If you’re looking to start a business in Virginia Beach, your surest bet is to find a little spot near the Oceanfront, import some tourist catnip junk you can sell for $2 more than you bought it, and be another shameless brick in the wall between Virginia Beach’s unique, folksy, Southern beach community past and its homogenous, anywhere-in-America future.
Brad Ewing is a smart guy. He’s well aware of this. But, to him and his wife, who are opening their Three Ships Coffee flagship at 1703 Mediterranean Ave., it’s worth the risk to foster something unique if it means helping give his hometown a charge of community and craft.
“I feel like Virginia Beach gets a bad rap–maybe deservedly so,” Brad said. “But maybe if people cared enough to create a really great product and make it steeped in local history, maybe it could help and challenge those notions and maybe make it a little cooler.”
I met up with Brad on a recent Saturday as he and his father continued their build-out. They had harvested wood from a barn in the western part of the state, and were using it to construct the coffee bar and backdrop. Hashi food truck was outside serving it up spicy. A walk away is the Beach’s unique local business bulkhead, the part of Norfolk Ave. with Zeke’s, Gringo’s, and Back Bay Brewing. Brad’s dad, also a Beach native, was a great help except for when he was leaving tools too close to the beans for Brad’s comfort.
“Virginia Beach has gone from corn fields and farm land to all these houses,” said the senior Ewing, Jim. He believes that this particular section of VB is the right one to foster a business like Three Ships. “This area hasn’t changed that much—that’s why this is happening right now. It will bring a little of the Ghent feeling to Virginia Beach.”
Along with the coffee bar, the space is designed to be Three Ships’ roasting, packaging, and distribution facility. Get a load of this beast. It’s as pretty as the engine of a muscle-era Corvette.
“We’re third wave,” Brad said, of their brewing style. “To be more nichey, a Nordic style. It’s basically a lot of light roasted.”
The first wave was Chock full o’Nuts. The second wave was Starbucks, which was great in the way it re-introduced the concept of coffee shop as community hang-out, but not-great in the way it destroyed people’s palettes with their tary, burnt-bean coffee. Brad compared them to McDonald’s: the old standby that you think is quality until you learn what real quality is. Which is where third wave comes in, with folks like Three Ships, who describe the beans they work with as “so beautiful. So fucking beautiful.”
The woman selecting the beans along with Brad is someone who knows wine as well as anyone in Hampton Roads, his wife and partner, Amy Ewing.
“Wine and our style of coffee have strong parallels that we use all the time to help our customers better understand what makes us different,” said. “Both are fruit grown in very specific regions, climates and conditions.”
Brad showed me a handful of Kenya Nyeri Ruiruiru. He explained that in Kenya the soil is acidic, so any Kenyan coffee is going to be punchy and acidic.
“It’s got all of these fresh fruit qualities that are still innate because it was a fruit months ago,” he said, offering me a smell into the bag that could have come from an organic produce aisle. “Coffee is a seed.”
In the end, what makes Three Ships’ coffee special is the process–watching closely for the magic crackle as it’s roasted–as much as it is about the beans.
“I have to develop a profile and bring out what I want to develop out of the bean,” Amy said. “This process could take anywhere from 3 to 10 roasts to find that perfect profile where I am happy with it enough to share with our customers. It is constant cupping/tasting and tweaking. We monitor the coffee throughout its life, continuing to try and improve my profiles. I think that is what gives us the opportunity to be a really great coffee roaster: attention to detail. It has been a constant learning curve, but one that has been exciting and super rewarding.”
This attention to process is central to not just the roasting, but to every element of their business, every element of their lives.
“If you base your work and personal ideals on those ethics… people pick up on that,” said Brad, who quit his job as a senior project manager for Amerigroup to focus on Three Ships. “It’s the way Amy and I live our lives, and this is how we want to run a business.”
It’s an ethic they hope spreads, fostering a more conscious, cohesive, locally-proud Virginia Beach community. Patrick Edwards from Stock Pot stopped by with bacon-infused scones that were like wow.
“The best way to bring people together is food and drink. They’re essential parts of the human process,” he said. “Why not expand that and evolve and bring the community together. When everyone is working together everything is smoother. It’s just a new idea that if we help each other out, we’ll all prosper. If you’re able to show how you feel and what’s important to you, with every interaction you can only improve things.”
Plus, he added, the more people are buying quality, sustainable, soulful products–like what Three Ships sells–the less people will be out there buying, and consuming, the mass market junk that is killing us. It’s a movement that is grounded in, above all, appreciation for what’s real and what’s good.
“Now I drink my coffee black and my whiskey the same way,” Ewing said. “I used to eat steak the wrong way too, all burnt. I’ve learned to love it for what it is.”
I’ll admit, that day was my first time having coffee without sugar or cream. Brad brought out a timer, a scale, and some Kenya Nyeri Ruiruiru. Once the coffee had cooled–you know it’s quality if it tastes even better cold–we tasted. It made my mouth think, if that makes any sense. And it was good. I assured Brad that I would slow down and appreciate the coffee I’m drinking more in the future.
“There’s a part of me wants to one day have someone from Virginia Beach go to Texas and have that sense of pride that Three Ships is from their hometown,” Brad said. “The snobbery is out the door. It’s about creating community and understanding what coffee is capable of, and talking about it.”
Three Ships will be open any day now. Follow along at their Facebook page.