Forged in the Fires of Montrose
Arcade Fire front man William Butler wrote an entire album about how much he hated growing up in Houston, Texas. But if he ever stops trying to get away from the sprawl, Butler may be surprised to find a culinary renaissance is happening in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, and at its heart is Blacksmith, a cutting edge cafe helmed by David Buehrer. I spent three days at Blacksmith training for the Big Eastern Barista Competition, and I left impressed with what’s happening in the Lone Star State’s largest city.
Come for the coffee, stay for the breakfast
After my redeye flight from Louisville, I was in dire need of some caffeine and a hot breakfast. Thankfully, Blacksmith has both in ample quantity. Blacksmith joins the ranks of cafes around world that are taking their food program as seriously as their coffee program- not surprising considering Blacksmith is part of Clumsy Butcher- a restaurant group that includes nationally known restaurants and cocktail bars such as Underbelly and Anvil. I scarfed down the Vietnamese Steak and Eggs, which was undoubtedly the tastiest food I’ve eaten in a coffee shop since my burger at Workshop Coffee in London. The house made yoghurt and granola is another option that sets Blacksmith apart from the stale pastry pack.
High Volume Craftsmanship
I came to Houston to get some reps on their Nuevo Simoneli Aurelia T3- the official espresso machine of the World Barista Championship, so after chugging no less than 3 coffees (an espresso, cappuccino, and pour-over of an incredible Geisha from Birdrock that somebody had brought in) I jumped behind the bar. I knew that Blacksmith was popular, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that is their Saturday brunch slam. If you ever have wondered what it’s like to work at the number one brunch spot in America’s fourth largest city- it’s something like the battle of Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers. Thankfully, Buehrer and wingman John Letoto have assembled an efficient and skilled staff with customer service prowess that would make Danny Meyer proud. Even with a line out the door the baristas take the time to introduce themselves to each customer and bus their tables. With such a committed staff, it wasn’t difficult to settle into a groove on the espresso machine.
Greenway? Yes, way.
Blacksmith serves coffee from acclaimed Houston roaster Greenway Coffee (also co-owned by Buehrer, but not part of Clumsy Butcher). The Port of Houston is America’s second largest port, and most of the coffee entering the country passes through it. Greenway benefits with a very close relationship with local importers, and also has several direct trade relationships in Guatemala and Indonesia. David pointed out that my flight from Louisville was longer than his recent flight to Guatemala- meaning the trip from farm to table might be shorter in Houston than anywhere else in the continental U.S.
Blacksmith, however, is not content to just push locally roasted coffee. They also feature a guest espresso from an outside roaster, prepared on a La Marzocco GB-3, modded for on-the-fly pressure profiling. By sheer coincidence the guest espresso at Blacksmith during my guest barista gig was Blacksmith, the house espresso blend at Quills Coffee, where I work in Louisville. Besides providing Blacksmith’s regulars with a fair bit of amusement (“Does Quills always send a barista with a coffee order?” more than one person quipped.) it was fun for me to see how different pressure profiles affected the espresso I thought I knew pretty well.
Even Bigger Things in Store
It’s a tough act to pull off, but my time at Blacksmith taught me it’s possible to serve coffee and food at a high volume without sacrificing quality or service. David Buehrer is a visionary leader with even bigger plans for the future. If you’re not following what’s happening in Houston- you should be.