee bean rules; roasters carefully consider not only how their beans are obtained and roasted, but how the final product tastes. Drinkers of these coffees enjoy it straight with no other accompaniments.
“The lighter roasts are better for black coffee drinkers because you taste more of the varietal,” Peterson said.
Although those in the tech world may be going to lighter and lighter roasts, here in the Mother Lode, darker roasts are still the most popular.
“It’s driven by more traditionally roasted (beans) here, which is dark and darker,” Peterson said with a smile.
“Our Murphys Blend is our best-seller,” said Schwartz. “It tastes really good. It’s one of those coffees that’s pleasing to all palates. It’s a friendly and enjoyable coffee.”
One of Peterson’s goals as she started roasting coffee beans was to bring a smooth taste to coffee made from beans that are dark roasted, which is no easy feat.
“My goal was to take the burnt taste out of the dark coffees,” she said. “That’s a very difficult thing to do. I was so happy when I achieved that.”
At the shop on Scott Street in Murphys, visitors watch Peterson roast coffee at least three times a week, up from once a week when Schwartz first took over the shop six years ago. Peterson’s dance with the roasting machine is something to see.
“There’s a cadence and a pace to it,” Peterson said. “We’re still very, very hands-on, and, it’s in small batches.”
“We roast 20 pounds at a time, and it’s Tonja pouring her love into it,” Schwartz said of Peterson’s dedication. “Tonja’s in there making changes by hand; it’s multisensory. Every roast is like that.”
As for the future, Peterson thinks the tide will return to traditional beans.
“I think there will be a new trend in roasting, which will be roasting darker again,” she said. “Bean blending seems to be a new trend.”
Blending is when roasters use beans from different sources to conjure new flavor profiles. But even with all the different types of roasts and coffee beans, people have their favorites.
“My job is to keep that consistency and repetition,” Peterson offered. “There’s a standard, so once you meet that standard, it’s about meeting that every time.”
“I buy all my coffee here,” said Merita Callaway of Murphys. “I have a Gold Country Roasters card. I buy all my coffee beans here and I come in and have a cup.”
Not only is Callaway a coffee drinker, she said getting her coffee from Gold Country Roasters is a multifaceted experience.
“One, it’s local, and I think it’s very important to shop locally,” she said. “Tonja’s a good coffee roaster and it’s just a good roast. My favorite is the French Roast, Peru.”
The Gold Country Roasters card is a loyalty program that will soon be joined by an online subscription service much like wine-of-the-month clubs in which coffee cravers can shop online and choose which coffees they want shipped to their homes and how often. The program joins the company’s already flourishing online business.
No matter where you choose to relax with a cup of coffee made in the Mother Lode, Schwartz sums up the experience nicely.
“We encourage people to come and hang out,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”