What makes a great local coffee house? Food blogger Mike "The Grub Hunter" Hale says it starts with great-tasting, locally roasted, small-batch beans, but also a sense of community. It's a home away from home for drinkers, thinkers, artists, musicians and anyone who seeks a jolt of connection. Tune in for his top seven local spots.

THERE'S A MOVEMENT brewing, a caffeinated kinship that's all about community and a wellcrafted cup of Joe. Dropping the corporate coffee habit has become almost a civic duty for this passionate, prideful group of like-minded souls.

"It's a no-brainer to me, and should be for anyone," said student Brian Williger, 23, sipping an Acme dark roast at Café Lumiere in Old Monterey.

"This place is like a home away from home for me. It has everything I need. Why would I go over there?"

"Over there" refers to a half block down the street where we see "the villain" in this tale. Starbucks, or as Williger calls the chain, "Starschmucks," recently opened a downtown store on the heavily trafficked corner across from Portola Hotel & Spa.

The arrival of Starbucks helps define what Williger and his cronies call a consumer battle zone - a one-square-mile swath of downtown commercial zone marked by big boy No. 1 (Starbucks) on one end and big boy No. 2 (Peets Coffee & Tea) on the other.

In between is a scattering of local coffeehouses. There's Lumiere, and also Plumes, East Village Coffee Lounge, The Wild Plum, Paris Bakery, Pinos Italian Café and new regional franchise Caffé Trieste, along with various other cafes, doughnut houses and markets that sell coffee.

"It felt like a slap in the face, to be honest," said Lumiere owner Brandi Lamb about the arrival of Starbucks. "But it didn't change what we do. People who come in for the first time seem surprised by the quality and the sense of community. It's nice to hear."

Lumiere has carved a niche for itself. It brews beans from local go-to roaster Acme Coffee, buys all produce from the nearby farmers market, serves novel specialty drinks such as chef/baker Cirilo Aragon's spiced chocolate called the Hot Oaxacan (Mexican chocolate, vanilla beans, ground habanero), offers a local beer and wine program and invites local artists to hang works on the wall.

Larry Thurman and his wife Jaki, owners of Acme Coffee in Seaside, work side-by-side in their coffee roasting and brewing enterprise. Its motto: "Find
Larry Thurman and his wife Jaki, owners of Acme Coffee in Seaside, work side-by-side in their coffee roasting and brewing enterprise. Its motto: "Find bad coffee and kill it." (David Royal/The Herald)

No one has done more to spread the gospel of local beans than Acme owner Larry Thurman, who roasts and brews inside his Seaside "shed," serving a devoted clientele and selling wholesale to community- minded restaurants and cafes.

While Thurman and his wife, Jaki, use the slogan "resist corporate coffee," they're holding their own in the shadow of the giants.

"The interest in specialty coffee is always growing," said Thurman, who learned to roast beans at Caffe Trieste's flagship North Beach location in San Francisco in the early 1990s under "Papa" Giotta, the owner of the West Coast's first espresso coffeehouse. "People are willing to spend $13-$15 a pound for two weeks of great coffee that is roasted that day.

It's reasonable to them because they feel more connected to it." Feeling that connection to a place is important to coffee hounds. Chains tend to have a cookie-cutter approach to brewing

coffee, with automated espresso machines that take the romance, and the flavor, out of the equation. "The biggest difference is knowing how to make good espresso and the foam, and often it comes down to time," said Miriam Danbom, former owner of the now defunct Miriam's in New Monterey and current barista at Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove. Happy Girl uses beans from Oakland based micro-roaster Blue Bottle, a small company that insists every barista who handles its beans undergo a day of training to learn how to "pull" proper espresso. "I walked out of the training and said, 'Oh, my God, I've been making coffee wrong this whole time,'" said Danbom. "There are certain steps to take to ensure the customer gets a great cup of coffee." Danbom loves the local movement, but is careful not to slam the corporate giants.

"It's easy to say Starbucks is bad, but what's difficult is to avoid excuses and work hard to make your product better.

People have choices. We need to do enough to make them choose us."

Mike Hale is a Monterey food writer and blogger. Read more at www.thegrubhunter.com.


Grub Hunter's Top 7 Local Coffee Houses
(in no particular order)

1. CAFÉ LUMIERE
365 Calle Principal, Monterey
920-2451

Inside Osio Cinemas art house theater, the café supports sustainability and the arts.
DETAILS: Locally roasted beans from Acme Coffee; specialty drinks; beer and wine program; fresh seasonal food; displayed local art; fastest free wi-fi on Peninsula.

2. CARMEL COFFEE HOUSE
South side of Ocean Avenue between San Carlos and Dolores, Carmel
626-2095

Formerly Caffe Cardinale and Roasting Co., it's the only micro-roaster in Carmel.
DETAILS: Roasts small-batch, USDA organic beans on site; dog-friendly; courtyard seating.

3. SWEET ELENA'S CAFE
465 Olympia Ave., Sand City
393-2063

Owner Elena Saucedo-Steele is a master baker and a community-minded supporter of the arts.
DETAILS: Uses Acme beans; delicious pastries, pies and savories; promotes cultural events, art shows and book signings.

4. EAST VILLAGE COFFEE LOUNGE
498 Washington St., Monterey
373-5601

Comfortable, stylish coffeehouse and art gallery that offers nighttime live entertainment.
DETAILS: Certified organic beans and Fair Trade certified; exotic teas; local beer and wine; fresh juices, pastries and lunch items.

5. THE WORKS
667 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove
372-2242

Newly remodeled, downtown tea/coffeehouse is connected to a bookstore and gift shop.
DETAILS: Organic loose-leaf teas, Santa Cruz Roasting Co. beans; fresh-baked pastries, bagels and Sweet Earth snacks; live music, poetry readings, book signings and artist-of-the- month gallery.

6. LIGHTHOUSE CAFÉ
510 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove
920-1663

Spacious and warm (what young people call "chill"), this spot on edge of town brews coffee and local conversation.
DETAILS: Santa Cruz Roasting Co. beans; board games; kids' corner; used book swap; local art; supporter of local music programs.

7. HAPPY GIRL KITCHEN
173 Central Ave., Pacific Grove
373-GIRL (4475)

These food preservationists also run a café, with specialty coffee drinks and light breakfast and lunch fare.
DETAILS: Blue Bottle coffee beans; welltrained baristas; farm-fresh produce; community workshops.

Special mention:

Acme Coffee in Seaside isn't a classic, sip-and-loiter coffeehouse, but it roasts the best beans (on a manual, drum rolling roaster), producing rich coffee with names like Motor City Espresso and Valve Job. Its motto? "Find bad coffee and kill it!"