2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Artisan Jay Caragay of Spro Coffee

2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Artisan Jay Caragay of Spro Coffee
December 2014

Growing up in a household where the morning brew was Taster’s Cup, Jay Caragay wasn’t exactly initiated into the finer points of coffee culture at an early age. Rather, his love affair with the Arabica bean grew from a relationship of pure convenience during his cigar smoking days in the mid-90s, when the only libation offered at his favorite cigar shop was coffee. Over the course of the next several years Caragay, who was at that time working in film production, nursed his enjoyment of joe as he plotted a change of careers. In 1999 he launched a Hawaiian-style snow cone business Jay’s Shave Ice, with his brother, and in 2002 when it was time to step up from a seasonal endeavor to a year-round storefront, he knew that coffee was the way to keep his clientele coming back during the cold months.

In keeping with the original theme, Caragay flew out to the Aloha State to source beans and learn something of the business. His first contact, Gus Brocksen of Pele Plantations, introduced Caragay to the procedures of coffee harvesting, processing, and roasting, and Caragay was immediately hooked. He immersed himself in the world of coffee, attending trade shows and studying various techniques of processing, roasting, and brewing, along the way finding an invaluable mentor in John Sanders, of Seattle’s Hines Public Market Coffee fame.

In 2006, Caragay opened the first iteration of Spro, a coffee-centric venture, in the Baltimore County Public Library in Towson, Maryland. By 2010 he was ready for a freestanding shop in the Hampden area, where he offered customers a selection of eight different coffees sourced from six different roasters, brewed in any of seven different methods. And as if that wasn’t enough customization, in 2011 Caragay opened his own roastery in East Baltimore for even greater control over his product. There he roasts an ever-changing variety of beans from Africa and the Americas to sell by the pound, and to be brewed in the Hampden shop. For his own cup he favors natural process coffees from Ethiopia, with their fruit-laden and berry notes.

I Support: Coffee Kids


About: Coffee Kids works with organizations in rural coffee-growing areas of Latin America to provide healthcare, scholarships, economic diversification, food security, and capacity building.

I Support: The Foundation for Aid to the Philippines


About: Coffee Kids works with organizations in rural coffee-growing areas of Latin America to provide healthcare, scholarships, economic diversification, food security, and capacity building.

Interview with Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Artisan Jay Caragay of Spro Coffee

Rebecca Cohen: Did you drink coffee growing up?
Jay Caragay
: No, I never really drank coffee at all. I grew up in a house where my father drank a lot of Taster’s Choice. I didn’t really like it when I was younger.

RC: How did you get interested in coffee?
It started in 1996. I used to hang around at a cigar shop that sold coffee, real simple coffee. If you wanted something to drink with your cigar you either needed to go to the deli, or drink this coffee. I drank it because it was convenient. I used a lot of sugar and cream to make it palatable, but it wasn’t until several years later, maybe 6 years later that I started really getting into coffee.

RC: What happened after that?
I always liked food and the idea of food, but never actually wanted to get involved with it too seriously. I was too focused on being part of the film business making movies. I did that for about 10 years—production work for different studios. When I wanted to get out of the movie business I wanted to do Hawaiian style shaved ice on the side. The idea was to bring really high quality shaved ice to Baltimore. Super fluffy snow, interesting flavors, and natural cane sugars. We did that starting in 1999, and by 2001, after the economy turned, we lost the space we were in. By 2002 we had a new location, but this time instead of being seasonal it was a year round lease, and that put a little kink in our plans. Nobody buys shaved ice in the winter! So we thought why not do coffee? But we had to do it in a way that made sense with what we were doing already, so we focused on coffee from Hawaii.

I started contacting Hawaiian coffee roasters. I didn’t know anything about the coffee business—I was very green and ignorant. So, I flew out to Hawaii and visited the farms and connected with the people. I met a guy called Gus Brocksen, who owns Pele Plantations. I thought it would be a quick visit. But at the time, they were just starting to harvest and he took me on a tour—showed me the trees, the wet processing of the cherries, everything! I meant to be there a couple hours, but ended up staying the entire day there. Today in the coffee business a lot of talk about sourcing and direct trade and meeting the farms – as I look back on things, it was the only way I  had no idea how else to do it.

About a year later I was learning how to make espresso! I went to a coffee trade show for a class, sat next to a guy a little older than me, and he wanted to talk. So we hung out for the weekend and went to coffee shops. Turns out he was the guy who was instrumental in making Kinkos what it is today. Fascinating guy. He introduced me to a guy named Jon, Hinds Coffee, in Seattle. His shop was essentially the epicenter of forward thinking high quality third-wave coffee. For whatever reason he and I got along really well and he brought me into his fold and taught me a lot about the business and about coffee. He really opened my eyes to what quality is really about and how to pursue it. It was through him that I met a lot of people in the larger coffee industry. He would teach me skills or techniques and I would try to bring it home to our shop.

RC: What’s your roasting style?
Our roasting style tends to stay within a medium roast, but also a roast profile that we feel best highlights the flavor characteristics of the particular coffee. We design blends with specific characteristics in mind. The blends that we develop tend to favor balanced and harmonious flavors. Since company operations and external interests like green coffee buying, judging, training, etc., take so much of my time, I mainly oversee roasting operations and roast profiles. The time I actually get to spend physically operating a roaster has been quite limited lately.

RC: What’s your favorite region for coffee?
Hawaii’s always been it for me, because I lived there for so many years. I really like natural process coffees from Ethiopia. They’re sun dried instead of washed. Especially the ones that’re really fruity with strong berry notes. A lot of old timers consider natural process to be defective coffee, but I love that. Another place I’ve been exploring lately is the Philippines. Haven’t found a lot yet, but I’m talking to a lot of people and getting samples.

RC: Drip Coffee v. French Press v. Espresso?
It depends on my mood. We use a lot of different methods in our shop. You can take a piece of chicken and you can boil it, braise it, fry it, sauté it, rotisserie it, smoke it, and each of those ways is different and enhances or diminishes different aspects of the chicken, but it’s still chicken in its essence. Same for coffee. It’s a personal preference, and it’s also situational. If I’m having my fruity berry coffee from Ethiopia when I’m at home making breakfast, I like to use a French Press.

RC: What are you most excited about at the moment?
I'm most excited about working with developing producers who are trying to find their foothold in the specialty coffee world. The hope is that, one day soon, these producers can produce and deliver some truly tasty and exquisite coffee that we can bring back to America to offer our guests. In addition to that, we've been working this year with some of our established growers with more experimental lots of coffee that will be exclusive to Spro in 2015.

RC: Where did the idea to age coffee come from?
In 2007 I was out in Tokyo and stopped in a place called Café Del Ombre, and the owner, he might be 100 this year, he’s been making coffee for at least three generations. He owns this place with classic Japanese style—it’s an institution. His nephew has been his apprentice for 30 years. They would brew the coffee in these socks, such a detailed technique, so well thought out. He’s got coffees in there that are literally 30 years old. I tried some of his coffees, they were interesting. Not the most amazing coffee I’d ever had, but the most amazing experience. But the idea interested me. At the same time, a friend in Canada was taking green coffee and freezing it to maintain freshness. We thought, let’s take some coffee that we really like, that’s stellar and exquisite, and see what happens to it over several years. In 2007 in Ethiopia there was a harvest that was stellar—beautiful, a fantastic coffee, highly sought after, people were crazy for it. I got a bag of it and a bag of washed coffee from San Francisco. We kept it in storage, did small runs once in a while, to see how it would turn out, how it would chang over time. It’s turned out really interesting! The super forward fruit has become mellow, more cherry-ish. How will it change in 6 months? It might go south! But it’s an interesting thing to see and our guests enjoy this ongoing thing.

RC: How does aging affect the flavor profile, acidity, and mouthfeel?
I think it varies from bean to bean. There’re coffees that we’ve had which just over the course of a year become musty, disappointing, and lifeless. So it depends on the coffee, not all coffees can withstand this kind of time and aging. I’d say overall the coffees might diminish.

RC: How do you roast these aged coffees?
: The moisture content of aged coffees decreases a little bit, but the roasting process is pretty similar. If it does lose a lot of moisture, (we’re look for about 11-11.5% before roasting), we might have to take a different approach. But generally about 11-12 minutes roast time, at about 420 degrees. It doesn’t take very long. When people say it takes 45 minutes we consider that to be baking the coffee. We want to dry it out real fast, drop from 11% moisture down to 5-6%, then let the Maillard reactions happen. As the coffee roasts there’s a popping noise, so after the first pop we go only about 20-30 seconds.

RC: How do you brew them?
The menu changes week to week. On the website we’ll have a catalog of coffees. What’s in the shop is pretty much what we’d like to try or play around with. The aged coffees may or may not be on the menu in the shop itself.

RC: What’s your five year plan?
Hopefully bringing nice coffee to a larger population than we are currently, and in more cities and countries around the world.