5th Element Coffee

An espresso, plus a glass of sparkling water, beautifully presented at 5th Element Coffee in Madison.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 shop 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!

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • On a bright, south-facing spot on Madison's University Avenue, is 5th Element Coffee.
  • The coffee shop occupies a corner unit, glass on two sides...
  • ... while off to the right is an outdoor seating area with a handful of shaded tables.
  • The front of 5th Element faces onto the street, with the door on the right.
  • Inside, there's a large, open space...
  • ... with a four-person window-bar to the left of the door...
  • ... and a set of retail shelves inset into the left-hand wall.
  • Next comes the counter on the left-hand side...
  • ... while on the right, 5th Element extends beyond the counter.
  • Opposite the counter, you'll find a takeaway station...
  • ... and, through the windows, there's the outside seating area...
  • ... which is accessible through a door a little further back.
  • The bulk of the (indoor) seating is at the back, starting at the end of the counter...
  • ... where you'll find this six-seater table on the right, with an interesting display.
  • The 5th Element, by the way, is the human element, in this case, coffee farmers.
  • There's more seating beyond this, all in the shape of large tables.
  • The view back towards the front of 5th Element.
  • After the six-seater table on the right, there's a three-seat table...
  • ... seen here in more detail. You can also see why it's three and not four seats!
  • There's more seating in the centre and on the left at the back...
  • ... including this four-seater in the centre, which is two three-seaters put together.
  • Finally, there's another six-seater off in the corner to the right.
  • The 5th Element is very much a community hub, with notice boards...
  • ... and areas where customers can leave messages.
  • This is typical of some of the messages I saw.
  • This was also a common slogan that I saw in several Madison coffee shops.
  • 5th Element's branding was also fairly prevalent.
  • It's a neat logo, don't you think?
  • The back of 5th Element is decorated wtih these photographs...
  • ... which adorn two of the walls. They're all taken by architecture, Todd Barnett.
  • There's also a solitary painting on the wall by the counter.
  • Music is well catered for at 5th Element, with a turnstyle and a stack of records.
  • There's a big contrast in lighting from the front, where bare bulbs hang in the window...
  • ... to the back, where they line up above the counter.
  • Talking of which, the counter is a large, uncluttered affair on the left-hand side.
  • There's food in the shape of waffles and panini, all prepared on-site...
  • ... in this large kitchen area behind the counter towards the back.
  • If that doesn't take your fancy, there are also cakes, buns and doughnuts every day.
  • There's a printed (and concise) coffee menu...
  • ... with the choice of beans written up on a whiteboard on the wall behind the till.
  • The counter starts with the cake and the till...
  • ... while on the wall behind them are the cold-brew aparatus and the bulk-brew.
  • At the other end of the counter is the ubiquitous EK-43 grinder for the filter options...
  • ... while a set of kettles stand ready to be called into action.
  • Between the two stands an array of filter options: Chemex, V60, Kalita Wave, Aeropress.
  • There's also a neat display showing different levels of roast.
  • Me, trying to get arty with the pour-over kit.
  • The middle of the counter is given over to a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle & its grinder...
  • ... which produced this, an espresso, made with a Finca Esparanza from El Salvador.
  • I loved the presentation, the coffee served on a tray, glass of sparkling water on the side.
  • I followed this with the same coffee, the Finca Esparanza, as a V60.
  • The folllowing morning I was back to try the Finca Esparanza as a cappuccino...
  • ... which, since it was morning, I paired with a very excellent morning bun.
  • I followed this up with another V60, this time of a Kenyan, roasted locally by JBC.
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5th Element Coffee has an all-glass front, with windows down the first third of the right-hand side, so the front’s flooded with sunlight, while the rear makes do with borrowed natural light, supplemented by a smattering of lights hanging from the ceiling, giving it a subdued atmosphere. This is reinforced by the décor: concrete floors, black-painted breeze-block walls and, other than a riveted metal ceiling over counter, open to the black-painted air-conditioning pipes. This high ceiling gives 5th Element an immense sense of space, helped by the decision not to cram too much furniture in.

The door’s slightly recessed on the right, a four-person bar occupying the entire window to the left. To the right, there’s a takeaway station between two concrete pillars, then a door to the outdoor seating area, consisting of a handful of well-shaded tables by the windows on the right-hand side. A huge counter runs lengthways against the left-hand wall. It extends about half-way back, but such is 5th Element’s size, it really doesn’t dominate. Everything has plenty of space, including the Victoria Arduino Black Eagle espresso machine and the pour-over bar. There’s cold brew and the obligatory bulk-brewers (only available until 10 am) behind the counter at the front, while at the back, there’s ample space for food preparation.

Window-bar aside, the seating’s at the back, with five large communal tables and two smaller ones. The first of these, a six-person table against the right-hand wall, follows immediately on after the windows. There’s a three-person table next to another concrete pillar, with a second six-person table towards the back. Finally, in the corner itself, is a pinball machine, with a television high up on the wall.

5th Element opens out on the left beyond the counter, with another six-person table against the left-hand wall and a three-person table in the back-left corner. Another six-person table projects lengthways from the back wall, which isn’t quite square on, making the table at a slight angle. Finally, a four-seater table, sits right in the middle, angled at 45 degrees.

5th Element only serves single-origins, with two options on espresso, both roasted by 4 Monkeys in El Salvador. While I was there, these were a Finca Esparanza and a Santa Rosa, also available on pour-over (Chemex, V60, Kalita Wave or Aeropress), along with two more from El Salvador. To balance things out, 5th Element carries single-origins from local roaster JBC on pour-over (Rwandan, Ethiopian and Costa Rican during my visit), one of which is also on batch-brew. A new coffee is available every month or so.

I had the Finca Esparanza as both espresso and V60 pour-over. As an espresso, it was really rich and juicy, with an all-round mouthfeel, while the V60 was initially a little hot, but as it cooled, it came into its own. The same juiciness was there, but with a much mellower taste. It more than held its own, tasting just as good, if not better, at the bottom of the cup.

The following morning, I returned to try the Finca Esparanza as a cappuccino. As good as it had been as an espresso, this was better, with an amazing, rich, sweet, caramel taste, helped by some awesome organic milk from a Wisconsin farm. I paired this with a morning bun, which was served warm and had a gorgeous, rich pastry and a cinnamon sugar topping, but was neither sickly nor overly sweet.

Finally, on Todd’s recommendation, I had a Kenyan from JBC (which wasn’t on the menu) as a V60, another rich, juicy, coffee, but quite different in character from the El Salvador.

www.5thelementcoffee.com +1 608-283-9228
Monday 06:30 – 19:30 Roaster 4 Monkeys (espresso + filter), JBC (filter)
Tuesday 06:30 – 19:30 Seating Tables, Window-Bar; Tables (outside)
Wednesday 06:30 – 19:30 Food Panini, Waffles, Cake
Thursday 06:30 – 19:30 Service Order at Counter
Friday 06:30 – 19:30 Payment Cards + Cash
Saturday 06:45 – 19:00 Wifi Free (with code)
Sunday 06:45 – 19:00 Power Yes
Chain No Visits 3rd, 4th July 2017

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