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In 2001, we rented a room in Vera, near the Philharmonia, and the first thing we did after dumping our bags on the bed was find some coffee for the morning. The best we could score from the little neighborhood market was a can of Pele, a fine-ground instant coffee powder that seemed less toxic than Nescafé, which was also much more expensive.

There were no coffeehouses in Tbilisi back then. Pretty much the only place you could find an espresso was at the Marriott and Prospero’s, an English language bookshop and expat hangout. Otherwise, there were little joints with “café” signs serving khachapuri and Turkish-style coffee brewed in little plastic electric kettles – providing there was electricity. That was Tbilisi’s coffee culture.

Then Kafe Literaturuli opened in 2003. Locals soaked up the sophistication of being surrounded by books, sipping lattes and nibbling on original desserts. Thus began the period of contemporary qava enlightenment.

While some places will still brew a “Turkuli” coffee, most people prefer their joe pressed and served Americano style. You can even find cappuccinos in a slew of roadside cafés lined along the east-west highway in Zestaponi, a city better known for its shuttered ferro-alloy plant and idling cows on the main bridge.

We had never suspected that someday we would be able to walk down the street and get a decent cup of mud we wouldn’t have to floss out of our teeth. And yet for some of us, this luxury still isn’t good enough, even with croissants on the side. Coffee in Tbilisi has become boring.

That’s because three major Italian companies – Illy, Lavazza and Segefredo – dominate the coffee market in Georgia. If you open up a café or restaurant, one of them will “give” you an industrial espresso machine, provided you sell their beans, exclusively. Those things are expensive, we get it, but sometimes we want an exceptional brew, not a generic tasting name brand pressed through a pretty stainless steel appliance.

This is when we go to Minimalist, Tbilisi’s first manual brew cafe.

“We’re part of a worldwide trend among smaller cafés which is sometimes called third-wave coffee,” says owner Ryan McCarrel, an American researcher who first arrived to Tbilisi in 2011 to work as a teacher. “We won’t be offended if you call us coffee snobs.”

An avid photographer, Ryan opened Fotographia Gallery in 2017 with Georgian visual artist Giorgi Rodoniov in an effort to help support Georgia’s highly talented and under-acknowledged photography scene by selling limited edition prints. While scratching his chin over how to best utilize the small gallery entrance space, Ryan smelled coffee.

“We won’t be offended if you call us coffee snobs.”

“I tell people that besides my fiancé, there are three things I love in life: photography, good beer and excellent coffee. Opening Tbilisi’s first manual brew only coffee shop was a no brainer,” the Oregon native explains.

While you could stuff a couple more, Minimalist comfortably fits six people and caters to their individual needs. Do you like your coffee strong? Mild? Somewhere in between? Maybe you would like a simple French Press? Or perhaps the Hario V60 pour over? Or the Chemex pour over, which some insist makes a smoother brew? It certainly looks cooler. Maybe you want more concentration, like espresso? Then try the Aeropress.

Although we are fond of our espressos, we tend to go with the Hario Siphon, a brewing device invented in the mid-1800s, because we like watching chemistry experiments. The gases formed by boiling water into vapor create a vacuum that sucks water into an upper chamber where the coffee grounds are. After you turn the heat off, the lower chamber cools, sucking the coffee through a filter back into it.

Minimalist gets its beans from Coffee Lab, a little joint owned by George Aivazyan, an enthusiast who sources his beans from Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, and roasts them locally. He is one of a few people in Georgia who does his own roasting.

While there are a few other specialty cafés in Tbilisi with an eye for brewing methods and using choice beans, the guys at Minimalist understand that the perfect cup of coffee depends on the grind size, filter type, water temperature, pressure, bean type, as well as on the person who is making it. Moreover, you can sip and gander at a well-rounded selection of Georgian photography in the next room.

“I think our manager, Gela Shekeladze, has the kind of attention to detail that makes him a master coffee brewer,” Ryan affirms. “At the end of the day the most important secret is taking the time to brew your coffee correctly, and especially, to enjoy it.”

Editor’s note: We are sorry to report that Minimalist is closed.

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Paul Rimple

Published on June 22, 2018

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