Words by Natalie Shmulik / Images by Adam DeTour
The bustling sound of early-rising footsteps overtakes the city of Boston nearly every morning. As 250,000 college students rush to their prospective classes, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee hovers around Brookline’s newest artisanal café. 4A Coffee, named after the four continents from which the beans are sourced, is transforming coffee culture with a more informative approach. Here consumers are immediately welcomed into an open space that serves up wisdom along with their morning espressos. Catering to one of the country’s most educated cities is an ideal opportunity for owner and roasting expert, Alan Draper. With a blend of coffee education, complete product traceability, and in-house roasted beans, his café offers a powerful brew to energize and inspire the local community.
The transition into Brookline has been a long time coming for the Massachusetts native who first opened 4A Coffee in Almaty, Kazakhstan nearly 13 years ago. Growing up in Lowell, Draper found himself drawn to coffee from an early age. “A long time ago,” he begins, “I smelled my first bag of freshly roasted coffee.” He pauses for a moment as if the memory of that aroma alone is enough to transport him back in time. He proudly looks at the carefully sealed bags of coffee lining the shelves and smiles, “it sustains you emotionally and intellectually your whole life.” It was this first whiff of inspiration that led Draper to coffee pioneer and mentor, George Howell. Working at Howell’s Lexington café, the young man quickly learned about bean varietals and roasting techniques.
Yet Draper has always felt that coffee is more than just a product. Instead of focusing his attention on manipulating coffee berries to meet industry standards, he sought out ways to exceed expectations by highlighting the beverage as its own entity. Eager to uncover the stories behind each varietal, he travelled the world exploring various plantations and manufacturing facilities to learn about the people and places rooted into every grind. Bean gathering is a meticulous and laborious activity and Draper insists that it is up to the roaster to maintain this level of devotion by providing the same care and attention to the final product.
For this reason 4A is dedicated entirely to coffee and coffee alone. True to its owner's values, the cheery yellow-walled café showcases the stories behind each distinct cup. The beans have history here, and consumers are provided with the perfect environment to taste and savor both.
The space is ultimately designed to be an open book. There is no clutter, no distractions, and surprisingly, no tables. The reason for this open layout is to ensure that coffee is not filtered into its usual role of “breakfast accessory.” With no tables to jumble with heavy snacks and disruptive materials, coffee is the star of the show. Guests are able to truly engage and taste the quality of their chosen brew. As Draper explains, “with the right temperature and the right grind, you can have an incredible culinary experience.”
Transparency and involving consumers in the process is essential to 4A Coffee. This explains the gigantic cobalt blue roaster that sits in plain view behind the pristine counter tops. To ensure the utmost freshness, Draper roasts his coffee in house and never serves roasted beans that are more than a week old. This is a rare treat when considering most coffee establishments serve stale, over-cooked beans.
Catering to curious customers, roasting dates are handwritten on every package along with specific information about how the beans are handled, including washing and drying methods. Important notes are prominently displayed on every shelf from the city of origin to the flavor profile. One sign features a fair trade, organic Peruvian blend while another platforms Huehuetenango, Guatemala coffee beans from the highest mountain region in Central America. The laminated sign notes that these beans are part of the sustainability project that helps improve environmental, economic, and social conditions for local producers.
Draper’s wife Erke points to the Indonesian sign, exclaiming that this one is her favorite. “You can taste the earthiness,” she says in Russian. “They have such rich soil there and it really comes through in the coffee.” She holds out a pile of specialty labels, explaining that their coffee is in constant rotation. They base their display on seasonality and alternate between the regions in order to bring out the best flavors. Impromptu tastings and exchanging information with the visitors is business as usual for Draper, who enjoys hearing the preferences of his customers.
“There are over 800 flavor compounds in coffee,” Draper readily explains. “That’s twice as much as what was found in wine.” For those interested in testing their tasting skills on these 800 flavors, 4A Coffee will soon provide cupping classes. Industry professionals and inquisitive coffee drinkers alike are invited to gather around the shop’s tasting table to learn about the diverse selection of beans and roasts. Draper laughs as he warns guests to leave their inhibitions at the door and come prepared to “sip and slurp.”
Nearly every morning Draper can be seen roasting and experimenting with different temperatures and settings as if he is studying in one of MIT’s laboratories. As the morning rush dies down, Draper rolls out a pail of unroasted coffee beans and reaches down. Lifting a palm-full of the pale green seeds, he inhales the nutty aroma and nods his head. He flicks on the roaster and carefully adjusts the settings after examining the beans. It is clear that a new story is brewing, ready to inspire tomorrow’s coffee drinkers.
4A Coffee 419 Harvard Street, Brookline 617.738.4444 4acoffee.com
Natalie Shmulik is a passionate food enthusiast who has completed her Masters in Gastronomy at Boston University. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Natalie has played a valuable role in marketing local products both in the foodservice and supermarket sector. She currently works as a branding consultant for a local beverage company. Natalie can be reached at email@example.com.