A guide to Middlebury’s ‘coffee revolution’
MIDDLEBURY — On the wall in Royal Oak Coffee, alongside the hanging plants and stylish geometric artwork, is a brightly-colored print entitled “The New Taster’s Flavor Wheel.” With more than fifty flavor and aroma possibilities, it’s clear that our collective understanding of coffee isn’t what it used to be. The wheel — and Royal Oak Coffee itself — represents the new kind of cafe experience that’s come to Middlebury.
In a cozy one-room house, next to Fire and Ice on Seymour Street, co-owners Alessandra and Matthew Delia-Lobo have created a haven for the caffeine-addicted and coffee-obsessed. The pair opened the cafe in May of this year, offering specialty drinks in an intimate, living room atmosphere.
For the Delia-Lobos, coffee is more than just a morning necessity. At Royal Oak, they strive to create flavors “where all the ingredients can speak for themselves, and can work with our coffee rather than cover the taste.” Matthew said.
As for the flavor wheel, Matthew is quick to point out that the “coffee flavor” we know is really only one of the many that coffee beans can have.
“People think of coffee as having one flavor, but the type people think of is just one style. There are some beans that invoke that by being nutty and chocolatey, while others are more fruity and floral. Coffee is really a fermented fruit product, which is not something people think about that much. It’s so similar to wine, really. The terroir, the varieties, the location, the elevation, the farmers — all of that stuff that’s super important for wine production is the same for coffee. But people get it with wine, and it’s much more normal to talk about it with wine.”
Matthew describes coffee in ways you might hear at wine tastings: bright, floral, green, rich, earthy, fruity. As far as baristas like Delia-Lobo are concerned, those are the words people should start associating with good coffee.
“With well-roasted coffee, you’re getting a way fruitier flavor with a lot more brightness and acidity,” he said. “It’s not what people think of when they think of drip coffee; they think of like, a bitter, watery, oily, roasty-tasting thing that you add milk and sugar to.”
For all the fresh creations coming from these new business owners, they’re not quite the first of their kind in Middlebury. The Delia-Lobos pay homage to their predecessors in the community, and are particularly inspired by Cursive Coffee, a hip espresso bar that closed its doors in 2015 after just eight months on Main Street. In addition to problems it encountered within the leased space, Cursive Coffee’s demise was due in part to the fact that it wasn’t very approachable; with no drip coffee on the menu, some felt it wasn’t practical enough for the everyday coffee drinker. In opening Royal Oak, the Delia-Lobos learned from that feedback, and have fused the experimentalism they love with the necessity of good, basic coffee.
While there have always been diners, bakeries, and coffee shops in town — Rosie’s Restaurant and Otter Creek Bakery, to name a couple — Middlebury now seems to be on the cusp of a coffee revolution.
“The coffee at the places I’ve gone to in the past was horrible, practically undrinkable — but it wasn’t about the coffee. It was a place to go to socialize,” the writer and Middlebury College professor, Jay Parini said. Like many professors, students, and Middlebury residents, Parini uses the town’s coffee shops as a kind of third space. “For me it’s all about where I can sit comfortably and write,” he said.
For twelve years, Parini was a fixture at Carol’s Hungry Mind Cafe. Located in downtown Middlebury, the coffeehouse was a sort of clubhouse in town; a go-to for study sessions and coffee dates, catching up with friends or working on a laptop. But in 2018, after years of financial troubles, and decreased business caused by the bridge construction on Merchant’s Row, the coffeehouse finally closed its doors. For a brief time, the space was occupied by another cafe, The Daily Grind, which also closed because of the bridge work and a lack of staff.
Less than three months after Carol’s went out of business, Haymaker Bun Co. opened on Bakery Lane. Located right on Otter Creek, the coffeehouse has three levels of seating that all overlook the water. With an emphasis on the house-made brioche buns — everything from traditional cinnamon sticky buns to savory mushroom and bacon buns — and excellent coffee to accompany them, Haymaker has become one of the most popular spots for people seeking a place to eat, work, and gather.
Meanwhile, the stalwarts of Middlebury’s breakfast and coffee scene remain: Otter Creek Bakery, Shafer’s Market, and Middlebury Bagel & Deli.
Coffee aside, Stone Leaf Teahouse in the Marbleworks also fills a need in the community. Known for its cozy and calming atmosphere, Stone Leaf introduces people to teas from all over the world, and, much like third wave coffee makers, places an emphasis on connecting the origin to the final cup.
“Middlebury is so lucky to have a place like Stone Leaf Tea House, which is why we only offer a few teas.” Matthew Delia-Lobo said. “We know coffee, and it would be disingenuous to pretend we know tea as well as Stone Leaf, so we tell people to go there. We’re not trying to be a one-stop shop, we’re trying to build our community. If there’s already a tea shop, we’re not going to try and replace it.”
With more options than ever, Middlebury is no longer home to any one-stop shop cafe. Each one offers something different, meaning that residents can choose and customize exactly the type of cafe experience they want — from the coffee to the food to the atmosphere.
“There’s obviously a demand — people want to go to cafes,” Parini said.
Another option is the cafe at Vermont Coffee Company on Exchange Street. Attached to the company’s roasting headquarters, the cafe acts as both a comfortable workspace and a community meeting place. While its concrete floors are reminiscent of the warehouse next door, the cafe’s industrial vibe is balanced perfectly by long, communal tables made of locally-harvested wood.
Of the many coffeehouses in town, Elizabeth Ready of Lincoln, VT, opts for the cafe at VCC — both for its coffee and its community contributions. Ready works at John Graham Housing in Vergennes, and is grateful to Vermont Coffee Company for the monthly coffee donations they make to the shelter.
“It means a lot to me. You can choose where you want to go, so why not go to a place where they have those kinds of values, and are giving back to the community? Plus, it’s nice a nice cafe, and the coffee’s great.”
For Lily Shale, another senior at the College, Royal Oak is her favorite — but for different reasons.
“I try to avoid dairy, and they have lots of vegan options. I really just come here for the oat milk.”
The value of good oat milk isn’t lost on the Delia-Lobos, either.
“We don’t see oat milk as simply the alternative to cow’s milk — it’s a very different way of enjoying coffee because it has such a neutral flavor that doesn’t take away from the coffee’s flavor; adding oat milk to espresso just softens it, and works with the natural fruitiness of the coffee while cutting the acidity.”
With the reopening of the Old Stone Mill, the Delia-Lobos find themselves broadening their vision and opening a second cafe: Lost Monarch Coffee. Although you can expect the same top-quality drinks, Lost Monarch won’t just be Royal Oak 2.0. For starters, it’s a multi-roaster coffee shop — the first in Addison County — meaning that the beans on the menu will change every few weeks and make it easier for customers to try new coffee all the time.
In addition to experimenting with what’s in their cups, the Delia-Lobos plan to honor the Old Stone Mill’s community-focused mission by hosting public events in the new space, such as an education session on creating a coffee ritual at home that really works.
“[Lost Monarch] is going to be more focused— we want people to try new things,” Matthew said. “People have their ideas of ‘This is how I like my coffee,’ and we’re trying to challenge that.”
WHERE TO GO FOR A CUP OF JOE
HAYMAKER BUN CO.
The atmosphere: bright and comfortable
The offerings: Specialty drinks with an emphasis on the buns!
Ideal for: people who work remotely or enjoy meeting friends for breakfast
LOST MONARCH COFFEE
The atmosphere: communal and casual
The offerings: Coffees and drinks with an experimental twist
Ideal for: “the daring coffee drinker who’s looking to explore many varieties of coffee,” as co-owner Alessandra Delia-Lobo said.
MIDDLEBURY BAGEL & DELI
The atmosphere: homey and laid-back
The offerings: quality bagels, breakfast sandwiches, and doughnuts alongside filter coffee from various roasters
Ideal for: doughnut lovers and no-frills coffee drinkers
OTTER CREEK BAKERY
The atmosphere: friendly and traditional
The offerings: coffees and teas with house-made baked goods and specialty sandwiches
Ideal for: someone on the go (limited seating inside — but great outdoor options during the warmer months!)
The atmosphere: wholesome and classic
The offerings: traditional diner fare including lunch, coffee, and breakfast all day
Ideal for: the breakfast-all-day kind of person
ROYAL OAK COFFEE
The atmosphere: cozy and social
The offerings: specialty coffees from Winooski-based roaster, Vivid Coffee
Ideal for: meeting with friends or colleagues (not a lot of room for solo laptop users)
The atmosphere: relaxed and straight-forward
The offerings: basic coffees alongside excellent lunch options (and cremees in the summer months!)
Ideal for: the lunchtime coffee drinker
STONE LEAF TEA HOUSE
The atmosphere: warm and intimate
The offerings: dozens of tea varieties from around the world, accompanied by locally-made sweet treats
Ideal for: tea lovers!
VERMONT COFFEE CO. CAFE
The atmosphere: airy and welcoming
The offerings: great coffee roasted in-house
Ideal for: people who like the vibe of co-working spaces
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