Charlie Eisenstat of Pour Cleveland
One thing Charlie Eisenstat, the owner of Pour Cleveland, knows for sure is that this year is the Browns’ year. Oh, did you think we were going to say he knows a lot about coffee? Yeah, that too! Self-taught coffee enthusiast Charlie is hard at work bringing exotic coffee to Cleveland for locals and visitors to try. Charlie talks about finding his passion for coffee, how you can get involved in learning more about coffee (hint: it’s free), and more in this week’s Small Business Sunday feature!
Haley Mills: What is your background and what led you to starting Pour?
Charlie Eisenstat: I started Pour on paper about 8 years ago. I didn’t really get into coffee until the end of law school. I went to Miami of Ohio, and didn’t really drink it there a lot. I started to need it to stay awake, like most students do, but I would just get Frappuccinos, which are just glorified sugar milkshakes. Over time, I developed a taste for the coffee aspect. I would add a ton of Splenda or sugar and a ton of cream, especially flavored creamers. I was making coffee at home in a Keurig. I would be excited to wake up every morning for coffee, so there was a strong attraction to the beverage, but I didn’t really get into specialty coffee until I went to graduate school and spent about 10 months in Washington, D.C. They had a much more advanced coffee scene there, so I found a coffee shop close to where I lived and I would go there everyday and order a drip coffee. I would doctor it up because that was what I was used to doing. Over time, I got to talking to the baristas there, and they made me a pour over. They said, “We’re going to make this, but you cannot add anything to it,” and I thought there was no way I was going to like it. That cup of coffee was life-changing for me. I became obsessed with coffee.
I started to order coffee from different roasters all over the country. That coffee was Intelligentsia in Chicago, Counter Culture, all these different roasters, and I was learning about brewing, taste and flavor. That became my passion. I probably knew deep down that I never wanted to practice law, but that’s a different story. I graduated in a pretty bad job market, especially for lawyers, so I kind of bounced around a few places doing freelance work, but it wasn’t anything I would call a career. In my spare time, and I had a lot of it, I was starting to think of a concept that would work in Cleveland. My wife and I had originally moved to Chicago because that is where I took the bar and where we thought we wanted to settle down. Chicago without a job was way too expensive for us, so we only lasted there for about six months. We moved back to Cleveland to be closer to family and hopefully some connections. There were a lot of cool shops in Chicago, so that definitely influenced what ended up in our business plan.We thought we would introduce Cleveland to real specialty coffee like it hadn’t seen before. We had a few different ideas, but eventually came up with something similar to this - we’ve definitely evolved since we opened.
I was at PNC at the time, and I was always making pour overs at my desk. My coworkers probably thought I was super weird. Eventually other people would ask for it and it sort of grew from that. We didn’t have a lot of coffee shops at the time, and it was something I was deeply passionate about, so we decided to go for it. We built Pour over the course of a year, and we’re now coming up on 6 years.
HM: So you’ve always been in this location?
CE: Yeah, I lived on East 4th street, and I used to walk by this store front a lot. It sat empty for a least 12 years before we took it over. I was always curious about it because there are a lot of businesses around here. Once we decided to go for it, we looked at a few places around town, but this was at the top of my list. The landlords are super supportive of start-ups and have been great to work with.
HM: What did the space look like before you took it over?
CE: The ceilings were all a very low height, so we opened those all up. We exposed the brick that was the original end of the arcade. I think the last business there was a continental ticket office, and, if I am not mistaken, it had blue carpet everywhere. We ground the floor down and finished it, as well. We had the windows all covered up during build out so we sort of forgot about them and then we opened them on the first day and were kind of blow away.
HM: What makes Pour unique?
CE: We have built one of the most unique menus for coffee enthusiasts in the country. We bring in coffees from some of the best roasters in the world. We’re often the only shop in the US with these coffees on our menu. We’re different than a lot of other coffee shops because a lot of them are owned by the local roasters or serve coffee from the local roasters. We’re offering something unique that you can’t get in Cleveland and not even in bigger cities like New York. We get a lot of tourists that come through, and they’ll get really excited to see these roasters. My goal has always been to introduce Clevelanders to a new approach to coffee. We really pride ourselves on serving something different. We work with local purveyors for our pastries and our dairy. We’re working on our own roastery.
HM: How do you source the coffee? Is it based on your own interest?
CE: It’s parallel to my own growth in coffee. We started out as a single roaster shop. I met with the big four roasters in New York at the time. To me, Counter Culture was the most supportive in terms of education. They do not have their own stores, so they support their wholesale customers really well. Being someone that hadn’t actually worked in coffee, I thought it was important to learn the proper way to make different drinks. They came out and helped to train my staff, which was really important to me. Their coffees are all really traceable in terms of how they are sourced. We learned a lot from that over the first year. We started getting a lot of samples sent to us from other roasters, and it was getting harder and harder to limit ourselves to one roaster’s lineup. After a year, we expanded our menu to three roasters, and we were roasting through our samples.
I learned a lot, personally, from Twitter. Coffee people are very willing to share on Twitter. I also learned a lot of about different roasters. Tim Windelboe, who we carry now, is regarded as the best roaster in the world by a lot of coffee people. We’ve taken his focus and applied it to our shop. We ordered samples from his shop in Oslo, Norway, and the coffee was unlike anything we had tried at that point. Not too long after that, we were approached by a roaster in Berlin, Germany from our Instagram. We do free cuppings, which are the industry standard for tasting and evaluating coffee, every Saturday at noon. We go through hundreds of samples a year, so it’s not necessarily roasters we’ll put on the menu. We held one of those cuppings and were blown away by how different the flavors in the coffee from Berlin were. I didn’t know how ordering coffee from Germany would work - but that was kind of our start into international coffee. Almost consistently since then, we’ve had at least one international coffee on bar.
The other approach that makes us different is that everyday we come in 45 minutes before we open to dial in not only espresso, but we do everything to weight. We weigh all of our shots, we’re tasting everything and brewing all of the recipes to make sure they all taste good before we open. By the time the customers come in, we know everything tastes really good.
HM: What would you suggest to someone looking to get more into coffee?
CE: It’s just like anything you’re trying to get into - just do more of it. If you want to learn more about tasting, I would definitely recommend coming to one of our cuppings. They are very relaxed, and you can take it as seriously as you want. We’ll walk you through the whole process. A lot of tasting is your olfactory, so it’s smelling dry grounds and the difference when you add water to them, and you’re tasting throughout the event. A lot of the times, we’ll openly discuss what stuff tastes like, which will help you get better at tasting. If you are not sure what to order here, all of our baristas are super knowledgeable and can easily talk about what the coffee tastes like each day. If you are used to Dunkin or Starbucks and you come into a shop like this, I am very aware it can be intimidating, but everything about the design here is to break down barriers. Ask questions! Our baristas can relate weird looking coffee names to make it very simple to order.
HM: What is your favorite drink to serve?
CE: I like pour overs; that’s why we are named Pour. It’s a very meditative process; it’s part of the way that I wake up. It’s a really nice process, especially if we are not busy and we can connect with the customer. A lot of people think the process takes 15 minutes, but it’s more like 2-3 minutes so you can still get on your way fast. (See our video on Instagram with Charlie talking us through a pour over!)
HM: Is there anything else you want people to know about Pour?
CE: I feel like a lot of people have this perception that we’re not a local business, just because we don’t serve local coffee or because of the way the shop looks. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Cleveland. We are very much local, we love being downtown and seeing the city grow - that’s why we picked downtown as our location - so we could be a part of that process.
I feel like our other reputation is that we are pretentious. It’s not our goal to come across as pretentious, we just want to make coffee relatable and fun. We are serving some really unique coffees, but don’t be intimidated by that!
HM: What do you think makes Cleveland unique?
CE: It’s that underdog mentality. I think Clevelanders are very strong, very resilient. Clevelanders are determined to make things happen, especially the younger generation of entrepreneurs. It’s cool to be a part of seeing the changes happening around Cleveland. You’ve got Platform, Cleveland Bagel, Brewnuts; all of these really cool, unique food concepts. There’s a lot of really good things happening in this city.
HM: What is your favorite sports team?
CE: Browns for sure. I am obsessed with the Browns. You could ask me every year for the last 20 years, and I would tell you we would go undefeated. I’m an optimist when it comes to the Browns. This year I’m hopefully not too far off.