Coffee lovers gather at Monarch Espresso Bar


CW / Kalei Burgess

Grace Schepis | @GraceSchepisCW, Staff Reporter

With worrying weather spoiling outdoor activities for the last week or so, a cool, sunny day outside of Monarch Espresso Bar felt like a godsend. Coffee enthusiasts of all ages gathered on the patio to enjoy bites and beans, and to learn about the complexity of their own palette.

As guests arrived, long, white tables and modern high-top seating graced with floral centerpieces and clean, white linens awaited the hungry Coffee Tasting Lab ticket holders. Baristas ran trays of food back and forth, keeping up with the regular crowd plus the eager coffee tasters attending Monarch Espresso Bar’s first interactive culinary and coffee class. 

In a college town filled with welcoming study spots and coffee shops, Audrey Vermilyea, the founder of Monarch Espresso Bar, wanted to add a fresh perspective. 

“Both my husband and I were students here, and we longed for a space like Monarch – a coffee shop that served craft coffee, but that also served as a creative space for students and locals alike,” Vermilyea said.

While there are lots of options for cozy coffee spots around Tuscaloosa, each has developed its own personality.

“Every single coffee shop has something to offer,” Vermilyea said. “We love the growing coffee community in Tuscaloosa, and we know that people love Monarch because of our team. Our baristas and bakers are generous, kind and so much fun.”

Monarch regulars include Kayleigh Westbrook, a second-year graduate student majoring in communication studies.

“As a graduate student, Monarch is just a better environment for what I need in a study space,” Westbrook said. “It always feels like home here.”

This past Saturday, Monarch barista Caitlin Giles made her long-awaited dream come true by hosting her very first coffee tasting lab at the venue. Branded as “an experiential palette development class for anyone and everyone to grow in their enjoyment of coffee,” the event became a team effort from the Monarch staff. 

“The coffee tasting lab was the brainchild of barista Caitlin Giles,” Vermilyea said. “[Giles] and our whole team have been brainstorming how to make coffee more approachable to people and help people more deeply enjoy each cup.”

Westbrook was one of the many attendees who looked forward to learning something more about a drink they love.

“My friend Mackenzie instigated it by asking if I would like to come with her, because obviously coming to these things alone is not super fun,” Westbrook said. “We both love coffee and Monarch. I think what piqued my interest was not only the connection to Monarch, but that it would give me an opportunity to learn about my palette. I really love to cook and bake, so I feel like it’s honestly something I’m attentive of but never really purposefully learned about it in a class like this.”

Over the course of the class, Giles introduced a variety of foods and had the attendees evaluate the different flavors they picked up on as they tried each item. Participants ate baked apples, honey, a spoonful of nutmeg, dark chocolate, nectarines and lemons, among other things, all in a particular order that allowed them to compare the sweetness, sourness or bitterness of each item. 

“Taste is innate, but flavor is learned,” Giles said.

Between tastings, everyone cleaned their palette with sparkling water while sharing their reactions to each flavor. At one point, Giles had everyone try a spoonful of olive oil. There was a slight hesitancy from some, while others just went for it. 

“I was pretty excited to taste the olive oil, because obviously you don’t usually just take a big spoonful of that stuff,” Westbrook said. “It’s important to realize that there is a taste behind it, since we always just use it in things, but it really does have it’s own flavor.”

The purpose of these exercises was to train participants in picking up notes in different food items, and then using that skill and applying it to the coffee tasting later on.

Before getting to the coffee, there was one last liquid beast to tackle: an entire espresso glass filled with cream. 

“The cream was interesting,” Westbrook said. “I stopped drinking dairy, so this was like the first thing I’ve had since. I just did it for the sake of it, and it was really different. I had never gotten those super sweet notes from it before, and I think not drinking it made that resonate more.”

It was experiences like these that Giles was hoping for. Finally, when it was time for the coffee sampling, Giles anticipated that her students would now go into it with a broader vocabulary and knowledge base surrounding flavor.

Giles’s vision was fulfilled when Westbrook could barely recognize her favorite brew.

“This is actually my go-to drink here at Monarch, which is funny, but now I taste things more than I used to,” Westbrook said. 

Vermilyea hopes to do this event regularly, as she understands the important role that coffee plays in people’s lives. 

“We all need fuel for our endeavors,” Vermilyea said. “Coffee shops house long hours of studying, but more importantly, they are places of connection. They are places to brush shoulders with people you wouldn’t regularly or to have conversations that move your dreams forward.”

Westbrook, among other people who attended the class, agreed that it is something they would absolutely do again. Tickets for this event were sold via EventBrite and cost $22 per person. 

For more information, visit Monarch Espresso Bar on Facebook.