Our favorite cafés in New Hampshire

Coffee shops build communities with a warm welcome and a creative jolt. Here’s the “crema” the crop.
Expertly poured cup from Prime Roast in Keene.
photo by Melissa DiPalma

For winter in New Hampshire, nothing quite beats a cup of hot coffee. Nothing puts life back into frozen fingers like wrapping them around a steaming mug, and nothing gives the same kick to get us out the door when the weather outside is frightful. There’s snow to shovel, ski trails to run, work and play that needs doing. But first, have a cup of coffee.

A passable cup of joe isn’t too hard, but many of us still prefer a café to the old kitchen brewer. That’s because you get more than coffee at a café. They’re meeting places, social centers, cozy homes-away-from-home. They hold a community together and, like caffeine, energize and invigorate it. A café is to a town what coffee is for the body, making it cozy and getting it going, providing energy and warmth. Coffee helps us get through the cold, dark winter, but so do our friends, the usual table, a fresh-baked pastry and the hum of the town hub.

The best coffee places are local, but coffee itself is global — you can’t grow it in New Hampshire. So some cafés bring the best of coffee’s unifying power not just to the town they’re in, but also to the relationship between that town and the community that produces the coffee. Dark roast or light, milk and sugar or black, for here or to go, this is a drink that places us in the world, connects us not only to the barista and the other regulars but to growers a continent away.

Crema: a tawny-colored liquid that coats and guards the top of freshly brewed espresso, and the Holy Grail of the barista

That’s certainly the case for Café Monte Alto. For Plymouth, tucked between the Lakes Region and the White Mountains, Café Monte Alto is a main hub. “Right now everybody in here — except that one over there — they’re all regulars,” says Ed Giunta to prove it. “I know them well.”

Giunta, who co-owns the café with his wife, has built close friendships with most of downtown Plymouth since setting up shop in 1996. A Boston native, Giunta began visiting the area as a kid on summer vacation. But it would take marrying a second-generation German-Peruvian coffee grower, a stint growing coffee in Puerto Rico and losing a farm (the first Monte Alto) to a hurricane after years of struggling with widespread corruption, before Giunta returned to Plymouth. “I’m never going to move again,” he says. “The next time I move it’s going to be to the nursing home. I’m done. I’m staying here forever.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s severed his ties with Latin America — far from it. The flagship coffee comes straight from Giunta’s wife’s family in Peru. Workers on that award-winning farm receive health care and are able to send their kids to school with the support of Plymouth residents.

Local: check. International: check. And on a state level, the company’s huge roaster, housed in a nearby warehouse, puts out up to a thousand pounds of coffee a week for the Common Man restaurants, cafés and bakeries around New Hampshire, a handful of hotels and a pair of rehab centers. It just goes to show how the humble coffee bean can bring people together, in a little town, a little state or across hemispheres.

Matt Govoni, owner of Breaking New Grounds, roasts coffee early in the morning.
photo by Liz davenport

If a café in a town is like caffeine in the body, Breaking New Grounds in Portsmouth, right on Market Square, is the perfect example. In the summer the square comes alive with café patrons sitting outside. In the winter the crowd packs into the cafe’s ample interior, keeping the buzzing epicenter of Portsmouth warm. The coffee, bought directly from growers and often single-source, is roasted right by the door, and on especially cold days the table nearest the roaster is the best seat in the house. But that roaster’s operator, former GE-engineer-turned-café-owner Matt Govoni, says the sense of community does just as much to keep the coffee shop warm.

“We wanted it to be a really social scene, a place where people can come and enjoy coffee and enjoy conversation with other people,” explains Govoni over the hum of a few dozen such conversations. And after 21 years, even with the new, city-provided wifi, social interaction dominates Breaking New Grounds. “If you come in here at certain hours it’s just jammin’,” Govoni says.

But he claims Portsmouth deserves the credit. “It’s a very vibrant community. I like to hope we add to it, but we certainly benefit from it.” Modesty, definitely: Market Square would be a much colder, quieter place without Breaking New Grounds.

Café la Reine owner Alex Puglisi knew a café was just what Manchester’s Elm Street needed.
photo by melissa boulanger

A good café is vital for any main street to flourish. With the recent revival of downtown Manchester, “a coffee shop was just a natural progression,” says Alex Puglisi. “I’m glad I was the one to bring it here.”

Puglisi, a recent graduate of St. Anselm College with a new degree in business, opened Café la Reine in the spring of last year. “I wanted to open my own something,” she recalls, “and coffee is one of my passions, so it seemed like the right choice.” Puglisi wrote out the business plan, gathered a few trusted palates for an intense round of coffee tasting, found an empty storefront right across from City Hall, and, with support from family, friends, former employers and the wider community, got her dream up and running.

The location can’t be beat, but Puglisi also worked hard to make Café la Reine a place for sitting down and staying a while. The café may be in the middle of New Hampshire’s largest city, but inside it pays tribute to the attractions of rural life: the walls sport skis and ski poles, snowshoes, trail signs, paddles, fishing poles and equestrian gear, all collected from the same antique stores and flea markets where Puglisi found the homey, mismatched mugs. “New Hampshire has so many wonderful places where you can go outside and just do whatever activity you like,” Puglisi says. “I wanted to share it. ”It’s as if customers just spent the day in the state’s great outdoors and have come in to rest over a steaming mug — even if they only stepped out of an Elm Street office on a coffee break.

Prime Roast Coffee Company also owes its existence to someone who took it upon herself to be what she wanted to see in her community. In the early 1990s Judy Rogers was selling coffee in bulk out of her specialty kitchen store on Main Street in Keene. When the coffee company (which will go unnamed here) went public, the product “became a different animal,” Rogers says. “It was wonderful, and then it wasn’t wonderful.”

Prime Roast in Keene  is “better than coming home,” says owner Judy Rogers.
photo by melissa dipalma

Sometimes when you want coffee done right, you have to roast it yourself. Rogers bought a roaster and applied her cooking skills to previous knowledge of coffees she had sold and liked.

“As you can see, we are no longer a kitchen store,” Rogers says, a sweep of her hand taking in the long counter, one-of-a-kind tables commissioned from local artists, busy baristas and hunkered-down customers in this warmly lit, coffee-and-pastry fragrant café, down the block from her old shop.

The roasting machine, 20 years and half a million pounds of coffee later, stands at the back of the café. Prime Roast Coffee Company sells about as much coffee wholesale and by mail order as it serves to customers, a sure indication the coffee is good enough to stand on its own.

But if you have a chance, the full package can’t be beat. Rogers’ roasting may be top-notch, but the mail-order bags don’t come with the cookies, cheesecake or cinnamon rolls she bakes every morning from scratch. It’s worth coming to Prime Roast just for the smell. When “coffee’s been brewing and the cinnamon rolls are cooking,” Rogers says dreamily, “it’s really better than coming home. It’s that kind of place.”

Over in Exeter, Dan Demers has coffee standards more obsessive than anything likely to be found outside Seattle, Portland, Chicago or New York. “I wanted to bring that here, and I wanted to expose that to everyone that I could,” he says. So he founded D Squared Java in Exeter a little over two years ago, and that town’s coffee standards have never been the same.

The café is a sunny, exposed-brick hangout with cycling local art on the walls and a pile of pillows by one window dubbed “The Cozy Corner.” The music is always good and the conversation is always lively. But D Squared is all about specialty coffee. That’s coffee carefully chosen from single areas or even single farms, roasted with extreme care to preserve its unique flavors, and prepared by the cup with rarely-heard-of methods like the beehouse and the aeropress. That’s done meticulously, by baristas whose training, says Demers, never really ends. It’s all about recognizing that every coffee is different, carrying the spectacular flavors of its particular type and soil and the climate where it was grown — and it’s up to the barista not to mess it up. “I’m telling a story every time I serve a cup of coffee,” says Demers.

That — especially at $3.50 a cup — isn’t everyone’s idea of how coffee should be, and Demers says that’s fine. But he’s thrilled by how easily the Exeter community has accepted D Squared. Most of the crowd is a mix of young parents, downtown workers, employees of the nearby hospital, faculty and students from across the street at Phillips Exeter Academy. “It’s really top to bottom,” says Demers, “which I do love.”

D Squared isn’t alone in its mission to bring specialty coffee to New Hampshire. One of its suppliers is CQ Coffee Roasters in Bedford, and CQ’s owner, Claudia Barrett, is just as meticulous.

For example: “You get those spices, but in the front end you get a mouthful of cranberry and rhubarb first, and then it finishes with the spice,” Barrett says of a coffee she’s roasting one afternoon. “We found that just even four degrees darker, it starts out spicy and finishes with cranberry, so we’ve been experimenting both ways,” she adds. Barrett’s a licensed Q Grader (or “coffee Jedi,” as she puts it) whose resumé includes Starbucks in its early days, and her vocabulary is rich with the suggestions of the coffee “flavor wheel,” plus a few unofficial terms she uses like “Fruity Pebbles.” Her excitement about coffee and its vast range of naturally occurring flavors can be infectious. That’s exactly the point of CQ, which isn’t a café, but a coffee roaster, a lab and a place to learn. “If anyone comes in they’re welcome to grab a spoon and do some cupping with us,” Barrett explains, noting the education is free.

“The more the customer begins to learn about specialty coffee, the more they’ll want specialty coffee,” she says. And CQ has already established itself as the place to get it. Since the company began two years ago, it’s had a coffee named fifth-best in the world by Coffee Review (the Wine Spectator of coffee), and already won mail-order customers as far away as Finland and in coffee meccas like Seattle and Portland.

But where Barrett really wants to make an impact is here in New Hampshire. That’s why the doors are wide open. “We’re here,” she says, “we want you to come in. We want you to learn.”

Dominated by Dartmouth College, Hanover is a town unlike any other in New Hampshire, an Ivy League bubble. So maybe it’s no surprise that at Dirt Cowboy, the prime café on the cute college town’s main drag, owner Tom Guerra didn’t have time for an interview with this magazine.

A visit to Dirt Cowboy shows it’s surprising Guerra had time to politely decline an interview at all; even when school’s out, enough Dartmouth students and faculty stick around to absolutely pack the place. It’s far from the only café in town, but Dirt Cowboy draws huge crowds with the incredible plethora of coffees displayed in a long row of wall-mounted bronze dispensers.

Dirt Cowboy is also a roasting company. As their website explains, “We taste test each and every roast 500 times a day, seven  days a week at our tasting lab. It’s called Dirt Cowboy Café.” It certainly seems like a solid method, perfecting the brews with direct feedback to the coffee bean wrangler in charge.

The coffee isn’t the only draw at Dirt Cowboy. Facing off opposite the row of coffees, above the heads of customers waiting in line, the hand-painted mural menu lists a worthy selection of teas, sandwiches, treats and specialty drinks. And if you can find an empty seat, it’s worth holding on to, for a hot drink and a snack, and even to let the steady buzz of activity put you in the right mode to write a paper (or grade a pile of them).

If you find yourself just north of the Presidential Range, the White Mountain Café & Bookstore is definitely worth a visit. This cozy Gorham gathering place brings together weekly batches of fresh coffee from Manchester, best-selling novels and handy local guidebooks, locals as tight-knit as they are welcoming, and Jenna and Matt Bowman’s unbeatable baking.

Grasshopper bars, brownies with mint or peanut butter, oatmeal sandwich cookies, chocolate chip cookies, molasses cookies, flourless chocolate torte, scones, quiche, focaccia … Until a few years ago, the Bowmans were just bakers on the other side of Pinkham Notch in Jackson. Then in 2007 the owners of a tiny café in Gorham, where the Bowmans came for coffee on their days off, announced it would be shutting down. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Jenna Bowman recalls. “We were looking to get out of the bakery business and do something a little more over on this side of the Notch, and it just happened, just fell into place.” She, Matt and a friend rescued the café from closing — and Gorham from a café-less fate.

They didn’t expect to add a bookstore a couple of years later, but when the town’s only one shut down, the White Mountain Café expanded. The future of stand-alone bookstores just seemed too bleak, Bowman says: “We thought it would be a good combination with the coffee, and it has been.” Deep in the White Mountains, Gorham gets plenty of people who could use a guidebook or vacation read. And for locals, this café now fulfills their literary needs too, from best-sellers to children’s books.

The town is small enough, and the regulars so regular, that the café implemented a Karma Board, where a customer can buy a coffee, pastry or other treat for another customer to come and claim later, a tasty thank-you. Then there are passersby who stop and fall in love with the café, who “like to come in and have a T-shirt or a hoodie or a cup or something that tells them where they’ve been in the White Mountains,” Bowman says, by way of explanation for the piles of merchandise that don’t fall into the coffee or book categories. The wearers of those T-shirts and hoodies often reappear with pride the next year. “We’re pretty happy we’re still here when they come back!” laughs Bowman.

Not to be confused with the White Mountain Café & Bookstore, White Mountain Gourmet Coffee is another café whose owners bought it to save it. More than 20 years ago, the little roasting company, operating out of Epsom with a 1929-made roaster, saw the Concord café they supplied was shutting down. “Let’s buy it,” president and co-owner Richard Clark remembers thinking. “We don’t want to risk losing it to a competitor or have it turn into a pizza place or something.” So they bought it, and a bigger, newer roasting machine, and the rest is history.

White Mountain Gourmet Coffee has seen plenty since then. “When we first started, flavored coffee was just getting popular,” Clark recalls. “Then it started to shift towards regional varieties,” so Guatemala or Sumatra, they had it. Next came the organic movement, and White Mountain became the first organic food processor certified by the state, Clark proudly reports. Then came the call for fair trade, and now White Mountain is ready for the next development.

The café itself is more of a “grab and go” establishment, Clark says. He’s not against customers spending a little time at the handful of tables, but warns the café, with its deli counter and wide selection of breakfast and lunch options, is in a balancing act with the roaster that shares the space. “It’s almost comical,” Clark says, “because we get deliveries of 40, 50 bags of coffee, they’re 150 lb. bags, extremely heavy, we’ve got an 18-wheeler that double-parks out there on the street, we’ve got a line of customers waiting for their lunch, and I’m trying to unload coffee beans back and forth, back and forth, ‘excuse me, excuse me,’” he says with a chuckle.

Coffee Snob 101

The coffee terrain is changing quickly in New Hampshire, as standards high and finicky spread from the West Coast and big cities. As the coffee snob revolution looms, here's what you need to know:

  • Specialty coffee – Coffee to a higher standard. The basic idea is that coffee has wine-like potential when it comes to variety and complexity, and that roasters and brewers need to be extremely careful not to ruin the farmer's hard work.
  • Terroir – Just like wine grapes, coffee carries the specific flavors of the place it's grown – which is why specialty coffee is all about single source, and includes the source in the name of the coffee. Costa Rican coffee has a hint of citrus, thanks to the high levels of citric acid in the ground. Sumatran is earthy and piney, Kenyan tastes like red fruits (strawberries, raspberries, currants) and Ethiopian like blueberries. The elevation also plays a role: Coffee will taste fruitier when it's grown high in the mountains and earthier grown down low. Within these countries and at all of these different elevations, every region and sub-region, and even every farm, the flavors are different. Forget flavored coffee, says the specialty coffee camp – coffee already has plenty of flavors, if it's prepared right. That starts with …
  • Roast – "Dark roast is dead" is one of the mottos of specialty coffee. Beyond second crack (the second time the beans start cracking while being roasted) the beans lose the special flavors that make them unique. Dark roast covers up the blueberries or pine or citrus, leaving you with nothing but the basic coffee flavor.
  • Timing – Coffee starts losing its flavor immediately after roasting. In the beginning, that's good; most coffees should wait a couple of days so the flavors can settle. But after a week, everything starts going downhill, and it's time to finish the batch and grab the next roast. Coffee starts losing flavor even faster when it's ground, so grinding should only happen right before brewing, and should be done with a burr grinder (which lets you control how fine the grind is and doesn't produce the kind of flavor-stealing heat that a blade grinder does).
  • Brewing – By the cup, always. The water needs to be fresh, and hot but not too hot. Specialty coffee uses a dizzying variety of brew methods, but the basic idea is that it should be manual, so the brewer can dial in the timing and the amount of water just right – and brewed by the cup, right before …
  • Drinking – Smell the steam. Taste, then let the coffee cool and taste again. As the coffee cools down it will reveal new flavors; take your time. Then, with a thoughtful look on your face, tell the barista that this Kenyan has a lot of great strawberry to it.
Categories: Features, Winter Food