Panamanian coffee company Café Unido made a splash when it first landed in the United States at La Cosecha marketplace with its coveted geisha coffees. (The variety is known as the most expensive in the world, and complex cups are brewed-to-order for $10 or $20 at the Union Market-area cafe.) Now Unido partners Benito Bermudez, Feres Yebaile, and chef Mario Castrellon are opening a Café Unido roasting facility and indoor/outdoor cafe nearby in the former Dolcezza space. In addition to more specialty coffee production, the place will offer cuppings and fun food-and-coffee pairings when it debuts June 1.
Café Unido made a name for itself in Panama, where it operates seven cafes, and not just for geisha coffees. The company directly sources sustainable beans from 15 small farms with terroir and distinctive flavors in mind, and it experiments with innovative styles of coffee processing that you can sample at the new facility. The menu will offer delicate, single-origin washed coffees, as well as natural coffees where the cherries are dried versus washed for what Bermudez describes as a “fruitier, juicier” flavor. Like so many folks these days, he says the Unido team is currently obsessed with fermentation.
“We’re taking a little [direction] from the wine industry and picking cherries ripe with a lot of sugars, and putting them in a tank, sometimes with yeast, for five to 12 days, depending on how funky you want to get,” says Bermudez. “These coffees are like a force of nature. The flavors are like a natural wine, even Cognac.”
Bermudez says the team always planned to open a roasting facility somewhere locally for ultra fresh coffees, produced with an environmentally friendly hot air method that’s more conducive to delicate roasts. When the Dolcezza space because available, Unido jumped. (The local gelato company will continue to produce pints on site, including some collaborative coffee flavors, and will serve Unido coffees in some of their shops.) In addition to roasting, the space will be open to the public with a centerpiece cupping table for 12 guests (when permitted by DC Covid regulations). Garage doors will open to a patio with picnic tables and seating for 24.
In addition to an oft-changing menu of specialty coffees, chef Castrellon has created a signature burger for the roastery. Castrellon, whose modernist style of Panamanian cooking has landed his Maito restaurant on Latin America’s 50 Best list, takes a whimsical, coffee-inspired approach to a smashburger. Patties—a mix of Huntsman Game oxtail, sirloin, and brisket—are rubbed with coffee spice, griddled, and sandwiched in a bun with melty cheese, onions, pickles, and homemade cascara ketchup, which gets its fruity flavor from the dried skins of coffee cherries.
“When we opened in Panama, we served brunch all day and burgers were a hit,” says Bermudez. “A coffee roaster with a burger and not a breakfast sandwich makes it a little bit different.”
Café Unido Roastery. 550 Penn St., NE.