Chicago and the Midwest Road Trip, September 2018

My ride for my Midwest road trip around Lakes Michigan and Superior in September 2018. It's a car. A silver one.I flew out to Chicago at the end of August 2018, spending a week in the city before heading out to the suburbs for the Labor Day with my friends. I got in a few Coffee Spots while I was in Chicago, took a stroll around the city and went to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game. However, I was mostly there for work, staying at the Holiday Inn at Chicago Mart Plaza.

The day after Labor Day, I hired the car in the picture and drove up the west shore of Lake Michigan, calling in at friends in Milwaukee, before exploring Door County, northeast of Green Bay. From there, I cut across to Minneapolis to spend the weekend with more friends, before embarking on an 8-day drive.

I went up to Duluth at Lake Superior’s southwestern tip, drove the North Shore as far as Grand Marais, returned to Duluth, then headed east along the south shore of Lake Superior to Marquette. Cutting across to the north shore of Lake Michigan, I crossed over the Mackinac Bridge and down the east short of Lake Michigan to Traverse City. From there, I headed south to Grand Rapids, then around the southern tip of Lake Michigan and back to Chicago, dropping the car off two weeks after I’d picked it up.

In all, I drove a shade over 2,500 miles in 14 days, more enough for a one-way trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. Alternatively, I could have driven to Florida and back! I spent a couple of days chilling out with my friends, then I flew back to London.


Header Image: sunset at Ephraim in Door County, Wisconsin, looking west towards Peninsular State Park and Green Bay.


Travel Spots

You can read about the trip in the following Travel Spot posts.

Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying to Chicago (Again)

My very shiny-looking American Airlines Boeing 787-800 at the gate at Manchester Airport, Terminal 3, waiting to take me to Chicago.This time last year I was preparing for the second of three flights to Chicago, which I took using a different combinations of airlines/routes, writing each up in its own Travel Spot. I’d originally thought that I’d be making the trip quite regularly, maybe four or five time a year, so part of my research was to work out the best airline/route. Assuming that I was starting from my Dad’s, I decided that by far the best option was flying direct from Manchester with American Airlines.

However, circumstances change and this year, I’ve just got the one trip, departing on August 24th and returning four weeks later. So, while my research wasn’t completely wasted, it wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped. As suspected, I found myself flying from Manchester, so I booked my flight out on American, but, to my dismay, discovered that there weren’t any direct flights back, American discontinuing the route in early September. Instead I decided to cut my losses and, rather than returning to Manchester, I’ll be flying direct to Heathrow with British Airways. That, however, is another story, to be covered in its own Travel Spot. Today, I’m focusing on the flight out with American.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying First Class From Chicago

The nose of my British Airways Airbus A380-800 on the stand at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, waiting to fly me back to London.Welcome to the second part of this Travel Spot about my recent trip to Chicago, which included my 2,500 mile road-trip around Lakes Michigan and Superior. Unfortunately, I doubt that I’ll ever have the opportunity to write up that trip, but if you want to know a little more, the trip has its own Travel Spot Page, including links to some Instagram stories and a list of all the Coffee Spots I wrote about.

In all I was away for exactly four weeks. Having flown direct from Manchester to Chicago with American Airlines, the route was promptly discontinued, so I was left to fly back to Heathrow (which suited my plans anyway). I had the choice of several flights, three operated by American Airlines and two by British Airways. Last year I flew Chicago to Heathrow in Club World with British Airways on a Boeing 747, really enjoying the experience. This year, I noticed that British Airways was using my favourite aircraft, the Airbus A380, on one of its flights, so that pretty much made my choice for me. Then, when I came to book, First Class was no different in price to Club World, so I thought, why not?

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Instagram Stories

If you are on Instagram, you can take a look at the following Instagram stories which have some pictures from the trip.


Chicago Coffee Spots

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited in Chicago on this trip (listed alphabetically).

Big Shoulders, Gold Coast

A gorgeous espresso, made with the Big Shoulders house-blend, at the Gold Coast branch.Big Shoulders was not a name I’d really come across until about a year ago, since when it seems to have taken off. Founded nine years ago by Tim Coonan, who I had the pleasure of briefly meeting, Big Shoulders was originally a roaster, with Tim, who had a long career as a chef, roasting coffee in his garage. This grew to a wholesale roasting business and then came the coffee shops, currently standing at five. The Gold Coast branch opened in January, directly opposite Tempo Café, one of my favourite Chicago spots. So it made sense that on my return to the city, I would head first to Tempo for breakfast, then cross the road to try out the coffee at the new kids on the block.

Big Shoulders has its house blend on espresso, with a fairly concise menu, including a cortado and two sizes of cappuccino and latte. There is a choice of two single-origins on filter, either bulk-brew (termed “fast drip” on the menu) or pour-over via the V60 (termed “slow coffee”, which I rather like). There’s the now-obligatory iced and nitro options, plus a selection of tea and a range of cakes if you’re hungry.

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Passion House Coffee Roasters

Passion House Coffee Roasters, as seen from the other side of Kedzie Avenue in Chicago.Passion House Coffee Roasters has been around and roasting coffee in Chicago for the last seven years, but it’s a name that I only discovered this time last year on my previous visit to Chicago, when I had Passion House’s coffee at Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar, the coffee bar in my office building. Then, earlier this year, I found Passion House in, of all places, Spitfire Coffee in New Orleans, literally at the other end (north-south) of the country.

For most of its seven years, Passion House has made its name as a roaster, but in 2017 it opened its one and only coffee shop in Chicago right by Logan Square. Occupying the ground floor of a long, narrow, old, two storey building, it’s a lovely spot, serving the house-blend, decaf and a single-origin on espresso, plus another house-blend on bulk-brew, with two-single origins on pour-over. Unusually for America, Passion House uses the Marco Beverage Systems SP9 in conjunction with the Fellow Stagg pour-over dripper.

There are five loose-leaf teas, which can be had hot, cold or sparkling, while if you’re hungry, there are pastries, with doughnuts at the weekends, plus two quiches, one meat and one vegetarian.

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Road Trip Coffee Spots

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited on my road trip around Lakes Michigan and Superior (listed alphabetically).

BLK \ MRKT

A lovely espresso with milk, served in a glass, at BLK \ MRKT in Traverse City.Traverse City was another of the stops, towards the end of my Midwest road trip, which was determined by the presence of good coffee. There are several options, including Higher Grounds, but BLK \ MRKT was my first stop, a tip-off from The Pour Over Blog, via a Sprudge article. BLK \ MRKT is located inside an old market building, Warehouse MRKT (hence the MRKT part of the name), in Traverse City’s Warehouse District, a block back from the beach.

It’s been open since early 2015, and started roasting in April 2017. Like my previous stop, Velodrome Coffee Co, BLK \ MRKT uses a 1kg gas-powered roaster, although this time, rather than being tucked away in a side room, this is open for all to see in the main space. This produces all of the filter coffee, available as a daily batch-brew option, while the Prospect blend from Parlor Coffee in New York City is the mainstay of the gorgeous Kees van der Westen Spirit espresso machine which takes centre stage on the counter.

If you’re hungry (and I recommend it) there’s also a small range of cakes, pastries and pies, all baked on-site in the enclosed kitchen behind the counter.

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Discourse Coffee

The sign hanging outside Discourse Coffee in Sister Bay, Door County.If you haven’t worked it out already, I’m in America, the Midwest to be precise, taking a long road trip that began in Chicago, with me working my way up the west coast of Lake Michigan, stopping at Kickapoo Coffee in Milwaukee. Today’s Coffee Spot is from Door County, the peninsular that sticks out into the lake north/east of Green Bay. I went there to enjoy the countryside and the lake views, but much like Flagstaff earlier in the year, I found great coffee as well, this time in the shape of Discourse Coffee, which subtitles itself “a liquid workshop”.

Run by the friendly and enthusiastic Ryan since July 2017, Discourse will take you on a journey through coffee. As well as offering a standard(ish) espresso-based menu from the single-group Slayer on the counter, there’s batch-brew and pour-over using the innovative Phoenix 70 dripper from Saint Anthony Industries. However, the fun’s only just starting, since Discourse offers a regularly-changing cast of latte-based drinks with some very interesting flavour combinations. All this is served in a lovely, cosy, basement-like space that you really have to seek out, so the only people who are there are those who really want to be.

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Five Watt, East Hennepin

An espresso, made with the Mic Check blend, on the Modbar at Five Watt, East Hennepin, and served in a classic black cup with an oversized handle.If you’ve been following my Midwest road trip, the Coffee Spot has now reached the Twin Cities (Minneapolis & St Paul) in Minnesota, the westernmost extent of my travels. Here I’m indebted to my friend Jen for a whistle-stop tour of the local coffee scene, which included Five Watt, a local coffee shop/roastery chain, with (soon to be) three branches: the original in Kingfield, this, the second branch in East Hennepin, and a third opening next week in St Paul. The East Hennepin branch is in the Miller Textile building, former home of the Miller Bag Company, which dates to about 1880. Five Watt occupies a self-contained space on the ground floor, which it shares with several other businesses.

When it comes to coffee, Five Watt does all the roasting in a facility near the Kingfield branch. The Mic Check blend is on espresso, where it’s joined by a decaf on the lovely three-group Modbar espresso system. Another blend, The Residency, is on bulk-brew, while there’s also pour-over, which is currently the Headliner blend, available through Chemex or French Press. There’s also cold-brew, available in cans and on draught (nitro or plain), plus cocktails, wine and multiple craft beers on tap.

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Kickapoo Coffee, Milwaukee

An organic Guatemalan Concepcion single-origin espresso from Kickapoo in Milwaukee, served in a classic white espresso cup with an oversized handle.Kickapoo Coffee is another of those Midwest coffee names that I became aware of when I spent some time in Madison last year, particularly from my visits to Bradbury's Coffee. Based in Viroqua, Wisconsin, Kickapoo has been roasting there since 2005, with an emphasis on direct trade. This is its first coffee shop, which opened in 2015, with two more following, one in Viroqua itself and the other in Bayfield, on the shores of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. I’ve always enjoyed Kickapoo’s coffee, so since I was passing through Milwaukee, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Kickapoo occupies a bright, airy spot in the historic Third Ward, down where Milwaukee’s three rivers converge before flowing into Lake Michigan. A bright, airy, open, modern space, it’s somewhat at odds with the neighbourhood’s older roots as a harbour/industrial area, but that doesn’t stop it being a delightful place to enjoy your coffee.  There’s plenty of seating inside and out, plus a simple breakfast menu if you’re hungry. However, the real draw is the coffee, with the Full Spectrum blend joined by a single-origin on espresso, another blend on batch-brew and three single-origins on pour-over through the Kalita Wave.

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Madcap, Monroe Center

The latte art in my cortado, made with the Third Coast blend at Madcap, Monroe Center, Grand Rapids.When it comes to coffee roasters in America’s Midwest, outside of Chicago’s Intelligentsia, the one name I consistently hear (and whose coffee I consistently see) more than any other is Madcap, from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I first came across Madcap in 2014 at Box Kite in New York, and most recently at Miami’s Vice City Bean. Along the way, Madcap’s coffee’s been good enough to get on the shortlists for the Coffee Spot’s Best Filter Award in 2015 and for the 2014 Best Espresso Award. Naturally, when planning my recent Midwest road trip, Grand Rapids was the first place I pencilled in (although it was my last stop of the trip).

Three are three Madcaps in Grand Rapids. This one, on Monroe Center Street, right in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, is where it all began, opening as a coffee shop, with the roastery in the basement, in 2008. Although the roastery left in 2015, moving to a dedicated facility on Fulton Street, the coffee shop remains. A large, open, bright space, there are two espresso options, three on pour-over. Naturally, the entire roastery output is available as retail bags. There’s also a small sweet and savoury food selection.

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Velodrome Coffee Co

The front of Velodrome Coffee Co in Marquette, Michigan.My Midwest road trip was planned primarily around the wonderful landscapes of Lakes Michigan and Superior. However, when planning my route, I did take into account the availability of good coffee, Marquette, on the southern shore of Lake Superior, being a prime example. Located roughly a day’s drive east of my previous stop, Duluth, and big enough to have a decent selection of cheap hotels, what swung it for me was Velodrome Coffee Co, whose presence I was alerted to by an article in Sprudge.

Velodrome is a coffee shop and roastery which opened on 29th August, 2017, occupying a lovely spot on West Washington Street, on the way into downtown. All the coffee’s roasted on-site by a tiny 1 kg gas-fired roaster located in an equally tiny roastery space off to the right of the main area, visible through a hatch in the wall. Velodrome only roasts single-origins, served as espresso-based drinks through a single-group Modbar or as filter via either batch-brew (fast coffee) or Clever Dripper (slow coffee). There’s also a small selection of cakes. If you’re also looking for somewhere to stay, there’s a loft apartment upstairs over the shop and a smaller studio at the back.

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