Intelligentsia, Jackson Boulevard

The remains of a shot of Intelligentsia's Black Cat espresso, as seen from above. A five-pointed red star can just be seen at the bottom of the cup, a classic white espresso cup with a big handle.If I was still running the Where It All Began Coffee Spot Award, then the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, Intelligentsia’s branch in the Monadnock Building, on Jackson Boulevard, right in the heart of downtown Chicago, would be a shoe-in. It’s the second-ever Intelligentsia, a Chicago coffee roaster which now boasts six coffee shops in that city, plus three in Los Angeles and the High Line Hotel in New York City.

I think the Jackson Boulevard branch opened in 2002, but it was certainly there when I first visited Chicago in 2003. It’s quite possibly the first speciality coffee shop I ever visited, although back then I had no idea that speciality coffee shops existed. All I knew was that Intelligentsia served exceptionally good coffee.

Since then, I’ve become a regular visitor, regular in that I pop in whenever I’m in downtown Chicago. My latest visits came as part of my coast-to-coast trip across the USA last year, when I called into Intelligentsia twice, once when I arrived in Chicago and again, two days later, when I left. I’m pleased to say that it looks and feels very much how I remember it from that first visit all those years ago in 2003…

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • Intelligentsia, in the Loop, downtown Chicago, on Jackson Boulevard.
  • Intelligentsia occupies the right-hand side of the ground floor of the Monadnock Building...
  • ... although it extends a fair way back along Federal Street too.
  • There's also an entrance here, handy if you happen to be coming up Federal Street!
  • The Monadnock Building itself is worth a second look.
  • It might be small by modern-day standards (a mere 17 storeys), but it still soars above you.
  • It might not look like much now, but it's the world's tallest load-bearing brick building!
  • However, back to Intelligentsia. There's an airlock-style entrance on Jackson Boulevard...
  • ... which leads you into the main seating area, with the counter at the back.
  • There are two other entrances: a single door on Federal Street...
  • ... and the door I've never used, which leads in from the building's lobby.
  • These two doors are at the back, by the counter, on the left (lobby) and right (Federal St).
  • A view of the seating, as seen from in front of the counter, looking towards Jackson Boulevard. The interior is bright and uncluttered, giving it a spacious feel.
  • The seating is in the form of window-bars to the right of the door...
  • ... and this one, to the left, looking out onto the lobby.
  • Meanwhile, if you like more traditional tables, these six are in the middle of the room.
  • All the tables are marble-topped. I've written many a postcard from here over the years!
  • The right-hand wall only has a small window-bar, the rest being given over to retail.
  • There's coffee, with mugs and flasks below. These are Intelligentsia's single-origins.
  • Then there's merchandising and coffee-making equipment.
  • Finally, there's more coffee: the espressos, single-origins, blends and decaf.
  • As well as a generous helping of windows, Intelligentsia has lots of lights...
  • ... and I do mean lots, although the mirrors on the back wall make it hard to tell how many!
  • A view of counter, mirrors and lights.
  • Talking of the counter, the espresso machine is to the right...
  • ... with a clipboard giving details of the coffee (espresso & filter) plus loose-leaf tea.
  • There are two options on espresso: the Black Cat seasonal blend and a single-origin.
  • There's also something called an Angeleno. No, I didn't try one!
  • If you want something sweet, Intelligentsia has an impressive cake range!
  • These were all very tempting...
  • ... and this, the creme fraiche tea cake, almost had me...
  • ... before I decided on the aptly-named morning bun.
  • Here it is, freed from its glass prison.
  • On my first visit (of 2015) it was espresso all the way.
  • I had a shot of the Black Cat...
  • ... while Jeff, from Asado, had a cortado.
  • I usually have a shot of Black Cat, by the way. This is from 2009...
  • ... while this is from 2010.
  • In 2011 (my last visit before 2015), the cups had been replaced by  ones with big handles...
  • ... although the little Intelligentsia star was still there at the bottom.
  • Back to 2015: on my return two days later, my friend Marc & I focused on filter coffee.
  • We ordered a Chemex, seen here on the right.
  • First, we need to let the coffee bloom.
  • While my Chemex is busily degassing, a V60 is prepared next door.
  • This too is set to bloom and its timer is started.
  • Meanwhile, my Chemex is still degassing.
  • Both are left to bloom.
  • Time to top up my Chemex...
  • There's single pour to get the correct amount of water in.
  • Then it's time to do the same with the V60.
  • My Chemex, busily filtering away.
  • We also ordered this, a Solo filter.
  • It lives inside a zip-up thermal jacket, designed to keep it warm while it brews.
  • Then, once it's finished (typically about a four-minute brew time, like a cafetiere)...
  • ... it's poured into a carafe through a filter in the Solo's lid.
  • Almost done.
  • The coffee is then poured from the carafe into a pre-warmed mug...
  • ... and the remainder is poured into a smaller, pre-warmed carafe...
  • ... which is then served on a wooden tray.
  • And here's the Chemex.
  • Our coffee eyes up the counter, casting a suspicious glance at the espresso machine.
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Intelligentsia occupies a corner on the ground floor of the hulking Monadnock Building on Jackson Boulevard and Federal Street. The building itself is worth a second look: built in 1891, it was an early skyscraper, once the largest office building in the world, and, to this day, still the tallest load-bearing brick building ever constructed, representing the pinnacle of a technology that was quickly surpassed by the steel-framed skyscrapers that now dominate cities around the world.

Intelligentsia modelled its second branch on an Italian espresso bar, with a marble-tiled floor and marble-topped tables. A simple rectangle, the main entrance, an airlock-style arrangement, is on Jackson Boulevard. There are two further entrances at the back, just in front on the counter, which runs the width of Intelligentsia. One, to the right, opens directly onto Federal Street, while to the left, another door leads from the lobby of the Monadnock Building.

The seating’s at the front. There’s a window-bar to the right of the Jackson Boulevard entrance, wrapping around to the first window on Federal Street, before giving way to large sets of retail shelving, selling Intelligentsia’s full range of coffee, plus various coffee-making equipment. There’s another window-bar on the left, with an excellent view of the lobby, while six round, three-person tables from two rows of three in the middle of the room. The area in front of the counter is sensibly left free for customers who are ordering/waiting for their coffee.

There’s a generous supply of cakes and pastries to the right, which you pass when entering from Federal Street. Next comes the espresso machine, till and filter area. On my first visit, I had my usual espresso, the Black Cat blend, which I’m particularly fond of (a single-origin is also available). Jeff, from Asado Coffee, had a cortado.

On my return, my friend Marc and I sampled the filter coffee. Unusually, Intelligentsia doesn’t do bulk-brew filter, just hand-pour through V60, Chemex and (a new one to me), Solo, a different single-origin on each one. To avoid queues, individual V60s are made ahead of time on an almost continual basis; Intelligentsia being sufficiently busy that they rarely go to waste!

We ordered a Chemex (La Tortuga, Honduras) and a Solo (Matalapa, El Salvador). The Solo consists of a thermally-insulated jacket around a thick, glass flask. Coffee’s put in the flask, water’s added and the coffee allowed to bloom for a minute, then the remaining water’s added. Once brewed, the coffee’s poured through a filter in the stopper at the top. It’s a similar to the cafetiere, but, according to my barista, cleaner and more consistent.

Intelligentsia also knows how to serve its coffee: half is poured into a pre-heated mug, the remainder placed in a small, pre-heated glass carafe, all then presented on a wooden tray. The Matalapa (Solo) was a good, smooth, well-balanced cup of coffee, while the La Tortuga (Chemex) was similar. While I could tell it was different, in a blind tasting, I’d have struggled to tell which was which (that’s down to my palette, not the coffee!).

I paired these with the aptly-named morning bun, a delightful concoction of light pastry dough, topped with crunchy sugar. It made for a good start to my day, not being too sweet, but substantial enough to get my teeth into.

Monday 06:00 – 18:00 Roaster Intelligentsia (espresso + filter)
Tuesday 06:00 – 18:00 Seating Tables, Bars
Wednesday 06:00 – 18:00 Food Cake
Thursday 06:00 – 18:00 Service Counter
Friday 06:00 – 18:00 Payment Cards + Cash
Saturday 08:00 – 16:00 Wifi Free
Sunday CLOSED Power Limited
Chain Yes Visits 8th, 10th June 2015
11th September 2017

You can see what I made of the other Intelligentsia locations that I’ve visited.

If you liked this Coffee Spot, then check out the rest of Chicago’s speciality coffee scene with the Coffee Spot Guide to Chicago.

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