The Perfect Cup

Barismo’s quest for coffee excellence
By Amelia Mason

In a city like Boston, where cafés are the size of restaurants and wi-fi is always on the menu, Barismo bravely bucks the trend. Tucked away on a dreary strip of Massachusetts Avenue in East Arlington, the diminutive coffeehouse has just enough space at its narrow bar for a handful of bean fiends to lean while they knock back espresso shots. At the rear stand two squat yellow coffee roasters not much taller than the people who tend them. Four days a week the machines are fired up, and as they spin in slow, mesmerizing circles, they permeate the air outside with a telltale bittersweet aroma.

It may come as a surprise that Barismo, with its out-of-the-way location and seatless setup, is intent on returning Boston to its former glory as a coffee destination. Cambridge in particular was once known as a mecca for the java-obsessed; starting in 1975, it was home to the Coffee Connection, a high-end coffee retailer that helped usher out an era of Folgers Instant Crystals and in an age of venti lattes and mochachinos. But judging by a recent Travel & Leisure article listing Boston just 17th in a list of 20 “best coffee cities,” Beantown has lost its buzz.

The powers behind Barismo are set to change that. On a Monday in October, Barismo’s general manager and co-founder Jaime van Schyndel sits perched atop a stack of enormous bean-filled burlap sacks, a slight, unassuming king surveying his small but vital kingdom. He wears hiking boots and small oval glasses, looking like an outdoorsy Harry Potter, and is prone to bold, declarative remarks.

Operating out of a space not much larger than most living rooms, van Schyndel supervises a busy espresso bar and a thriving wholesale business that supplies beans to many of Boston’s premier coffeehouses, including Cambridge cafés Hi-Rise and Simon’s Coffee Shop. Barismo’s seasonal selection of single-origin coffees and espresso blends are also available for mail-order on their website, along with an array of specialized home brewing equipment.

Van Schyndel, 33, is undoubtedly the company’s visionary, and its most zealous spokesperson. His professional background is in restaurants, where, he says, he “always had success in finding oddball ways of getting the message across, or ... creatively re-fram[ing] the business.” A born skeptic, van Schyndel came by his obsession with coffee accidentally. “Coffee was a challenge, because when I first started drinking coffee, I was like, ‘How do people drink this? This is horrible,’” he admits.

It wasn’t until van Schyndel tried coffee from Ecco Caffe, a small-batch roastery in San Francisco, that he realized he might be missing out. Back in Boston, he found inspiration in Coffee Connection founder George Howell’s new endeavor, Terroir Coffee, in Acton. The artistry and skill that Howell brought to roasting—van Schyndel describes it as “coffee like wine”—helped spur him on an all-consuming quest for coffee perfection.

Barismo’s origins go back to 2006, when van Schyndel and some fellow baristas started meeting weekly to experiment with different roasts and brewing equipment. “We were very introspective ... and very, very critical of ourselves. Very critical. To the point where people didn’t even think we liked coffee,” he remembers with a laugh. After a few years of obsessive self-education, van Schyndel, his wife, Hong Xue, and a friend opened Barismo. Three years later, with van Schyndel and Hong Xue now the primary owners, Barismo stands as a bastion of cutting-edge coffee nerd culture, the likes of which remain a rarity in Boston.

When Barismo debuted in 2008, the response was lukewarm. Initial Yelp comments were discouraging, says van Schyndel, and as the first standing coffee bar in the area, they felt skepticism from their industry peers. But it didn’t take long for the company to start making ripples throughout the nation’s vast network of coffee fanatics. In 2009, The Atlantic called Barismo “the moment’s cool coffee company,” reporting that the shop was a popular destination for coffee tourists from across the United States and abroad. The press has paid off at home; just skim the chatter on local Chowhound coffee discussion boards, and you’ll find countless recommendations for Barismo beans.

The baristas at Barismo pull some of the most exquisite shots in the city. Theirs is also the only shop in these parts to brew coffee with the barista’s current favorite toy, a siphon. The device, with its laboratory look, uses a centuries-old technique that employs vapor pressure in a double-boiler-like apparatus to produce a single cup of coffee at a time. Two shapely round vessels are stacked on top of each other and connected by a narrow tube; when the water on the bottom boils, the surrounding air expands with vapor and the water rises, with a kind of alchemic magic, to meet the coffee grounds in the upper chamber. The resulting brew is clean and intense, with a tart, insistent bite.

The secret to great coffee, says van Schyndel, is simple: “Fresh crop, fresh roast, fresh brew, fresh grounds.” To ensure that they get the freshest beans as directly as possible, Barismo employs a full-time green buyer who spends a good chunk of each year traveling to farms in Central and South America and Africa; detailed writeups about the farms and their growing practices, framed up with glossy photographs, hang on the walls at the shop. (Barismo pays 2½ times the fair-trade price for its beans.) To assure quality on the production end, Barismo roasts in small batches and only ships its beans locally. Though the shop is at capacity with its current setup, they refuse to expand production because this would compromise their ability to control and perfect each roast.

Back in October, van Schyndel and his cohorts were feverishly preparing to open a new, much larger location on Broadway in Cambridge called dwelltime. (At the time of printing, the shop was expected to open in November, though no date had been set.) The new space has a full kitchen—Xue, an instructor at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, is in charge of dwelltime’s food program—and, unlike Barismo, plenty of seating. Van Schyndel envisions it as a “true community place.” In an effort to galvanize that community, there are plans to hold free tastings on Thursdays, showcasing different roasters each week. A guest barista program is also in the works.

It is all part of van Schyndel’s master plan to create coffee lovers as passionate as he. “If the cup is good enough, enough people will see that, and will want to go home and try to do it the same way.”

“We’re not trying to do neighborhood coffee,” he explains. “We’re trying to do coffee mecca.”

169 Massachusetts Avenue
East Arlington

Amelia Mason is a freelance writer and musician living in Cambridge. She spends a lot of time in coffeeshops.

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