Quality Over Quantity at Black Hand Coffee Co.

By Grant Smith

When it comes to coffee, people tend to be impassioned, fervently protective — even reverential towards their favorite roast. These devotees sponsor their chosen brand through consistent patronage and zealous word-of-mouth advertising. Within the foodservice industry, coffee houses operate in such a competitive niche because of the ritualistic nature of their product. While if a restaurant experience is good you will certainly go again, a good coffee house experience will bring you back every day of the week.

Black Hand Coffee Company, nestled in the heart of Richmond’s museum district, is a mecca for the passionate coffee-drinker. A little over a mile away from VCU’s Monroe Park campus only the seasoned Richmonder student might know of its existence on the corner of Belmont and Patterson. Compared to its competition such as Lift or Lamplighter, Black Hand is seemingly spartan. The food items are limited and the space itself is small. Yet it is the quaint ambiance and pure product that will bring me back again. Its formidable army of regulars would certainly agree.

Upon entering the Black Hand on an early sunday morning, I am welcomed by the powerful aroma of roasting coffee beans spewing from the Industrial-sized Diedrich Coffee Roaster in the corner. It seems to encompass and soften the brick and hardwood space. Local artwork surrounds the cozy seating area filled with patrons making the most of free-wifi and good music. What makes the Black Hand truly stand out from their competition is that they roast their coffee on-site. They boast to roast only single-origin beans, imported from farms in Indonesia, Costa Rica, and Brazil. You can enjoy it in-house or take it home by the pound. They even offer their roasted beans processed into convenient k-cups.

Although Rostov’s Coffee Company in Carytown also roasts their beans on-site, the focus there is selling beans, whereas Black Hand has narrowed the crafting of coffee drinks to an artistic science. They might not offer the enormous assortment of flavor “pumps” that Starbucks does, but they don’t need to, the coffee speaks for itself. The drink menu is not extensive, but the baristas are experienced and will tailor the drink to your specific needs. Officially they offer hot drip, iced cold brew, americanos, black eyes, lattes, and as many espresso shots as your caffeine binge requires ranging from $2-$5. Their most famous drink, according to numerous regulars, is the “dirty chai,” a chai latte with a shot of espresso. “It is the absolute best dirty chai in Richmond,” says Black Hand regular and VCU student Elena Correa, “the spice of the chai and boldness of the espresso blend together to create an indulgent taste without losing the kick of coffee.” “It’s perfect for a fall day, or get it iced with almond milk in the summer.”

Following this amorous advice, I ordered a 16 oz “dirty chai” and since I hadn’t eaten breakfast took a minute to look at their food offerings. The menu focuses on bagels and english muffins which Black Hand sources from local “Cupertino’s New York Bagels and Deli” that can be topped with butter, cream cheese, hummus, or made into a breakfast sandwich ranging from $2-$6. I decided to go for their most decadent option: a bacon, egg, and cheese on Asiago with added tomato and pesto. My drink, prepared before my eyes, arrived promptly and I eagerly sipped at the fabled dirty chai while waiting for my food. I was quite literally, blown away by this drink. I have had a dirty chai from Lift and Starbucks but neither had prepared me for this heavenly experience. The chai latte was both subtly spicy and sweet. The espresso shot was strong enough not to be lost within and provided a well needed kick of caffeine.

When I awoke from my trance, the barista had arrived with my bagel. I unwrapped the bagel sandwich from its foil trappings and dug in. The bagel itself was so good I have promised myself to visit “Cupertino’s New York Bagel and Deli” to experience their full menu. Otherwise the sandwich really exceeded my expectation for a coffee house that seems to offer food as a convenient addition. The fresh tomato and pesto really made this bacon, egg, and cheese stand out from its competition. While they don’t offer the variety that can be found at Lamplighter, the quality of their minimalist menu is better than Lift. Overall, if you’re going to Black Hand for fantastic coffee, you won’t be disappointed if you get hungry.

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