In D.C., good coffee is almost always just around the corner. And thankfully, we now have many local small businesses to patronize. With the hopes of helping conscientious, caffeine-focused locals who actually care about the little details when it comes to coffee roasting, DC Refined has put together a list of five of the best alternatives to Starbucks. In order to keep the coffee tasting ratings as fair as possible, only medium roast drip coffee was considered, all tasted with absolutely no cream or sugar.
The reasoning behind picking drip coffee for these tastings was to help those who live fast-paced lives, those who don’t have the time to wait five or more minutes for a cup of joe, or those who would prefer an affordable option that won’t make their wallet feel too light at the end of the month. The purpose of focusing on medium roasts was to find a happy middle ground for coffee lovers who enjoy bold flavors that are also light on bitterness. Below we provide details on acidity, aftertaste, and a final score on overall flavor.
2300 Rhode Island Avenue NE
This family-owned, small batch coffee company, has three locations with shops in Baltimore and Pittsburgh as well as D.C. proper. With approximately 10 seats, this is not a coffee shop where you should plan to hole up and telework.
I chose the Hippie Blend, which is a three-bean blend that is both sustainable and organic. It’s one of the company’s lighter roasts and is described as “perfect at home, at the market, on campus, or in the back of your VW bus.” Here are my ratings:
Bitterness: Low, 2/5 in strength
Acidity: Not overpowering, 1/5 in strength
Aftertaste: Hits the back of the throat for a moment of intensified bitterness, disappears within moments of a sip, a 2.5/5 or 3/5 in strength
Overall flavor: Mellow, probably a 4/5 in quality, but could reach 5/5 on a cold day with a warm blanket
3917 Georgia Avenue NW (Second location in Eckington)
Three words come to mind when considering Qualia Coffee: homey, humble, and artsy. All along the walls, there are a variety of quirky, colorful artworks, many made by local artists and all available for sale. When it comes to seating, there are two levels available with one couch, a loveseat, and bar seating on the floor level and a couple couches upstairs with a least three two-chair tables on the upper level.
I decided to try the Guatemala Ixlama, which was gathered from smallholder farms near the towns of San Pedro Necta and La Libertad. Here are my ratings:
Bitterness: Present, but it won't knock you back, like a friendly hello that doesn't linger with too much small talk, 3.5/5 in strength
Acidity: 2-3/5 in strength
Aftertaste: A touch of sour, but it doesn't linger like candy, 2/5 in strength
Overall flavor: Fruity, tart and sour (grab a sugar-crystallized pastry to round it out), 4/5
1535 7th Street NW (6 other D.C. locations and 1 Va location)
On every cup of coffee sold by Compass Coffee, guests will find the phrase, “Real Good Coffee.” This guarantee is an honest one, which is easily proven by a single sip. The staff are also possibly the nicest out of any of the coffee shops on this list with my personal experience complemented by the offer to taste test their light and dark roasts for free. (The staff was not aware I was writing this article on their blends.) For me, this Compass Coffee location also beats out the other coffee shops on this list by both size and aesthetics. It’s very modern and sleek with subway tiles, skylights, and moody music playing softly in the background, with more seating than I could count.
The medium roast coffee on drip the day I arrived was their Autumn Blend, which is an assortment of Central American coffees. Here are my ratings on this seasonal blend:
Bitterness: Mellow, 1/5 in strength
Acidity: A very soft, sweet acidity, 1/5 in strength
Aftertaste: Very mild, 1/5 in strength
Overall flavor: Chocolatey, nutty, very comforting like a warm, non-judgmental hug that doesn't last longer than it should, 5/5
4327 Gallatin St., Hyattsville, MD (Also has locations in College Park and Eastern Market)
If you’re looking for great service, this is the place. Not only was my cup of coffee provided almost immediately, but it was offered along with pleasant conversation and a smile. The location, itself, is in a funky, artsy section of Hyattsville. Inside, it is very spacious and open with more than enough seating for any sized group. Look above, and you’ll find exposed beamed ceilings and exposed vents, offering a more industrial touch to an otherwise modern-styled coffee shop, decorated with skateboards and greenery.
For my taste test here, the blend I was given was the Columbia-sourced, medium-bodied blend, known as La Falda. Here are my thoughts:
Bitterness: Bold and a tiny bit syrupy, but not totally unwelcome, 4/5 in strength
Acidity: 3/5 in strength
Aftertaste: Like a very tart orange with hints of chocolate, 3/5 in strength
Overall flavor: 3/5, not bad by any means, and it's a great first taste in the morning, but won't be your absolute favorite cup of coffee
1515 N. Courthouse Road, Arlington, VA
What’s great about this New Orleans-style venue is that it not only offers great coffee, but also mouth-watering food as well. The head chef, David Guas, has been featured in numerous publications, including Food & Wine, Southern Living, and Bon Appétit. The vibe is very comfy, casual with exposed brick walls and quirky decorations like painted window shutters lining the ceiling, above the counters and kitchen. Seating ranges from the wooden bar to mismatched sofas and chairs.
The only house blend of the day provided at Bayou Bakery that most resembled a medium roast was Counter Culture’s Buchiro blend, an organic coffee blend from the Republic of Congo. Here are my thoughts:
Bitterness: The strongest of all the others, 4/5
Acidity: The strongest of the coffee tasted in this list, 4/5
Aftertaste: Sort of resembles a very dark black tea, 3/5
Overall flavor: Seems more like a dark roast than medium, 3/5