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Take Five: Serious Brewing with Sump Coffee's Scott Carey

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2012 - In the an age of endless customizable choices — of double-shot espressos and skim milk lattes — coffee has become a matter of personal ownership. Everyone has his or her own special favorite at Starbucks (or Kaldi's or local shops for the less mainstream), and a particular vision for what coffee should be.

Scott Carey has one of those visions, too. He is the owner and proprietor of Sump Coffee, a relatively young venture in south city. And he says most of what we expect from coffee is bogus. Skim milk, outside flavorings — all that must be thrown out the door. Coffee is about the bean and the brew, and it is about surprises.

Sump is meant to be a perpetual challenge to expectations that coffee should be about anything other than the bean. The establishment forces customers to review some of the most elemental questions about what they enjoy and why each time they enter the shop. Questions that customized drinks from Starbucks or limitless grocers convinced them were long ago laid to rest. What should a cup of coffee really taste like? Why do I drink it? Can it mean something more?

For Carey, the answer is a gentle yes. As he explains,"We're trying to break that chain right now, so people can say, 'wow ... this is coffee.'" 

Carey is not what you would expect from a coffee shop proprietor. He is tall and trim, with tattoos stretching down his right arm. A shaved head almost cartoonishly juxtaposes his long, blond beard and upturned mustache that give Carey a vaguely threatening look. But he is soft-spoken, more enthusiastic than aggressive, and apparently unaffected by large amounts of caffeine.

A St. Peters native, Carey earned a masters degree in chemistry from the University of California-Berkeley before changing course and pursuing a degree in law. After graduating in 1998, he spent 11 years as a patent lawyer in New York City. And then, in 2010, all of that changed. 

Carey's brother, who still lived in the St. Louis area, became very sick. He was diagnosed with cancer, and Carey began to return for visits and longer stays. He decided to purchase a building in south St. Louis in hopes of fixing it up with help from his brother, a builder, and have a place for him to stay during treatments. 

Coffee was never a part of that vision. Carey was a fan of the stuff, but he was a lawyer and his brother a builder, and the space on South Jefferson that they purchased was a bit out of the way. But, Carey says, life happens quickly, and his brother died. A little more than a year later in December 2011, Sump served its first cup of coffee. Carey has been working to make each cup he brews perfect ever since. 

Carey spoke with the Beacon about Sump, Starbucks and the perfect cup of coffee. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What brought you back to St. Louis and out of patent law into coffee?

Carey: It's a metaphysical thing. So what brought me back to St. Louis was my brother's sickness and eventual death. What sort of took me out of the sphere of what I was doing. I had been working for a start-up that went bankrupt right around that same time.

I'd been dissatisfied with being a patent attorney for some time. There's nothing wrong with it. It just wasn't making me happy internally, and then when somebody young, close to you dies, it kind of makes you feel like life is very short — which I know sounds kind of trite — but things happen a lot faster than you think, and things happen in a more unplanned and less structured manner than you think they should and they surprise you.

Part of my daily ritual in New York was coffee. It wasn’t necessarily making it. It was going to a shop that just focused on coffee. They didn't have good egg sandwiches. You didn’t sit down and have breakfast. You knew the baristas; they knew you. There was just something comforting about that three-dimensional experience. And then the cup — the cup was expertly crafted, in most instances better than in St. Louis.

I tried to find coffee here. I went to places. I used to go to Mud House and to Shaw's, went to Hartford, but it just wasn't the same. It was more about selling the food and kind of 'here's your coffee, see you later.' I was looking for more, again this texture around the cup and the focus on coffee.

As a culture, it often seems we are addicted to coffee, and yet, I wonder if people really notice the coffee they're drinking. Do you find that people pay attention to what's in their cup?

Carey: They do here, because they have to. There's nothing else to focus on. If you look at the menu, the menu is designed to destabilize people. You can't come it and say, 'give me this double vanilla latte.' It makes them pick something that they're not familiar with or it makes them think about something and have to talk to me.

The foundation for the shop is really to view coffee like wine. My first experience with wine was one of my hand being held. You go to a winery, they line up five glasses; they go white to red, and they talk you through it, and you become more sophisticated. You start to become more aware of regions, you start to become conscious of what you consume. And that's what I tell people, you drink water, but you taste wine. You taste coffee.

You give each cup of coffee you make a great deal of time and attention — more than might be typical — what difference do those factors make? Do you think people notice a difference?

Carey: Do I think they notice? I think they notice when they say stuff like, 'I usually have to put cream and sugar and I didn’t put anything in this cup. This coffee is awesome,' or 'this is the best cappuccino I've ever had.' It's just superlatives like that. These really awesome adjectives to describe the cup — I think they notice. Do they always notice? No.

I notice people come it, and they hear this is a great cup of coffee or something, and they project in their mind's eye their best cup of coffee, and that's what they want. So there are people who come in here who like dark-roasted coffees. We don’t do that. It's like if you like California wines and we're selling French wines, you're not going to have that experience in here.

The people who come in here and trust me and allow a little bit of a dialogue to figure out what they want, or why they are looking for coffee. I think those people enjoy the experience and notice it. The people who come in here and take control of the environment or try to have an experience like they're already familiar with, I don’t think they appreciate it.

St. Louis has some well-recognized innovators when it comes to food — chefs like Gerard Craft, Josh Galliano, Kevin Willmann — who have pumped new life into St. Louis dining. You call Sump a laboratory for coffee. Is there a relationship between culinary innovation and what you are trying to do here?

Carey: I would never put myself in the same category with Kevin, Gerard, Adam, Josh — never. But I do think that there is a culinary aspect to what I'm doing, and there's a philosophy. So when you come in here and you want a single shot of espresso, you don't get a single shot of espresso. I'm not going to pour more volume in your cup based outside of what I think tastes good. I'm going to prepare the menu. I'm going to prepare what you're going to consume, and I'm not going to deviate from that.

Because of how we treat the coffee, I think there's some identity. I feel like coffee is very difficult, but I would never say I am similar to what those guys do. I just do coffee, and what they do is a whole, bigger thing. I see it less as a customized Starbucks experience and more as I'm not a chef, but I'm developing the menu based on my palate and my philosophy for the palate.

Is there one cup of coffee you can point to that is your favorite or one roast  that stands out?

Carey: I personally like to make a lot of cappuccinos. I think anything that surprises. I like this idea — again, because we're trying to do something new — the idea of surprising the cup. So a little bit like, wow, is that a berry? What is that tartness? I like that surprise, but not so surprising that you are on the fence. I like that pleasant surprise in the cup. I like roasteries that are allowing that surprise.

It really depends on the bean. That's what you start with and it can be exceptional.

Whatever we put on the menu is really what I'm feeling right now. We do experiments with the process of how we brew the coffee all the time. Right now we're barrel-aging some coffee. I don' think anybody does that. We carbonated coffee. That was special. The process of brewing and the process of making coffee without doctoring is really the philosophy.

Nick Fandos is a Beacon intern.

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