A Second Shot: How Scott Carey finally found his calling – and why it just might lead to the best cup of coffee this town has eClick here for a slideshow on Scott Carey of Sump Coffee.
Scott Carey stands behind the bar at Sump Coffee, making a pour-over. Every 10 seconds or so, he lifts his right hand, moving it in a circular motion just inches above the wood-collared carafe, letting a slow stream of hot water empty from the kettle’s swan-like neck. He carefully wets each of the grounds piled inside, giving them due time to drink up before beginning the next pour. He has wet the filter, measured the beans, ground them, started the timer and briefed me on the tasting notes of today’s bean. Now all that is left to do is pour. And wait.
It is a routine I had come to expect, one Carey had adhered to since the first time I stopped by the shop he opened late last year and mentioned my fondness for the full-flavored cup the hand-brewing method produces. “I like French press, too,” I muttered one morning in an effort to shed my guilt for the time and focus my preference required of him. But he insists.
Time is something Carey has quite a bit of right now. Time to hand-select beans from micro-roasters across the country. Time to troubleshoot extraction issues with fellow baristas around town. Time to test and retest the best brewing method for each new bean that arrives at his South City coffeehouse. Time to make the perfect pour-over.
His shop bespeaks the varied and contradicting path of its owner – an intersection of creativity and precision, science and indecision, minimalism with tinges of indulgence. Refurbished wooden planks line everything from the floor beneath my feet to the arc-shaped bar, whose top looks different each time I stop in. Some days it’s scattered with enough hand-blown glass structures to fill a high-school chem lab, others, it’s scant – just the Slayer and Faema espresso machines, a four-foot Kyoto cold drip brewer and scales. Behind the bar, two beige wooden doors that once led into Carey’s New York City apartment are mounted with a Southeast Asian Buddha perched in between. Snag one of the two small, leather-tufted chairs near the back wall, and you’ll catch a glimpse of all six volumes of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine tucked onto the shelf behind the bar. Just above, a painting of a half-naked pin-up in garters and heels.
When Carey first purchased the corner building at 3700 S. Jefferson Ave., less than a minute’s drive from the ceramic Indian saluting the entrance to Cherokee Street, the timing seemed perfect. The Manhattan law firm where he had been doing in-house licensing work had recently imploded and he had been spending more and more time in his native St. Louis – where $20 a square foot seemed almost free compared to $900 back in New York. “I thought, we’ll buy this building and I’ll work on it with my brother and when he does chemo, I’ll have a room, a place for him to stay,” Carey said, throwing his arm toward the store’s back room, now scarcely populated by a couple of chairs, a newly constructed (un-sanded and unpainted) wall and a custom-built 1995 Sportster motorcycle.
He also missed coffee. It had become a passion of his ever since he walked into Ninth Street Espresso in New York’s Alphabet City six years earlier and ordered a latte at the tiny, bare-bones coffee shop just a stone’s throw from his apartment. “The guy’s name was Bob,” Carey recalled. “He was from Portland, Oregon, and he was grumpy and had sailor tattoos and a non-ironic mustache. He made me a latte and he put a rosette on it and put a lid next to me and looked at me with a frown. I was like, what the fuck? I’m gonna put a lid on this? This is amazing.” It was a gateway drug – the cup that made Carey see coffee not as a fungible commodity but as a seasonal, agricultural product; something you crave not because of what it can do but for the art form it is, an ever-evolving dance of quality, flavor, execution.
After that day, Carey began consuming as much good coffee as possible. Coffee’s third wave was just making its way from San Francisco and Seattle onto the hipster streets of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, and he was there to order a cup at each new shop: Grumpy, Gimme, Abrasso, La Colombe. Consumption quickly transformed into passion and, from there, curiosity. Convinced good milk work could cover up any bad bean, he first focused on milk – how to achieve the perfect sweetness, texture and temperature. Next, he tracked down every espresso bar in the city to see how different baristas pulled a shot. He soon moved on to brewing methods.
The urge to create was nothing new for Carey. “The entire time in my life when I started to futz around and be dissatisfied with law, I tried to create,” he said, pointing to the basement that’s now home to guitar books, a half-built motorcycle and thousands of dollars worth of fancy photography equipment. “Because I had money, I would spend a lot of money on hobbies that I wouldn’t fulfill because they were too frustrating. The point that I realize I’m not a natural at something is the point when I have a tendency to give up on that something.”
“Tell me what you think,” Carey said, instructing me to wait 30 seconds before pouring the freshly brewed coffee into the small, white mug he set in front of me. “It’s OK,” I said after sipping, revealing that I wished I tasted some of the blueberry notes I’d picked up in the pour-over he made me a few days earlier. “Yea, it’s no good,” he conceded after tasting the amber-hued liquid in another tiny mug. “Like this better?” He hands me a paper cup filled with the extraction of a bean he brewed moments before I walked in. As I nod, he empties the hand-blown hourglass carafe with the still-hot coffee and fills my cup with the new brew.
Carey and his brother, Jeff, had never had much in common. Scott averaged a 3.99 GPA during undergrad and, by 31, he had acquired a master’s in chemistry and a law degree from UC-Berkeley. He spent the next decade or so weaving his way up the corporate ladder, taking home six figures from fancy Manhattan firms and wearing suits and a lot of French blue shirts “because that was all the rage.” Jeff – or as most referred to him, Gypsy – was more accustomed to old pocket tees and mud-stained jeans. He dropped out of school, was bigger and more physical than his brother, and was more comfortable holding a hammer than a fountain pen.
Despite their differences, the two were quite close. They didn’t speak daily, or even weekly. But when they did, it was positive, natural, as if time had never ticked by.
So when Jeff was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma – a cancer that grows in the bone or soft tissue – at the age of 36, it hit Scott on the head like a hammer on a nail. By the time the doctors found the tumor, it was 54 centimeters wide and practically wrapped around Jeff’s kidney. There was little to do, they said, but cut out much of the left side of his abdomen.
Carey was sitting at an oyster bar in the West Village when he got the call from Jeff’s doctor telling him he needed to come to St. Louis. “I don’t know when …,” he heard the voice trail off on the other end.
As Scott moved home to be with his brother, that inner voice – the one accountable for the guitars and the motorcycles and the cameras – hit a near-deafening pitch. His brother was a craftsman. He created things for a living. He was proud of it. It was time for Scott to do the same.
Scott closed on the building at the corner of Jefferson and Winnebago Streets on Oct. 10 of last year. Jeff died nine days later.
“I can’t imagine what you go through,” Scott said, hanging his head and rubbing his left eye with his finger. “We all have to go through it; I think about it all the time. In a way, that’s why I got this,” he said, pulling up his right T-shirt sleeve to reveal the design of an imperial garden lion that runs down his arm and across his chest. “I saw him suffering and I thought, I hate needles. Can I handle it? What am I made of?” Scott chose a Tebori-style tattoo – a Japanese method that takes twice as long to complete and uses a long rod with several needles attached to its end. The process took nearly 36 hours to complete.
When he returned, he knew he could give up. He could sell the building, go back to New York, get another job practicing law. But his thoughts turned to his brother.
“It was hot in July and it was really beating him up because he had just had some chemo and I remember him saying, ‘It’s gonna be a lot of work.’ I thought he meant, oh, I’m a girlie man; I’ve never held a hammer; I’m a pencil-pushing dude. I won’t be able to handle physical labor. But he really meant, it’s going to be a lot of work. He was trying to protect me. He was worried I was going to throw all this money down this hole.”
And so he began to work. In moments of rage, he’d tear down a wall, rip out the carpet, scrape plaster from the wall. When he sought quiet meditation, he’d build a new wall or put in a window. “It really was a lot of work. When I was in the building over the winter last year and it was cold and dusty and shitty, I would hear his voice. Sometimes mocking me, sometimes encouraging me. But he was always saying ‘it’s gonna be a lot of work.’ … All the tools I have to build this, they’re not my tools. I didn’t bring them from my New York apartment. They all have his name on them. Each day when I built it, his name is written on all the tools. He’s here.”
Carey opened the doors to Sump Coffee on Dec. 1. It was a risk. In a time when the commercial world sells single-serve cups customers can hold in mere seconds, he was banking on consumers who want to sit down and chat about the bean, where it’s from, the brewing method that best reveals its flavors.
To keep his doors open, Carey will have to compensate for a less-than-ideal location, slow hand-brew methods and a lack of talls, grandes, ventis (one size for a cappuccino, one for a pour-over). He knows he can’t do it alone. A student at heart, he quickly became frustrated after moving to St. Louis that he couldn’t find the coffee cognoscenti he harbored in New York. So he reached out. He began holding occasional barista “meet ups” at the shop. Fellow coffee geeks would come in after hours to test a new bean, troubleshoot brewing issues or discuss burgeoning new roasters.
“Mike Marquard came in today,” Carey said of the former Kaldi’s barista who is bringing aeropress brews and pour-overs to brunch-goers at Half & Half. “I told him, ‘Make me better. Find a way in your schedule to come in. I’ve got things that I’m thinking about and I wanna talk about them. … I wanna make this shop better.’”
Another way he’s convincing customers to make the drive down Jefferson to South City: by offering something they won’t find anywhere else in town. Instead of playing into the desires of the city’s dedicated locavores, he’s putting local roasters like Mississippi Mud and Goshen up against those across the country – Seattle’s Kuma Coffee; San Fran’s Sightglass; Johnson Brothers in Madison, Wisc.; PT’s in Topeka, Kan. He’s looking for a roaster who treats coffee with the same respect and care that he does – one that gets out of the way of the bean and lets its varietals speak for themselves.
Carey is well aware that all of this could end with the addition of two very expensive espresso machines to his basement collection. But that’s not quite the point. “I thought very emotionally about this project. I didn’t come up with a business plan. I didn’t analyze the demographics of the area or anything like that. It was a way for me to withdraw from the world and be alone and work on this building. … I did what I set out to do. It may be a market failure. This location may suck. St. Louis might not get it, or they may get it three years from now and I run out of money. But I did it. To feel that power to shape your world, that way of creating your own path in life, it feels pretty awesome, actually.”