The contrast between Cartel Coffee Lab’s downtown location and its flagship roastery/coffee shop in Tempe, which I visited the day before, couldn’t be starker. While the former’s a large, sprawling set of interconnected spaces, downtown is in an alcove off the lobby of 1 North 1st Street. It’s a very pleasant alcove, and, as alcoves go, it’s spacious enough, but it’s an alcove nonetheless. You can sit at the window-bar, out in the (echo-chamber like) lobby, or on the street at another window-bar.
Despite any perceived shortcomings in size, Cartel doesn’t compromise on the coffee, with the same full offering that’s out in Tempe. There are six single-origins, including decaf, all are available through Aeropress, V60, Clever Dripper or Chemex. Meanwhile, one (plus decaf) is available as espresso. There’s also bulk-brew filter and cold brew, a small tea selection, plus cakes and prepared salads in the fridge opposite the counter.
Once again, I find myself following in the footsteps of Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato. Saint Frank Coffee, in San Francisco’s Russian Hill area, was the very last stop of my final day-trip to San Francisco, part of my epic four-corners trip around America at the start of the year. It had been a good day, starting with a visit to Four Barrel in the Mission and ending at Saint Frank, both recommendations from Bex.
Founded in 2013, Saint Frank’s a relative newcomer to the scene. This is its flagship store, with two other outlets, one on the Facebook campus (sadly, employees only) and a new venture, called St Clare Coffee, in the Mission. Saint Frank roasts all its own coffee (sadly off-site), working directly with a small number of coffee farmers around the world.
There are three options on espresso (house-blend, a single-origin and a decaf) through a bespoke, under-the-counter espresso machine. There are three more options on pour-over (all single-origins, one of which is a decaf) using the Marco Beverage Systems SP9. Finally, there are two further single-origins, one on bulk-brew and one available as an iced coffee. If you’re hungry, there’s a small but tasty cake range.
While the history of speciality coffee shops in barbershops is surprisingly short, it has a strong pedigree. Sharps Coffee Bar in London and Brooklyn’s Parlor Coffee (sadly now closed) spring to mind. Now you can add Madison’s Ritual Barbers, serving coffee from local roasters, Kin-Kin, to the list.
A barbershop on one side, coffee bar on the other, Ritual occupies an almost symmetrical space, with a central, recessed door, flanked by massive picture windows. Barbershop and coffee bar get a window each: Ritual (right), coffee bar (left). Inside, the split continues: a row of five barber’s chairs, each with its own mirror, on the right, while a handsome, wooden counter on the left is the aforementioned coffee bar.
The symmetry’s broken at the back. While the barber’s chairs continue, before giving way to sinks, beyond the counter on the left a pair of large windows flank another door. These overlook an enclosed, old-fashioned mall-like area. You can sit at the counter, at a window-bar beyond that, or in one of two comfy chairs in the far corner. Alternatively, a long, back-to-back padded couch runs lengthways down the room’s centre, while there’s even a fitted wooden bench in the front window.
I popped over to Madison for a week of visiting friends, not necessarily expecting to find great coffee. However, serendipity had other ideas. Rather than hang out in my friend’s house while she was at work, I decided to come into the office with her and then find a coffee shop for the day. And it just so happens that two blocks from the office is the totally awesome 5th Element Coffee.
5th Element was established in 2015 by Alejandro Mendez, the 2011 World Barista Champion, along with Todd Allbaugh, who I was fortunate enough to meet. Serving only single-origin coffee, 5th Element’s main claim to fame is its close ties with coffee farmers in El Salvador, where Alejandro sources and roasts the coffee at 4 Monkeys Coffee Roasters. The coffee is then flown over to Madison every couple of weeks.
5th Element occupies a corner unit on the north side of University Avenue, west of downtown Madison. A large, open, uncluttered space, there’s plenty of seating at numerous communal tables at the back, plus a small outdoor seating area set back from the road to the right. If you’re hungry, there’s a small range of panini, waffles and cakes.
I’ve always liked La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based chain, ever since visiting the amazing Dilworth Plaza branch near Philadelphia’s City Hall. I’ve now visited a number of branches, and, other than the coffee, they all have one thing in common: they occupy amazing physical spaces. This is something that La Colombe shares with the UK’s Boston Tea Party: taking iconic buildings and turning them into amazing coffee shops. Like the Boston Tea Party, La Colombe manages the trick of making each branch simultaneously its own place and yet obviously a La Colombe.
In this respect, the Wicker Park branch, one of four (soon to be five) in Chicago, is no different. Almost directly underneath the elevated Blue Line, which thunders above Milwaukee Avenue, La Colombe is opposite Damen station, occupying a large, rectangular building with a glass front, high ceilings and exposed brick walls. Add in windows at the back and it’s a wonderfully light and airy space.
There’s all the usual La Colombe goodness, with multiple choices on espresso, bulk-brew and pour-over. All the coffee is roasted in-house, in a facility a few blocks from the coffee shop which supplies all La Colombe’s Mid-west outlets. There’s also loose-leaf tea and a range of cakes/pastries.
I feel a little bad about taking so long to write up Buzz Killer Espresso, since it was the first place I visited in Chicago when I was there last October as part of my around the world trip. However, given that I’m sort of back in Chicago (I’m actually in Madison all week), it seems the perfect opportunity to rectify this.
Buzz Killer is just off Milwaukee Avenue to the northwest of Chicago’s centre, in the area known as Wicker Park, one of the longer-standing members of a cluster of great coffee shops which includes Ipsento 606, La Colombe and Wormhole Coffee. Buzz Killer roasts all its own coffee, with a house-blend on espresso, plus a blend and a three seasonal single-origins on V60. There’s also decaf, while the bulk-brewer, that staple of the American coffee shop, is mercifully absent.
Buzz Killer occupies an interesting spot, offering a small, sheltered outside seating area and two contrasting floors. Downstairs (which is ironically up a flight of stairs from the street) is full of little tables, tucked away in corners, while upstairs is bright and open, filled with light and with a simple row of tables, plus a large, communal table.
It’s a sign of how much I’m travelling and how many great coffee shops there are around the world that today’s bonus Coffee Spot is from one of last year’s trips, when I spent a day dashing around Washington DC in the rain. Chinatown Coffee Co is one of the capital’s stalwarts, having first opened its doors in 2009. Long and thin, it’s a cross between a corridor and a basement, a little reminiscent of the Dupont Circle branch of Filter Coffeehouse, which was my first ever speciality coffee experience in DC.
Chinatown’s stock-in-trade is the Black Cat espresso blend from Chicago-based, Intelligentsia. This is joined by a decaf espresso and four single-origins, available as V60, cafetiere or syphon, with two of them on the obligatory bulk-brew. Here Intelligentsia is joined by Portland’s Heart Coffee Roasters, with a new coffee appearing on the menu every two weeks. You can also buy a range of the beans to take home with you. Finally, there’s a selection of organic tea if you don’t fancy coffee.
If you’re hungry, there’s a range of pastries and cakes, plus a small selection of chocolate. On the savory side, there are sandwiches from Broodje & Bier.
When I was staying with my friends in San Jose in California earlier this year, there was good coffee to be found, but you had to know where to look. Other than a couple of options in downtown San Jose itself, everything else is spread out in the surrounding suburbs and not that easy to get to without a car. An exception to this is Barefoot Coffee in Campbell, four miles to the southwest of downtown San Jose and conveniently located a 10-minute walk from the Hamilton stop on the excellent light rail system.
Barefoot Coffee Roasters is based in nearby Santa Clara and this is, so far, its only coffee shop. It’s a small, plain, modern building serving anything but plain coffee. There’s one option on espresso, plus decaf, with a choice of three beans on pour-over through the Kalita Wave, one of which is available as bulk-brew (but only in the morning). The choices change every couple of days: whenever what’s on runs out, the baristas switch over to the something else.
If you don’t fancy coffee, there’s a small selection of tea, while if you’re hungry, there’s a range of pastries and other sweet snacks.
Sextant Coffee Roasters is a relatively new name in the San Francisco speciality coffee scene, but fits perfectly into the model established by the likes of Four Barrel Coffee and Sightglass Coffee. Like them, it’s a coffee shop/roaster, roasting on the premises on a vintage cast-iron roaster and occupying an old, warehouse-like building with high ceilings, skylights, exposed rafters and bare brick walls. It’s also roughly halfway between the two, sitting on Folsom Street between the Mission (Four Barrel) and SOMA (Sightglass), just a block from the Wrecking Ball roastery.
When it comes to coffee, Sextant specialises in Ethiopian coffees, the owner, Kinani Ahmed, hailing from Ethiopian. However, it also occasionally roasts some Central and South American coffees, aiming to roast light and extract the maximum sweetness from the coffee. The house-blend, Maiden Voyage, is always on espresso, while there are two single-origins on pour-over, using the Kalita Wave filter, and another on bulk-brew, all changing on a weekly-basis. If you fancy tea, then there’s a selection of loose-leaf teas brewed using the Silverton drippers (which I’ve only seen at La Colombe, where they were being used for coffee). If you’re hungry, there’s the usual range of pastries and cookies.
Four Barrel Coffee, founded in 2008, is one of the big names of San Francisco speciality coffee. Now a chain of three shops (one of which is a bakery) as well as a roaster, this branch, in the Mission, is the original. It was also, for a while, the main roastery as well. These days, roasting takes place at a dedicated facility in Oakland, but the old roaster is still there at the back of the store. In fact, the space is neatly split in two, with the coffee shop in the front, and the old roastery, now used for storage, training and cuppings, at the back.
Four Barrel is unusual in that it has two counters. The main one is in the middle of the store, offering the Friendo Blendo seasonal house-blend on espresso, along with decaf, plus a rapidly-changing single-origin on bulk-brew. There is also a wide selection of cake on offer if you are hungry. Alternatively, to the left of the door, is the “slow bar”. This offers five single-origins on pour-over and another on espresso. The slow bar has limited hours, only opening from eight until three in the week and until six at the weekends.