Monday, May 25, 2009

Cafe Klatch

- A half-century of coffee culture comes together when the city’s espresso pioneer meets the next great barista.

The first cup of commercial espresso ever poured in the Twin Cities was brewed nearly a half-century ago on University Avenue S.E. by a former circus aerialist and comedy impresario. Today, one of the best cups of coffee you’ll find anywhere is brewed in South St. Paul by a former actor and professional disc golfer who, in his spare time, makes didgeridoos. This is the story of how they met.

Dudley Riggs is a living legend in the Twin Cities and beyond. His Instant Theater (later called Brave New Workshop) in Minneapolis and Bernie Sahlin’s Second City in Chicago, both inaugurated in the 1950s, are generally acknowledged as the origins of modern improvisational comedy. Brave New Workshop alumni such as Louie Anderson, Peter McNichol, and Pat Proft went on to great fame in film and TV.

I first became aware of Dudley as a 9-year-old, when my big brother took me to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in my hometown of Erie, Pa. Among the attractions I enjoyed that day was a dazzling trapeze act. The young star aerialist, I would later learn, was Dudley himself. (I still have the circus program, which features a large black-and-white photograph of Dudley on the trapeze.

Dudley, born into a family of English and American circus entertainers, had been a boy juggler in Vichy France, and then toured the world as a circus performer before joining Ringling Brothers. He later traveled with the first circus troupe to appear in occupied Japan in 1952, and was presented to Crown Prince Akihito (who was the same age as Dudley). Nervous and excited, the exuberant Riggs reached out and shook the royal hand. At that time, touching the emperor or crown prince was a capital crime, and those who trespassed were usually beheaded on the spot. Dudley was detained by the Japanese police, but Royal Palace decided to use the situation to demonstrate that the old taboos had been relaxed, and the young aerialist was released.

After a serious fall during his second season with Ringling Brothers, Dudley left the circus to attend the University of Minnesota. That was when he founded his comedy club in what is now the upscale East Hennepin business district. In addition to comedy, he served up the city’s first espresso coffee drinks. (He also introduced pizza to the Twin Cities in collaboration with restaurateur David Bongiorno, who later founded Mama Rosa’s Restaurant in Minneapolis’s West Bank neighborhood.)

Only a few coffee houses existed in the Twin Cities for decades after that. Finally, as I noted in a 1993 City Pages article, the coffeehouse movement — aided by chains like Starbuck’s — really began to take off. Today, there are more than 300 coffee houses in the Twin Cities alone; capuccinos, lattes, and ristrettos are routine morning amd afternoon beverages for many urban Minnesotans.

In fact, a new generation of coffee aficionados has emerged in recent years, and they treat African, South American, and Asian arabica beans as oenophiles treat rare wines. But quantity has not always been accompanied by quality. Dudley’s Cafe Espresso on the West Bank closed years ago, and finding a truly great cup of espresso has often become problematic — unless one travels to Chicago, New York, Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco (or Italy).

A few years ago, I did notice that Crema Café on Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis (home of Sonny’s Ice Cream) served a very good espresso. That coffee was a product of Torrefazione from Perugia, Italy (via Seattle) and the skills of a young barista named Andrew Kopplin.

Kopplin later opened his own coffeehouse in St Paul near Cretin-Derham Hall High School. I visited him there recently after returning from a trip to the West Coast, where I had routinely enjoyed outstanding coffee virtually everywhere I went. I asked Kopplin: Was there was any place in the Twin Cities besides his tiny café where I could get a great cup of coffee?

There was one, he replied, but it was out in South St. Paul, 14 miles from where I live. As a bona fide “coffee tourist” (what they call those of us who will go miles out of our way for a special cup of coffee), I soon made the trek to the Black Sheep Coffee Cafe at 705 Southview Boulevard in otherwise unremarkable (and tiny) downtown South St. Paul.

It was a dazzling experience from the first cup of espresso. Founded in 2006 by then 26-year-old Peter Middlecamp (with support from his mother and an investor), Black Sheep Cafe has already become a local institution. Not only serving fine regular coffees (using a $12,000 Clover drip coffee piston brewer, the best in the world) and espresso drinks from another top-of-the-line machine, Middlecamp also serves fine teas, and delicatessen-style food, all of which is made in his own kitchen. A bowl of organic, steel-cut oatmeal (with raisins and brown sugar) goes for $2.65. The excellent sandwiches, deli salads, pastries, pies, cakes and scones are all delicious and similarly reasonably priced.

Middlecamp, it turns out, is quite a character himself. Before opening Black Sheep Cafe, the South St. Paul native earned a degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield and began a graduate program at New York University. He then became an actor and a disc golfer. The latter, he tells me, is the fastest growing participatory sport in the United States. Middlecamp, in fact, was amateur national champion before turning professional and touring in 30 states. In his first year as a pro, he was named national “rookie of the year.”

He is also makes and plays the didgeridoo, or yidaki, an Australian aboriginal woodwind instrument. He performs whenever he can, trying to increase the instrument’s popularity, especially among children.

But coffee is his first “obsession,” as he puts it. In 2007, he entered the International Barista competition and made the finals, ending up in sixth place. He also competed in the 2008 competition, when the worldwide coffee event was held in Minneapolis.

I was so struck by Middlecamp’s story — and the quality of his coffee — that it seemed imperative that the “father” of espresso and the coffeehouse in Minnesota should meet the new master of the trade. So, on a recent Friday morning, I picked up my 77-year-old friend Dudley at the St. Paul house he shares with his wife, psychotherapist and grief counselor/author Pauline Boss, and together we drove to South St. Paul.

Peter Middlecamp could not have been more gracious and attentive. Treating Dudley as the coffee celebrity he is, he gave us a tour of the spacious café, including a demonstration of his $15,000 Dietrich Roaster (the finest in the world), and also brewed for us some extraordinary cups of coffee on the Clover using his latest and rarest coffee bean imports from around the world.

Explaining carefully and passionately his brewing methods, Middlecamp had an appreciative audience in Dudley, who had labored for years to promote good coffee in the Twin Cities, and was fascinated by the latest coffee techniques and technology. Dudley told Peter, "I got out of the espresso business just
as it was taking off," adding with a laugh, "With espresso, just as with comedy, timing is everything."

It was, I realized, a historic culinary moment — two remarkable characters whose devotion to the little but amazing coffee bean connect one generation to the next.

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