A Caffeinated Cafe Bike Crawl

I know just enough about coffee and cycling to realize how much there is to learn about each. Thus my two-wheeled cafe “crawl” from Capitol Hill to U Street. Five miles, five coffee shops. On the scale of baristas I’m a well-versed novice with Counter Culture Coffee training and three months of full-timing at Eastern Market’s Peregrine Espresso. As for biking I’m a certified spin instructor who doesn’t teach and the proud owner of a Jamis road bike – my gift to myself when I moved to DC a year ago.

Carpethe mediocrity!

You don’t need to be a bike guru or coffee pro for this pilgrimage, but here’s what you will need: a trusty bike (CABI works too), helmet, U-lock, water bottle, and carbohydrates. Food is a must along the way, whether brought from home or bought on site for the sake of caffeine jitters. (I vote trail mix; the nuts and tangy dried fruit can accentuate the coffee’s flavors.)

Beginning at Peregrine Espresso in Capitol Hill, this mostly flat route runs north to a segment of the Metro Branch Trail before crossing New York Avenue and up through Bloomingdale and Shaw to the intersection of 14th and U streets.

Make my adventure your own. Just go along for the ride.

Peregrine Espresso

(L) Cappuccinos on Peregrine Espresso’s sidewalk patio.

Eight months ago I would’ve been on the other side of the counter, but this Sunday afternoon I walk into bustling Peregrine Espresso as just another thirsty local. Ranked barista champion Ryan Jensen opened the flagship in Eastern Market five years ago and recently planted two more locations on 14th Street and at Union Market.

Here’s what you’ll get: Counter Culture coffees (Durham, N.C.) from the pour-over bar; a simple espresso menu; one monthly espresso special (think rosewater or pickle juice in the mix); and a crew of knowledgeable baristas responsible for Peregrine’s recent “America’s Best Coffeehouse” title.

Indecisive folks are in luck because there aren’t many choices to be made here: one-size cup, no sugary flavored syrups or whipped cream, and none of that frozen chai bogusness.

Allow me to make a suggestion. Espresso. If you’re sure you can’t stomach this typically toxic soup, give it one more shot – or two here. Peregrine baristas pull all shots as doubles. Today’s espresso is a fruit-forward, spiced Tairora from Papua, New Guinea. www.peregrineespresso.com

Vigilante Coffee Co.

Across the street local roaster Vigilante Coffee serves pour-overs (Colombia and Burundi today) and iced coffee at the Flea Market at Eastern Market. I walk up to their tent as one barista opens a canister to let curious passersby smell the grounds while the other explains his brewing method. Owner Chris Vigilante plans to open a brick-and-mortar at 13th and H streets come September, but for now they’ve set up shop in Hogo rum bar. www.vigilantecoffee.com

Big Bear Cafe

(L) Big Bear Cafe’s garden patio.

From the market the ride zigzags to a Bloomingdale anchor just over the northwest border. I try to stay in bike-lane territory, which is cake once you’re on East Capitol Street. Turn right on 6th, hit the Metro Branch Trail, and cut through NoMa to go over the God-forsaken intersection of Florida and New York avenues. (Expect traffic congestion here.) Next a left on bike-friendly P Street then right on 1st Street NW, a straight shot to Big Bear Cafe in all its ivy-overgrown glory.

When I went to Big Bear for the first time last summer I was expecting cabin decor, taxidermy, and menu puns, but despite the misleading name there’s no trace of kitsch in this airy bungalow or its garden patio. Local coffee blogger and barista Jonathan Riethmaier (@DistrictBean) had snagged us a corner of the communal table; he was just off his opening shift at the Coffee Bar (corner of S and 12th).

As a veteran crawler Riethmaier says he usually evaluates shop to shop with “common denominators.” He’ll try an espresso, a cappuccino, and a brewed coffee at each – usually split with a friend – which is good in theory but not so much when you’re cheap and alone. I vie for a cortado (a “baby latte,” or espresso and steamed milk, in an oversized shot glass) and a house-made peanut butter cookie. www.bigbearcafe-dc.com

Kafe Bohem

Although my next stop is just five blocks west on Florida Avenue, I take the scenic route, R Street then a right on 6th. Kafe Bohem sits in the shadows of mother restaurant Bistro Bohem, beside Shaw neighborhood’s revitalized Howard Theatre.

Cozy Bohem transports patrons to a Viennese kaffehaus with its Julius Meinl roasts from Austria. I order an espresso that’s served with a sugar wafer and sparkling water, but unfamiliar options like the einspanner (coffee with house-made whipped cream) tempt us purists too. Bonus here: traditional European pastries like sausage-spinach kolaches and denseapricot cake. www.kafebohem.com

The Wydown

(L) Alex McCracken, owner of The Wydown, prepares to cup coffee samples, or “teasers,” from PT’s Coffee Roasting Co.

Last stop: a paper-plastered storefront. Chad McCracken, co-owner of The Wydown, greets me at the unmarked door. Don’t get too excited, it’s no coffee speakeasy, but it is little known – for now. Chad and brother Alex are gutting this space for a six-month stay, just a preview of their permanent cafe coming next spring, one block away at prime 14th and U streets. Alex refers to this current teaser space as a “gallery” that just focuses on the coffee.

Today the McCrackens are tasting, or “cupping,” to choose two or three coffees for their shop’s brew bar. Cupping is coffee-speak for a barebones brew method to eliminate flimsy variables that may affect the coffee’s taste. Our tools are minimal: hot filtered water, fresh grounds, rocks glasses, and soup spoons. Pouring hot water over the grounds, we smell each then “break the crust” to get the most intense aroma from the CO2 release. Skimming off the grinds, we slurp our way around the table trying coffee after coffee, then trying, trying again.

We taste nine different roasts from PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. of Topeka, Kan. There’s a blueberry-drenched Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a balanced Guatemalan, and even a Nicaraguan home-roasted by the brothers. www.thewydown.com