(CBS Seattle) — When you first walk into Slate Coffee Bar in Ballard, you notice what’s not there. No distressed leather couches, no huge menu listing the seasonal flavored lattes, no line of customers tapping their feet as they wait impatiently to place their order. If not for the distinctive, delicate crunching of coffee beans being ground, it might even be mistaken for an upscale bar. And that’s the whole idea.
Slate has a very clean and crisp look to it: white counter tops in perfect contrast to the black espresso machines. There are a few decorations on the walls and shelves with bags of coffee, but not much else. A high counter frames the front of the store behind huge windows. The soft mechanical hum of milk being steamed floats out and blends in with the chatter of customers. It’s exactly the opposite of what we’ve all become accustomed to at chain coffee shops like Starbucks and Tully’s. But Slate isn’t a coffeeshop, it’s a coffee bar.
Nik Virrey and Brandon Weaver are two of the masterminds behind the reinvented coffee house experience at Slate. In addition to being coffee connoisseurs, they’re both bartenders and that’s where most of the inspiration for Slate comes from. Coffee is served primarily in glassware that has more in common with wine glasses and tumblers.
“If you brew coffee well you can get a real natural sense of sweetness,” explained owner Chelsey Walker-Watson. “We keep things very simple.” There’s no cream, sugar, sweetener or cinnamon to add to the drinks. And the coffee doesn’t require any. At Slate, the coffee shines on its own. They take a lot of pride in where the beans are sourced and how they are roasted and brewed. “Coffee is the most chemically complex food or beverage we consume,” Chelsey said. Each type of bean can have its own flavors ranging from cherry and vanilla to black currant and spice, just like beer or wine.
The baristas at Slate are very methodical about the brewing process. The passion for coffee and sharing its intricacies is evident in every aspect of the Slate experience. Every bit of coffee is weighed before it’s brewed and every drink is tasted to make sure it has the right balance. If it’s not quite right, the process starts again beginning with weighing the coffee grounds. “Coffee is very much like baking,” Chelsey explained. “It’s chemistry-based.” She readily admits they all sound a little bit like science nerds when describing their craft. They can all explain the chemical processes taking place which result in their delicious coffee and that’s part of the fascinating charm of the place.
The attention to detail in brewing may sound a little obsessive, but that’s part of the larger vision for Slate. “The goal is for people to walk into Slate and be taken care of,” Nik said. “Hospitality is our biggest thing.” The baristas approach you right away with a glass of water and a menu, and then begin to talk about which coffees they’re featuring, where the beans are grown and what flavors you might taste when sipping. The espresso machines and coffee grinders are positioned so that the barista never faces away from the customer, Nik explained. The experience is in no way rushed.
Their vision is definitely paying off. Slate was recently named ‘Best Coffeehouse’ at the America’s Best Coffeehouse competition. (And yes, Chelsey, Nik and Brandon all appreciate the contradiction of winning a coffee house competition even though they consider Slate a coffee bar.) Competitors were judged on the drinks they created, how they worked together as a team and service. Slate beat out the iconic Caffe Ladro and Dog River, which took 2nd and 3rd place respectively.
Full disclosure: I am a newcomer to Seattle and its coffee culture. Prior to my experience at Slate I basically thought of coffee as a quick and comforting way to wake up in the morning. And I have many times been that impatient customer waiting for a syrupy mostly-steamed-milk beverage. But Slate changed my whole outlook on coffee. The coffee bar experience at Slate truly encourages a deeper enjoyment and appreciation of the coffee drinking experience.
-Rachel Ayres, CBS Seattle
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