Photo by Christy Wolyniak
David Rothstein (left) and Alex Johnstone (the other left) saw a serious lack in specialty coffee carts and started Handlebar Coffee.

Coffee à la cart, hold the syrup

By: Christy Wolyniak

Two local coffee aficionados have made it their civic duty to educate Seattle and beyond on the finer things, especially on slowing down with an experience that has a ring of nostalgia to it.

Handlebar Coffee, a human-powered café on wheels caters pure, specialty black coffee through the streets of Seattle thanks to founders David Rothstein and Alex Johnstone, who saw a serious lack in specialty coffee carts.

“We loved the idea of coffee on the go. We always took coffee camping and we took good coffee, so we were excited about bringing this to a few places and kind of being like a flash-mob coffee shop that pops up and stirs people’s curiosity,” said Johnstone.

“Coffee facilitates community, as do small businesses and bikes, so it’s really the natural crux of who we are and a reflection of the city,” commented Rothstein on Handlebar’s beginnings.

The baristas began with what they already possessed: an avid love for coffee and the great outdoors, and some mad box-making skills thanks to high school woodshop.

Two decent sized aluminum and wood “boxes” painted with blackboard paint became a canvas for both advertising and a brief menu listing the various types of coffee offered. A single propane burner, coffee grinder and pour-over station, and an iPad mounted on a handmade wooden case to supply music and complete transactions are securely fastened on top of their carts.

Hours of tea tasting and bakery sampling resulted in Handlebar’s tea selection and delicious vegan and gluten-free baked goods from Flying Apron.

Handlebar Coffee brews only single-origin beans supplied by three local roasters: Velton’s in Everett, Conduit on Westlake, and Kuma from Interbay. Direct contact with the roasters facilitates the knowledge behind the bean, as well as techniques that the two are passionate about sharing with their city.

“The process is more about a variety of different methods. We wanted to get people to slow down, drink a cup of coffee, and appreciate black coffee for what it is. The implications of that are greater than just a caffeine rush and the simple luxury of something that tastes good, it’s thought-provoking as well,” said Rothstein.

Three methods, to be exact: the French press for coffee on the fly, pour-over that uses gravity as pressure to result in a clean and aromatic cup, and the Aero Press, invented by Aerobie originally for home espresso that acts like a syringe for a concentrated blend.

Rothstein describes a French press as “muddy mouth-fuel with overwhelming body.” An experience one might never witness in their mainstream white chocolate mocha with three pumps of syrup drowning out any traces of original coffee that might be swimming in the bottom of the cup.

Milk and sugar are the sole ‘extras’ in these mind-jolting brews that will be sure to put a hop in anyone’s step.

“There’s a difference between coffee and candy. We’re trying to give people their dinner before dessert,” said Johnstone.

Local breakfast favorite in Wallingford, Julia’s, offers a small commercial kitchen space to store their carts, wash dishes, and filter and preheat water to a perfect 204 degrees temperature into insulated containers to later reheat on the go.

Filtered water makes a huge difference in the quality of a brew, according to Rothstein, who describes the crema, “orange bloom”of color that occurs when filtered water mixes with coffee in a pour-over.

Towing a 120-pound café on wheels can prove to be a daunting task, especially when killer hills roll over most of the city. Not only that, the only backup these baristas have are each other, so if supplies run out, it is a 20-minute trek back to their commissary to stock up.

In spite of some uphill challenges, the team loves what they do and hope to educate their community on what a good cup of Joe is supposed to taste like.

“Farmers markets are nice because people are not in a rush and have an eye to quality. They’re going to take time and have a four-minute cup of coffee, so we can talk to them about what beans they’re having and give them a choice. It’s a process that commuters often don’t have time for,” said Johnstone.

Last week the team fueled the minds and mouths of community members at the Phinney Neighborhood Garage Sale and recently met up with Peddler Brewing Co. for Bike to Work Day.

Local Farmer’s markets and barbecues are an ideal situation for coffee education, though this amiable team posts up on many a street corner, braving hills and the elements all for the love of coffee.

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