Friday, January 6, 2012


Charleston, West Virginia doesn’t get much credit in the “culture” department.  In fact, it’s existence is often in question. One either confuses the city itself with another Charleston, usually the beautiful, historical southern city in South Carolina; or better yet, the state is often misconstrued as a geographical region of another state — the “western part of Virginia”.  If you come from West Virginia, as I do, these are battles we are forever burdened to take on, born into a constant struggle to defend the validity of our home state.

West Virginia does have its selling points.  There’s football (the West Virginia University Mountaineers: always the underdogs, no matter how many times they win, or break records), the New River Gorge, stunning mountains, the luxurious Greenbrier Resort, world class white water rafting, quaint towns, friendly folk with southern manners, and of course, coal (as controversial as it is).  Charleston, the capital city, is beautiful — a cityscape along the river with a famous gold dome looming above, and 20th century architecture dotting city proper.  In the first half of the 20th century, the downtown was thriving, but it slowly became a “nine-to-five” kind of place — the fate of many American cities.

Though young and vibrant talent are moving back to the city, in hopes of a resurrection.

Megan Bullock is a Charleston native who graduated from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.  She returned to Charleston to open her graphic design business with co-owner Josh Dodd.  The pair renovated an old studio on the west side of town, and opened Mesh Design and Development in 2009.

Megan saw a need in Charleston for creative skills she honed at RISD, and felt that local, quality businesses could flourish with the help of good design and branding.  The warmth of the local community helped her business thrive; “there is something really wonderful about the type of relationships and support that you can develop in Charleston,” she says.  Even more surprising is the influx of young talent relocating there, many not having grown up in the city.  Megan now lives in Brooklyn, commuting between the two cities, bridging the communities through art.

With this cultural resurgence, Charleston was still missing specialty coffee, something Jon Farmer particularly noticed.

“When we travel, we always ask two questions: where are we going to eat, and where are we going to get coffee?” Jon tells me over coffee at Moxxee, the cafe he co-owns.  The idea for Moxxee was conceived at Toronto-based Bulldog Coffee, where Jon and friends (and future partners) travel each year to attend the Toronto Film Festival.  They decided they needed to bring their “coffee geekness to Charleston,” Jon says with a laugh.  They hatched the idea at Bulldog, and ”…one week later, I bought this building,” he recalls, referring to the cafe on the corner of Morris and Lee Street in Charleston.

Jon and his four partners — wife Wendi, and friends Jason, TJ, and Jon Baldwin (all brothers) — took more than two years to gut and renovate the building, to create an “anti-coffee shop.” They see their shop as an homage to Chelsea galleries they often visit in New York.  The cafe’s design features sharp angles and a large, steel bar comprised of a thousand unique pieces, handcrafted by a Pittsburgh-based artist; “If you flip the bar upside down, it’s supposed to resemble cracked earth,” Jon says, highlighting the attention to detail.

One won’t see the word Moxxee adorning anything in or around the shop — only their logo is visible.  The logo itself is modeled after the oldest copper relic found in ancient Israel.  They wanted to redesign it, and held a contest to do so.  The reigning design references the well-known, mythical tale of the origin of coffee, the fruit discovered by goats in Ethiopia; the logo appropriately features two interlacing goat heads.

Moxxee coffee is roasted, via their specifications, by Indiana, Pennsylvania based Commonplace Coffee.  During my recent visit to the cafe, a menu of the latest coffee bids featured four Cup of Excellence selections — a rare sight at any coffee shop, as competitive bidding makes it difficult to procure such beans.  Coffees are brewed to order on a Clover machine (Moxxee owns five of the 250 independent Clovers in the entire world), which functions like a reverse french press, via vacuum — full of flavor, with little bitterness. Furthermore, the coffee is brewed with filtered water.  Moxxee built a sophisticated filtration system, which monitors and controls the total dissolved solids (TDS) in water through reverse osmosis; this ensures a more consistent cup.

The prices at Moxxee are impressively low.  A cup of a Rwandan Cup of Excellence (from the Muzo farm) cost a mere $2.26 — a coffee that could cost four dollars or more at a New York cafe.  Jon brought us a taste, full body cools to a molasses finish.  ”We’re not in it for the money,” Jon explains, “we want to foster an environment where people come back.”

An espresso blend of Ethiopian and Sumatran beans is pulled through a Synesso machine, and they froth organic Homestead milk.  Co-owner Jason Baldwin made my cappuccino, which was perfect. He spent many hours perfecting the drink, and says he went through six gallons of milk to do so.  Baked goods are now made on-site (barring the cupcakes), and they sell their beans (and tea) in hand-packed tins.

And the owners are dreaming big.  ”We’re ridiculous,” Jon quips; “we don’t just want to be the best in Charleston, we want to be the best in the world.”

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