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.

The flights to and from Chicago are covered in the Travel Spots below, while you can also read about the Coffee Spots I visited in Chicago, and those I visited on the road trip.


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.

Continue reading...

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?

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

Buzz Coffee Roaster & Baker

A lovely shot of espresso in an old Buzz Killer Espresso cup, made with the NCK blend at Buzz Coffee & Baker.Buzz Killer Espresso was the first place I visited on my returning to Chicago as part of my around the world trip in 2016. A lovely coffee shop/roaster just off North Milwaukee Avenue, it was set back from the street and spread over two floors, a delightful spot with excellent coffee and awesome staff. I was particularly disappointed when I learnt of its closure this time last year. However, all was not lost since Buzz Killer was moving, with a slight change of name, to new premises further up Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. Naturally on my return this year I hopped on the Blue Line and went straight there.

Buzz Coffee Roaster & Baker is very different from its predecessor in terms of look and feel. Spread over a much larger single floor, the outside seating is gone and there’s a main entrance on Milwaukee and a second entrance at the back on Diversey.  The coffee offering’s very similar though, with Buzz still roasting all its own coffee. There’s a house-blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, plus a blend and three seasonal single-origins on V60, while the bulk-brewer, that staple of the American coffee shop, is mercifully absent.

Continue reading...

Gaslight Coffee Roasters

A Burundi single-origin espresso, served in a classic white cup at Gaslight Coffee Roasters in Chicago.One of the more famous names in Chicago’s independent coffee scene, I can’t say exactly when or where I first heard of Gaslight Coffee Roasters, but it’s a name that keeps coming up when people talk about places to visit. Like so much of Chicago’s speciality coffee, it’s on North Milwaukee Avenue between the Blue Line stops of Logan Square and California, the trains thundering close by Gaslight on the elevated section before disappearing underground at Logan Square. In terms of other speciality coffee shops, it neatly fills the gap between the cluster to the northwest (Logan Square), featuring the likes of Passion House Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia, and the cluster to the southeast, starting with Ipsento/ Ipsento 606.

Roaster, retailer and coffee shop all-in-one, Gaslight is rare in American speciality coffee circles in that it also has a full kitchen, serving five or six seasonal dishes until three o’clock each afternoon. This is supplemented by a day-long selection of cakes and pastries. Roasting takes place three times a week in a separate room to the rear of the store. A small selection of single-origins is produced, which is rotated through espresso/batch-brew, with two single-origins on espresso and one on batch-brew.

Continue reading...

Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar, River North Point

A lovely Verve espresso in a classic white cup, pulled at Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar in River North Point, Chicago.Good coffee in offices is something of a rarity, the odd exception such as Store Street Espresso in Sheldon Square notwithstanding. Therefore imagine my surprise on turning up at my office for the week and discovering, in the lobby, not a run-off-the-mill coffee bar, but a genuine multi-roaster in the shape of the Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar. Best of all? The building’s open to the public, so anyone can walk in for some great coffee.

Infuse has a blend and decaf on espresso, plus two options on bulk-brew, using different roasters from all over the country. Cold brew and iced tea are on tap, plus there’s normal tea, matcha and chai lattes and a range of food from local suppliers. Even better, if you are planning on staying for a bit, Infuse will serve your coffee in a proper cup, while the lobby has seating plus free Wifi.

January 2019: Infuse now uses Passion House Coffee Roasters on both espresso and batch-brew.

Continue reading...

Intelligentsia, Logan Square

A batch-brew of an El Salvador single-origin, served in a carafe with a mug on the side, plus a lovely, honey-glazed doughnut, at Intelligentsia, Logan Square.Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based roaster/coffee shop chain with six branches in the city and others in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Some of my earliest speciality coffee experiences came in its branch in the Monadnock Building on Jackson Boulevard and, in many ways, it wouldn’t be a visit to Chicago without at least one coffee from Intelligentsia. Since I’ve been confined to my hotel on my current trip by the freezing temperatures (down to -30°C, so cold that even the coffee bar in the lobby was closed), I thought I would take us back to warmer times, when I popped into Intelligentsia’s Logan Square branch on my previous visit to Chicago in August last year.

There’s the usual Intelligentsia offering, with a choice on espresso: the classic Black Cat blend, a seasonal single-origin and decaf, plus another single-origin on pour-over and a third through batch-brew. Unusually for speciality coffee, the pour-over is priced to reflect the extra effort required, coming in at twice the price of the batch-brew. If you don’t fancy coffee, there’s a good tea selection, plus, if you’re hungry, there’s a range of cakes and doughnuts.

Continue reading...

Mojo, 200 South Wacker

The Mojo logo from the wall of its first Chicago branch, 200 South Wacker.Mojo, the New Zealand-based roaster/coffee shop chain, was founded in 2003 and now has 33 branches. Since 2017, it’s had a small foothold in Chicago, starting with today’s Coffee Spot, it’s first Chicagoland location, 200 South Wacker. Since then, it’s added a second branch a few blocks away on West Jackson, with another in River North on the way.

I visited Mojo last summer, at the start of my Midwest Road Trip. I pride myself on being reasonably on top of Chicago’s growing speciality coffee scene, but I must confess that I was clueless about Mojo until I walked in to see the Synesso espresso machine and Steampunk brewers. That I found it was entirely down to Tony Gebely, a fellow author, who is writing The Philosophy of Tea, a companion book for The Philosophy of Coffee, to be published by the British Library in September.

Mojo has a house-blend on espresso for milk-based drinks and a single-origin for espressos/americanos, with another on filter and two options on batch-brew, all roasted for Mojo in the West Loop. Showing its Kiwi roots, Mojo is as much as about food as it is coffee, the extensive brunch menu available until three o’clock.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

Tempo Café

Tempo Cafe in Chicago's Near North neighbourhood.When I used to stay in downtown Chicago, my hotel was just around the corner from Tempo Café, an amazing 24-hour diner in Chicago’s Gold Coast (I say “used to stay”: it was all of three times!). However, I loved the place and made sure I visited for breakfast at least twice on each trip. Therefore, when I was back in Chicago as part of my coast-to-coast extravaganza last year, and unexpectedly found myself north of the river, I made a beeline to Tempo for a late brunch.

Tempo, along with Boston’s Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, is one of my favourite American diners, although compared to Charlie’s, it’s a very different place, slightly more upmarket in layout and feel, but still great value for money. All the usual diner staples are there, but you can also get full meals and everything is available 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Comfort food at its best!

Continue reading...

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 friend of the Coffee Spot, The Pour Over, 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.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

Madcap, Downtown Market

The Madcap Coffee sign, with its distinctive lightning bolt symbol, hanging from the roof at Grand Rapids' Downtown Market.Madcap Coffee is, other than Chicago’s Intelligentsia, the one name in Midwest coffee that I hear (and see) on a consistent basis around the US. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which I visited on last year’s Midwest road trip specifically to see Madcap and visit its three locations: Monroe Center, where it all began, the new roastery and coffee shop on Fulton Street, and the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, Madcap’s coffee bar in Downtown Market.

All three locations have the same basic menu, with two options on espresso and multiple pour-over options, although the choice of beans varies. For Downtown Market, this means that the Third Coast blend, along with decaf, are ever-present on espresso, joined by a second option which changes once or twice a week. For coffee equipment geeks, the shots are pulled on a Modbar system, with Modbar pour-over modules dispensing filter coffee through the Kalita Wave.

Continue reading...

Madcap, Fulton

An exclusive naturally-occurring varietal from El Salvador, served as an espresso in a snifter glass at Madcap, Fulton in Grand Rapids.Today’s Coffee Spot celebrates the publication of Sprudge’s A Coffee Drinker’s Guide to Grand Rapids, written by friend of the Coffee Spot, The Pourover. Taking you back to a glorious, sunny, hot (29°C) Sunday last September, the day I visited Grand Rapids on my Midwest Road Trip, let me present my own modest contribution, Madcap’s Fulton Street branch, attached to its roastery in suburban eastern Grand Rapids.

The roastery moved here from the basement of the original Monroe Center location in 2015, with the coffee shop opening in March 2018. Occupying an old garage set back from the street, there’s a broad forecourt, with seating out front. The roastery and training room, open by appointment only, is to the left, while the standalone coffee shop is to right.

A smaller, more relaxed operation than the flagship store downtown, the coffee offering’s similar, with two options on espresso (a blend and single-origin), four on pour-over (one blend, three single-origins) and four on batch-brew (six at the weekend). Various drinks are on tap, including nitro and cold brew, plus there’s tea and seasonal drinks. Naturally, the entire output is available in retail bags, with a small selection of cake if you’re hungry.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

Uncommon Grounds Specialty Roaster

The red 15kg Toure roaster from Spain, the heart of the operation at Uncommon Grounds Specialty Roaster.On my recent Midwest road trip, I planned most of my stops around where I might find good coffee. Appleton, in eastern Wisconsin, near Lake Winnebago and half-an-hour southwest of Green Bay, is one such example. Not top of my list of places to visit, it was a cheap base from which to explore Door County, with the added attraction of Uncommon Grounds Specialty Roaster.

Tucked away at the end of small row of industrial buildings at the west end of town, Uncommon Grounds is not the sort of place you’d accidentally wander by, but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area. First and foremost a roaster, the front part of the store is a spacious, relaxed coffee shop (similar to Rave Coffee Roasters), where you can order coffee, buy beans and, perhaps best of all, chat with Dan, the owner and head roaster.

Uncommon Grounds has a range of blends and single-origins for sale, one of which, the Trieste blend, is available on espresso with the usual selection of drinks, while there’s a rotating option (a natural Brazilian during my visit) on pour-over through the V60. There’s also a small selection of cakes if you are hungry.

Continue reading...

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 deciding my route, I did take into account the availability of good coffee, Marquette, on Lake Superior's southern shore, 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 was Velodrome Coffee Co, whose presence I was alerted to by an article in Sprudge, written by friend of the Coffee Spot, The Pourover.

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.

Continue reading...