When it comes to railways, I have a romantic streak a mile wide. However, railway coffee and station coffee shops, with the notable exception of the likes of Coffee Affair, can sometimes be disappointing. Step forward Porter, a relatively new addition to Madison’s speciality coffee scene, located in the city’s old railway station. The (passenger) trains may have long gone, but Porter has recreated the atmosphere quite nicely, especially outside, where you can sit on the old platform.
Serving Counter Culture from North Carolina, Porter has the Hologram espresso blend, plus different single-origins on guest espresso, pour-over, bulk-brew (drip) and on tap (cold brew). The coffee menu comes in two parts, a more mass-market-based left-hand side with lattes and drip coffee offered in sizes of 8/12/16oz, and a more speciality-orientated right-hand side with cortados and flat whites.
Porter also offers a range of made-to-order and pre-made sandwiches, plus other breakfast and lunch options. There’s the usual selection of beans and coffee equipment for sale, but, unusually, they’re joined by items you’re more like to find in a delicatessen or grocers: tinned tomatoes, sardines, cured meats, cheese and a select range of spirits were just some of the things I noticed.
Having recently celebrated its sixth birthday, Johnson Public House is something of a stalwart of Madison’s small, but growing, speciality coffee scene. Located just north-east of the Square, the spiritual and literal centre of Madison, it’s definitely worth the short stroll along the isthmus required to reach it.
Set on the ground floor of a three-storey, brick-built building dating from 1923, Johnson Public House (which, despite sounding like a pub to British ears, is definitely a coffee house) is a large, open space, with plenty of seating and a generous counter at the back. You can also sit outside by the (relatively) busy road at one of three large picnic tables.
Johnson Public House is a family-run business which started life a multi-roaster, with the likes of Intelligentsia as a mainstay. However, about a year ago, Johnson Public House set up a roasting arm, Kin-Kin, which now supplies the bulk of the coffee, although you will also find one or two guests in there as well. There are two options on espresso and four single-origins on pour-over, using V60, Chemex and cafetiere. If you are hungry, there’s a select breakfast and lunch menu, featuring sandwiches and the like, plus cake.
When arriving in a new city, one of the first things I do, on finding a good coffee shop, is ask where else is good. When I tried this in Madison in July, one place got consistent recommendations, particularly from 5th Element Coffee. That was Bradbury’s Coffee, which, for the last five years, has been serving coffee from a variety of roasters from its home, a block from Madison’s Capitol Building in the heart of the city.
It’s an interesting space, at the tip of an interesting building. Triangular, with the counter at the back and the seating in the centre as well as around the edges, Bradbury’s has windows all around, with the exception of the back wall. These reach all the way to the unfeasibly high ceiling, the coffee shop effectively occupying a double-height space.
Although there’s a bespoke house-blend from Kickapoo Coffee, Bradbury’s employs a rotating array of guest roasters through espresso, pour-over (Kalita Wave) and bulk-brew. There’s also a cafetiere option. All the coffee, along with other offerings from the featured roasters, is for sale. Finally, there’s a range of sweet and savoury crepes, freshly made to order on a pair of griddles behind the counter.
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.
August 2017: I’ve heard the sad news that 5th Element has unexpectedly had to close. Coffee shops come and go, but I’ve not been this disappointed to learn of a coffee shsop closure in a long time. On the plus side, at least I had a chance to visit while it was still open. Hopefully Todd and 5th Element will be back in some form, so watch this space!