At Pour Cleveland, Charlie Eisenstat is brewing something special in Cleveland’s coffee landscape – and elevating the scene in the process
Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz
Charlie Eisenstat discovered his true calling in a Washington, D.C., coffee shop. No one swallow at Chinatown Coffee turned the trick, but Eisenstat, studying there while imbibing cup after intriguing cup, began to envision a shop of his own – in his native Cleveland.
Eisenstat owns Pour Cleveland, a Euclid Avenue coffee magnet a block west of East Ninth Street in downtown Cleveland. Pour, like its sturdy Italian coffeeware, is black and white, mainly white. It’s a kind of laboratory, a clean, well-lighted place known for its unique, even exotic, coffee.
“I get really excited about coffees,” says Eisenstat, who lives in Rocky River with his wife, Maggie, and their 3-year-old son Desmond. “Usually, that’ll fade after a week, then the next thing excites me.” Working with a “plethora of coffees” from roasters from all over the world regularly renews his excitement.
Eisenstat doesn’t drink that much coffee himself, maybe two 10-ounce cups a day, and almost all at Pour. But, he says, compared to an average cup o’ joe, “it’s way better coffee, so it goes a longer way.
“I always like stuff that’s sweet, I like balance,” he says. “If a coffee can hit on everything, that’s a winner for me. A lot of coffees are very one-dimensional, all sweetness or all body, so complexity is a big thing for me.”
At Pour, you can get espresso. You can get cold brew iced coffee. You can try all manner of strong coffee brewed from scratch, a cup at a time, from beans sourced all over the world. Pour-over is the house specialty, and drip is available.
You also can get a taste lesson from Eisenstat or a Pour barista eager to let you sample the latest from, say, Drop, a Swedish roaster exclusive to Pour in the United States.
Coffee consumes Eisenstat now, but his path to the bean was circuitous.
Eisenstat grew up in Orange, went to the former Agnon School (now the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School) in Beachwood, graduated from high school in the Palm Beach, Fla., area, and from Miami University of Ohio in 2006, with a major in finance and a minor in micro economics.
After graduating from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, he passed the Illinois bar and then earned a master’s degree in tax law from Georgetown University in D.C. He and Maggie got married in 2010 and planned to start their life together in Chicago, “a mutual pick.”
It was the depths of the Recession, however, and Eisenstat found it hard to become a partner at a law firm. So he free-lanced as an attorney and worked for a trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. He was not happy, he says, suggesting he felt like he was living someone else’s life.
Finding his true path took some time.
“I got into it for pretty much all the wrong reasons,” Eisenstat says of the law. “I was doing it to make my dad happy; with his upbringing it was important, as it is for a lot of Jewish people, to become a professional.” His father, a doctor at Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, died during Charlie’s last year at Cleveland-Marshall.
In his college and post-graduate days, coffee barely figured. Eisenstat drank soda to keep awake during college and “wasn’t really that into coffee” – except for “dessert-type drinks like Frappucinos, a glorified coffee milk shake.”
When he was at Georgetown, that began to change.
“When I ended up in D.C., I found a place I could study in, Chinatown Coffee. One day I spoke to a barista there, and he basically told me to get a pour-over coffee and told me not to put anything in it,” he says. Although he expressed “extreme doubt” that he’d like it, he did, and “that was what started the coffee bug for me. … I will always go back to that experience, showing me what coffee really could be.”
Coffee takes over
Eisenstat started following coffee sites on Twitter and read as much as he could about the bean, “probably as much as I did law.”
Over time, he began to accumulate more sophisticated equipment, slowly becoming a home coffee chemist.
“If you’re tasting this, adjust and do this,” he says, explaining how the thinking goes. “Maybe it’s your water. Maybe it’s the coffee you’re using. Maybe you don’t have a good grinder.” His study intensified in Chicago, where he connected with Intelligentsia, a “very good roaster there.”
“When we realized Chicago wasn’t working for us and decided to move back home, my wife and I started talking about what a coffee shop should be,” he says. It was the tail end of 2010 and the Cleveland coffee field was wide open.
After six unhappy months in Chicago, they moved home in early 2011, and a plan began to percolate. Eisenstat joined the trust department at PNC Bank, where he was able to use some of his law background to pay the bills, continued coffee school on Twitter, and took advantage of a free subscription to Handsome Coffee, a start-up roaster in Cleveland Heights that sent him samples.
During down time at PNC, Eisenstat devised a plan that called for Pour to open in April 2013. However, the complexity and timing of life – including the arrival of the Eisenstats’ first child – postponed its debut until that Thanksgiving.
The Pour experience
Gabe Wojnarowski, assistant manager of Pour, says he “could talk for an hour about extraction, but I’m not going to bore you.” Then, as he pours a cup, swirling the hot water over just-ground beans, he talks about extraction, a key to exceptional coffee.
“The goal is to get all the sweet stuff out and not get the bitter stuff out,” he says. The idea is “to get all the yummy, sweet complexities out of it, but not to a point where it tastes, I guess, bitter. We want it to taste, like, really clean, really balanced, not too heavy,” he adds.
Eirik Schmertmann, a barista, supervised the pouring of samples of coffee at different stages, using Ethiopian Aroresa from Heart Coffee Roasters of Portland, Ore. They vary dramatically; the “final” one is sharp and bracing, with a hint of bitterness “but not too much,” says Wojnarowski, who executed the shot glass tastings.
“Everything we do is very, very detailed, just to ensure the coffee is consistent,” Wojnarowski adds. “Pour-over doesn’t make coffee taste good, we make coffee taste good.”
Coffee varies from farm to farm, even plant to plant, explains Schmertmann: “It’s the way the bean develops, and it can develop completely differently, with different sugars and different tastes, it’s not just origin to origin.” Different farms have different soils and plants. Many roasters will sell beans in bags listing country of origin, section, farm, even lot number.
Eisenstat prizes such idiosyncracy, modeling his store on what he and his workers enjoy in the coffee they try out. They also stress the social nature of Pour – “a welcoming, communal aspect of what we do,” he adds, citing the Judaism that figured in his upbringing.
That the shop is working so well – nearing the end of its third year, Pour has grown at “almost a 30- to 40-percent clip year over year,” Eisenstat says – attests to his taste and the meticulousness of his operation.
Every night, the espresso machine is cleaned with citric acid compound, and “we get as finicky as going back to the water filtration system and checking the total dissolve solids to give us an idea of how the coffee’s going to perform,” clearing the water of “everything that will add taste and take away from the coffee taste,” he says.
Brewing coffee is a chemical reaction, and you need something to facilitate that reaction, he says. Pour even has a system that blends back in some mineral content of regular filtered water, allowing the coffee to brew properly.
“We have a small staff but we have a dedicated staff – extremely dedicated,” Eisenstat says. “We dial and redial throughout the day to get everything tasting as good as it possibly can. We get samples sent to us from roasters all over the county; we’re selective when it comes to whatever coffees we use.
“We have a good idea of what roasters are out there that we want to work with; we try to rotate them and keep it interesting for customers – and for us, too.” js