Brookline Coffee Shop Has Neighborhood Hooked
After honing their craft in Kazakhstan, the Drapers bring their house-roasted beans to the Boston Area.
If you’re looking for a place to plug in your computer and soak up some free WiFi, 4A Coffee in Brookline isn’t it. There aren’t any tables; most of the customers come in to grab coffee to-go or pick up a bag of beans roasted fresh in-house. But that doesn’t prevent this spot from having a sense of community. Almost from the moment I step in the door I’m welcomed like an old friend.“Latte, whole milk,” co-owner Erke Draper says over her shoulder as I walk up to the cash register. Her husband Alan expertly navigates the espresso machine as I peruse the impressive pastry selection from Boston Gourmet Chefs. But what I’m really here for is that consistently perfect latte: chocolaty espresso melding with a milky-sweet and velvety micro-foam.
On any given day, you’ll see the Drapers—who live in the neighborhood with their three children—joking with their clientele. Some of their most loyal customers work at businesses on the same street. “It’s the best coffee around,” says Gili Zilberberg, who owns a butcher shop nearby. “This is the only coffee shop where the owner is always the barista. They’ve brought so much to the community.”
Zilberberg is a fan of 4A’s americano and the cortado, which is a double shot of espresso plus four ounces of steamed milk served in a short glass. Much like Australia’s iconic coffee drink, the flat white, 4A’s cortado is served at a cooler temperature than the typical American latte, with a cap of velvety micro-foam—which Alan considers part of his barista style. After downing two cortados in a row, Mike Gatling of North Andover remarks, “I get a really good coffee flavor and sweet milk flavor at the same time, and neither is overpowering the other.”
The most popular coffee drink they serve is the mocha, featuring shaved Taza chocolate. Alan describes the locally-made stone-ground chocolate as having “the perfect texture for the drink.” But my personal favorite, especially in the warmer months, is the shaker: espresso, milk and cane sugar, measured over ice into a pint glass and shaken so the ingredients meld into a rich, creamy froth. The Drapers introduced their version of this Italian classic at their first coffee shop in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that the local population wasn’t keen on iced drinks, it became hugely popular there.
What’s the key to 4A Coffee’s success? I think it’s in the way they roast their beans, which is perhaps more of an art than a science. The Drapers estimate that it takes about three years to learn how to roast coffee well; before you even go near a roaster, you have to learn how to make good coffee. “It’s a slow process,” says Alan. “The best way to learn about coffee is to sample as many types as you can.” Despite his exceptional barista skills, he has a passion for roasting and calls the process “Zen-like.” The couple aims to roast each batch dark enough for the average coffee drinker’s palate (most can’t tolerate too much acidity), but light enough to really taste the unique flavors within the beans. It’s a delicate balance.
Silk Road, a blend they invented while in Kazakhstan, is one of the Draper's most popular products. It includes natural, sun-dried coffee from Brazil, Ethiopia and one or two from Central America. “To get the right blend is hard,” explains Alan, “because coffees clash by nature. But I’m trying to do more because people love them.” He introduced a seasonal blend this past fall and plans to continue creating them in order to make the most of what’s fresh globally: Central America in the spring, Indonesia in the fall/winter and Ethiopia in the summer.
At their store in Brookline, the Drapers have created a simplified, streamlined version of what they offered at their first coffee shop in Kazakhstan. When you first visit the store, you might be struck by how pristine and uncluttered the space is. The artwork is spare, and an entire wall is lined with bags of beans that go for $17-$21 per pound. There’s no question the focus is on the products they sell there. “As we get older, we’ve become control freaks,” they laugh. With a perfect latte from 4A Coffee in hand, I’ll happily toast to the benefits of being picky.
4A Coffee - 419 Harvard St., Brookline, 617.738.4444, 4acoffee.com