Chicago x 3, June – October 2017

The capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin.Having spent the early part of 2017 visiting Japan and Vietnam, both for the first time, my travel for the next five months had something of a familiar pattern to it as I flew to Chicago three times in quick succession. To break up the potential monotony, I took a different route each time and used different airlines, flying with United, American and British Airways. For my first/third trips, I was in economy, while on the second trip, which was for work, I flew out in economy and back in business class, having caught the bug when I flew back from Vietnam.

The flights are covered in the Travel Spots below. Although I was flying to Chicago, I spent a good deal of time in Madison on each trip, which is a three hour coach ride away in neighbouring Wisconsin. I made good use of my time there, exploring its small but vibrant speciality coffee scene.

You can read about the Coffee Spots I visited during my time in both Chicago and Madison at the end of this post.


Header Image: the view south along the Chicago River from my office during my week in Chicago for work.


Travel Spots

You can read about the trip in the following Travel Spot posts.

Brian's Travel Spot: Flying to Chicago, Part I

A United Boeing 757 at the stand at Manchester Airport, waiting to fly me to Newark.My schedule’s seen me flying to Chicago three times this year: at the end of June, the start of September and, for the final time, at the end of October. Due to various circumstances, I’ve flown a different airline each time and, although I’ve always started out at Manchester, I’ve also flown three different routes. I thought that it would be interesting to compare and contrast each of the three sets of flights over a series of three Travel Spots, if for no other reason than my own decision-making purposes: I’ll be flying this route at least once a year for the foreseeable future.

June saw me flying with United out of Manchester far too early in the morning, changing planes at Newark, and arriving late afternoon in Chicago. In contrast, in September, I flew from Manchester to London with British Airways, and on to Chicago with American Airlines, catching the last flight of the day. Finally, in October, I flew direct from Manchester to Chicago with American Airlines on the only direct flight of the day. Fortunately, all three return flights were direct: back to Heathrow in July (with United) and September (with British Airways), while in November I returned to Manchester on American Airlines.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying to Chicago, Part II

A British Airways Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet on the stand at Chicago's O'Hare airport, waiting to take me back to the UK. I always forget how big they are until I get up close to them.Welcome to the second part of this instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, which chronicles my various flights to/from Chicago this year. My crazy travel schedule, which has seen me flying over all the world in 2017, has also resulted in my taking three trips to Chicago. The first was at the end of June, the second (September), I’ve just returned from, while the third one is at the end of October. Since I’m flying with a different airline each time and, despite always starting out at Manchester, I’m also flying three different routes, I thought that it would be interesting to compare and contrast my experiences.

June saw me fly with United from Manchester to Chicago (via Newark), returning direct to London. Meanwhile, in October I flew direct to and from Manchester with American Airlines. This post, however, is all about my second trip in September, when I flew from Manchester to London with British Airways, then on to Chicago with American Airlines, before returning on a direct flight, this time with British Airways, to London. Even better, I flew back business class, just the second time I’ve flown long-haul in business, having done it earlier this year when returning from Vietnam.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying to Chicago, Part III

My American Airlines Boeing 757 at the gate at Manchester Airport, having safely returned me from Chicago O'Hare.Welcome to the third and final part of this instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, which chronicles my various flights to/from Chicago this year. 2017 has seen me flying over all the world, including three trips to Chicago in relatively quick succession. While all three flights to Chicago have started at Manchester, I’ve flown a different route each time and flown with different airlines. This Travel Spot is my attempt to compare and contrast my experiences.

My first trip was at the end of June, when I flew with United from Manchester to Chicago via Newark, returning direct to London. My second trip, in September, took me from Manchester to London with British Airways and then on to Chicago with American Airlines. Once again, I returned on a direct flight, this time flying to London in business class with British Airways, just the second time I’ve flown long-haul in business, having done it earlier this year when returning from Vietnam.

My final flight, at the end of October, was my most straight-forward, flying direct from Manchester to Chicago with American Airlines and returning overnight by the same route, arriving on Friday morning, just in time for the Manchester Coffee Festival.

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Coffee Spots

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited on this trip in Chicago and Madison (listed alphabetically for each city).

Chicago

Here are the Coffee Spots I visited in Chicago on my second trip.

Asado Coffee, River North

A mug of filter coffee from Asado, River North.I discovered Asado Coffee when visiting Chicago last summer on my coast-to-coast train trip across the USA. Jeff Liberman, one of Asado’s co-owners, met me when I arrived at Union Station, giving me a behind-the-scenes tour of Asado’s Pickwick Place branch (which has now changed hands) down in the Loop before adding a bonus tour of the River North branch. This was interesting because it hadn’t yet opened, although it was all kitted out and ready to go. It’s the first time I’ve been in a fully-functioning coffee shop before it’s opened. As it turned out, River North would have to wait another five months before Asado finally opened its doors. Hopefully my descriptions aren’t too out-of-date!

At the time of writing, Asado was a coffee shop/roaster chain with four branches in downtown Chicago, although that's now down to two as of August 2016. Asado roasts all its own coffee, with both shops having their own bespoke analogue roaster. Asado’s other main quirk is that it only uses lever espresso machines, usually from Kees van der Westen, although in the case of River North, it’s an Astoria. As well as espresso, there’s bulk-brew filter in the mornings, plus hand-poured filters throughout the day using Zero ceramic drippers from Japan.

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Café Integral, Chicago

A cup of the Casablanca single-origin Nicaraguan by Cafe Integral, made with the Modbar pour-over module using a Chemex.Although I didn’t visit the city on this trip, to celebrate my return to the Chicago area, I present Monday’s Coffee Spot, Café Integral. I first came across Café Integral in New York City this time last year when I visited its original location, inside the American Two Shot clothing store. Naturally, I was keen to try out the Chicago branch, which is in the lobby of the Freehand Hotel in Chicago’s River North. This came highly recommended by none other than champion flat white inhaler, Runaway Kiwi. She’d checked it out earlier in the year, declaring it her favourite place in Chicago. You can’t get a better endorsement than that!

What makes Café Integral stand out from the crowd is its focus on Nicaraguan coffee. The Vega family, which owns Café Integral, has close ties with several farms in the country. There is a standalone coffee shop in New York as well as this one in Chicago, which makes it a national chain. Sort of. All the coffee is sourced in Nicaragua and roasted in Brooklyn. There’s usually one option on espresso, bulk-brew and pour-over, all backed up by a small, but interesting food menu and decent cake selection.

May 2018: Café Integral now has coffee shops in three Freehand Hotels: Chicago (this one), Miami and Los Angeles, as well as a standalone coffee shop in New York. Sadly the original coffee bar in American Two Shot has closed.

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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.

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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…

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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!

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Madison

Here are the Coffee Spots I visited in Madison across all three trips.

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!

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Bradbury's Coffee

The glass side of Bradbury's on Madison's North Hamilton Street on a sunny day in July.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.

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Johnson Public House

The front of Johnson Public House on East Johnson Street in Madison.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.

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Kin-Kin Coffee Stand at Festival Foods

A bag of Kin-Kin's Guatemala Huehuetenango single-origin coffee which I bought at the Kin-Kin coffee stand at Festival Foods in Madison.Kin-Kin Coffee is the roasting arm of Johnson Public House. As well as roasting for the coffee shop and outlets such as Ritual Barbers, Kin-Kin has a coffee stand in Festival Foods supermarket, serving single-origin coffee to shoppers and passers-by alike. There’s not a lot to it, although there’s a decent amount of seating for what it is. Impressively, Kin-Kin has a range of proper cups for those who are hanging around to enjoy their coffee. Retail shelves stock a selection of Kin-Kin’s output for sale, each bag coming with a free cup of coffee.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a limited coffee menu compared to Johnson Public House, with just a single-origin plus decaf on espresso, and another single-origin on batch-brew. Although not on the menu, you can have a pour-over if you ask nicely, which is particularly useful if you want to try a coffee which isn’t currently on the batch-brewer.

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Porter

A chalk outline of an old fashioned porter, case in hand, from the sign of Porter, in Madison.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.

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Ritual Barbers

An espresso being pulled at Ritual Barbers in Madison using a bottomless portafilter.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.

June 2018: I've learnt that Ritual Barbers has permanently closed.

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