Welcome to the third and final instalment of the first Travel Spot of 2019, covering my first trip of the year. This started when I flew to Phoenix on the 4th January, getting upgraded to First Class along the way, and ended with my return from Chicago on 1st February, when I had to slum it in business class. Along the way I spent two weeks in the warm, winter sun of Arizona and New Mexico and then flew from Phoenix to Chicago, arriving in time for the polar vortex and the second coldest spell in Chicago’s history.
In all, I spent four days in the suburbs, hanging out with my friends, before catching the commuter train into Chicago proper, which was when it got really, really cold. Perhaps fortunately, I was there for work and, knowing the reputation of Chicago winters, had already booked the hotel in the same building as my office, so I didn’t actually have to go out… The downside was that I only had a single day to explore, but, given the weather, that’s probably just as well. Then, as soon as my meeting was over, I was off to O’Hare for my flight home.
Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based coffee shop/roaster chain with branches in various east coast cities, California and Chicago, where I visited the Wicker Park branch on my round-the-world trip in 2016. Today’s Coffee Spot, the Gold Coast branch, is Chicago’s fifth La Colombe, having opened in February 2018.
It’s a small spot, with just enough room for the counter (which has a few bar stools at the back) and a row of four tables along the window at the front, plus, in the summer, a bench out front. The lack of size doesn’t stop it from offering pretty much the full La Colombe range though, with two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and three on pour-over through the Silverton dripper. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and prepared salads.
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.
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.
Welcome to the second instalment of the first Travel Spot of 2019, which started when I flew to Phoenix on the 4th January, getting upgraded to First Class along the way and experiencing not one, but two sunsets. I spent a week in Phoenix for work, visiting what coffee shops I could, before taking week-long road-trip east through the mountains of Arizona and southern New Mexico, returning through the desert to Tucson, where I spent a long weekend hiking and visiting coffee shops. Finally, I drove back to Phoenix on Tuesday, 22nd January and caught a flight to Chicago. Well, tried to.
Flying internally in the USA is one of my least favourite travel activities. I’ve had mixed experiences, ranging from okay to downright awful. My last internal flight was this time last year, going from Miami to Phoenix with American Airlines, a 4½ hour flight which I decided was best done in First Class. This year’s flight was slightly shorter, a mere three hours, but even so, I decided that First Class was still the best option, once again flying with American Airlines. Unfortunately, my flight coincided with a major snowstorm in the Midwest, which had some predictable consequences…
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?
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.
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.
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 The Pour Over Blog, 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.
My Midwest road trip was planned primarily around the wonderful landscapes of Lakes Michigan and Superior. However, when planning my route, I did take into account the availability of good coffee, Marquette, on the southern shore of Lake Superior, 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 for me was Velodrome Coffee Co, whose presence I was alerted to by an article in Sprudge.
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.