As I deliberated over coffee beans in my neighborhood grocery store, the guy next to me struck up a conversation. It was run-of-the-mill small talk at first, but soon he was swooning over Grape + Bean, a combo wine-and-coffee shop that had just opened in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. Clearly still on a caffeine high from his visit, he was positively rapturous over the “best cup of coffee he’d ever had.” Intrigued, I pressed for details—after all, anyone who knows me at all understands coffee is my true love (sorry, Noah). And a couple of weeks later, I hopped on D.C.’s Metro on a pilgrimage to check the place out for myself.
Just off bustling King Street in Alexandria’s adorable Old Town, Grape + Bean beckons with a cozy-but-classy feel (hardwood floors, exposed brick walls) and a friendly barista manning the coffee bar’s coveted gem: the much-buzzed-over Clover, only one of about 200 such high-end machines scattered throughout the world that brews coffee (not espresso) on a cup-by-cup basis. Produced by a small Seattle company, the machine costs a mean $11,000 and is for the bean connoisseur, or, really, anyone who’s willing to shell out more than $3 for a cup of joe. Sort of like a French press, the Clover precisely micro-manages each variable of the brewing process (temperature, time, et al), ensuring each cup’s quality is consistent. At Grape + Bean, each cup steeps for 44 seconds, though you can request longer or shorter if you know what you want.
Slate’s Paul Adams managed to get his hands on a Clover to tinker with the brewing process. In his words: “I'm sure I'm not the first Clover user to experience a quick flashback to a vivid childhood memory—watching, horrified, as Darth Vader lowers Han Solo into his carbonite freezer.”
Grape + Bean gets its coffee from Counter Culture, a roaster in Durham, North Carolina, that’s dedicated to sustainable, fair trade beans. On my visit, I chose the 14-ounce cup of Microlot ($3.25), a limited-edition bean from Colombia, among a menu offering six brews (including one that is naturally decaffeinated), which had a rich, nutty flavor.
Beyond the coffee bar, the shop so far is primarily a boutique selling unique and high-quality, small-batch wines (priced from around $10 a bottle to upwards of $100) as well as a small selection of artisanal beers, handmade cheeses (Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog, French vacherin) and chocolate (Alexandria’s Kingsbury). They also have baked-fresh-daily baguettes and ciabatta by local baker Nathan Hatfield of Restaurant Eve, and a few high-end kitchen tchotchkes. Once they get their permits in place, co-owner Sheera Rosenfeld says the shop will also offer wine by the glass, hopefully by this summer. Friday evenings, Grape + Bean hosts wine tastings from 5 to 7 p.m.
My verdict? Though I’m not ready to proclaim the coffee was my best ever (superlatives are always too risky for this researcher), I’ll definitely go back for more. And if I lived in the neighborhood? I can only fear the damage the place would wreak on my wallet.
Photos: Jamie Ray