Spyhouse Coffee, St Paul

Details of the single-origin coffees available at Spyhouse Coffee in St Paul, two on batch brew, one on pour-over, during my visit in September 2018.As I write this, it’s cold and gloomy in the northern hemisphere, so, as we approach Christmas, let me take you back to sunnier times and last year’s Midwest road trip, when I made an all-too-brief visit to the Twin Cities in Minnesota. I’ve already written about Five Watt, in Minneapolis, so today it’s the turn of St Paul, the other half of the Twin Cities.

Spyhouse Coffee is a local roaster/coffee shop chain that opened in its first shop in the Whittier district of Minneapolis in 2000. By the time I visited, it added three more Minneapolis locations, but in true Coffee Spot fashion, I chose the most recent Spyhouse Coffee to visit, it’s first St Paul location (since then, a sixth Spyhouse has opened inside the Emery Hotel in downtown Minneapolis).

Returning to St Paul, Spyhouse occupies an old grocery shop that was, most recently, an antiques store, with Spyhouse opening just over two years ago on Thanksgiving in 2017. Spyhouse serves a seasonal espresso blend, joined by two single-origins on batch-brew and another on pour-over via the Kalita Wave, the choices rotating every few weeks. If you’re hungry, there’s a small breakfast menu, plus a selection of cakes.

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Big Shoulders, The Loop

The Big Shoulders Coffee logo taken from a diner mug in its coffee shop in The Loop.I first came across Big Shoulders a little over a year ago, when I spotted the Gold Coast branch, directly opposite Tempo Café, one of my favourite Chicago brunch spots. Although it had been around as a roaster since 2009, it was only recently that Big Shoulders had started opening its coffee shops. At the time of writing, Big Shoulders has seven locations, including today’s Coffee Spot, on West Lake Street in the Loop. I managed to visit it during the same trip that I discovered the Gold Coast coffee shop and returned when I was back in Chicago in May this year.

Big Shoulders roasts all the coffee, with a house blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, served from a fairly concise menu, including cortado, flat white and cappuccino/latte options (the last two available in small and large). There’s a choice of filter options, with one single-origin on batch brew (“fast drip” on the menu) and another on pour-over (termed “slow coffee”, which I rather like), prepared using a V60 on the Modbar automated pour-over system. There are also cold brew and nitro options, plus a selection of tea and a range of breakfasts sandwiches and cakes if you’re hungry.

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Ipsento

The Ipsento logo from the back wall of the coffee shop's front room on Western Avenue in Chicago.Ipsento is a long-established player in Chicago’s speciality coffee scene, the coffee shop/roaster first opening its doors in 2006 in Bucktown, just off the speciality coffee corridor of Milwaukee Avenue. I discovered Ipsento three years ago, when I visited its second location, Ipsento 606, as part of my first around the world trip. Although only a few blocks from the original, it was a coffee shop too that day and, sadly, it’s taken me nearly three years to get back to Ipsento. To make up for this oversight, I visited twice during my trip to Chicago earlier this year.

Ipsento is, in many ways, a classic American coffee shop, offering counter service from a bright front room, with additional seating in a cosy back room, plus there’s a large outdoor seating area. However, it’s anything but classic when it comes to the coffee, with the Cascade house-blend, a single-origin and decaf on espresso, plus batch brew and a separate brew bar (until 4pm) offering different single-origins on Aeropress, Kalita Wave and V60, all roasted in-house in a separate facility a couple of blocks away. If you’re hungry, there’s a range of filled breakfast croissants, lunch sandwiches and three toast options.

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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.

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Doughnut Vault, Franklin Street

A lovely glazed doughnut from the Doughnut Vault on Franklin Street, Chicago.This is the original Doughnut Vault that my friend Phillip recommended to Amanda and me as the source of the best doughnuts in Chicago. A small (almost) hole-in-the-wall operation in River North around the corner from my hotel, we visited during our “polar vortex” trip to Chicago. Although there is batch-brew filter coffee here for $1 a pop (takeaway only, so don’t forget to bring your own cup) we came specifically for the doughnuts, so can’t comment on the quality of the coffee.

Just like the bigger, coffee shop version of the Doughnut Vault on Canal Street, the doughnuts sell out quickly. However, unlike the Canal Vault, where the coffee shop has set hours and stays open selling coffee long after the doughnuts are gone, once the Franklin Vault sells the last doughnut, it closes. The good news, however, is that, unlike the Canal Vault, it opens at weekends, with a more civilised start time of 09:30, which is how Amanda and I managed to get up in time for the last of the doughnuts!

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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.

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Doughnut Vault, Canal Street

Some gorgeous latte art in Amanda's cappuccino at the Doughnut Vault on Canal Street, Chicago.The Doughnut Vault is one of Chicago’s better kept (speciality coffee) secrets. Put onto it by my friend Phillip, it was touted as the source of the best doughnuts in Chicago, Phillip recommended the Franklin Street location, a small (almost) hole-in-the-wall operation in River North around the corner from my hotel, which Amanda and I visited during our “polar vortex” trip to Chicago. It was only while we were there that the server pointed us towards the Canal Street branch across the river.

Given the aforementioned polar vortex, we didn’t venture out much, so couldn’t get to Canal Street on that visit. However, I returned the next time I was in Chicago, first with Amanda on Monday morning and again on my own on Wednesday lunchtime. As we discovered, Canal Street is somewhat bigger, best described as a “proper coffee shop”, serving, espresso, batch-brew and, of course, the aforementioned doughnuts.

A word of warning, though: the doughnuts sell out quickly. Best be there before nine o’clock if you want to be sure of getting one!

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Intelligentsia Coffee, Millennium Park

A classic, Intelligentsia diner mug from my visit to the Millennium Park coffee bar.I’ve a long-standing soft spot for Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based veteran speciality coffee roaster and coffee shop chain. Indeed, I learnt to enjoy speciality coffee through its Black Cat espresso blend in the Monadnock coffee bar on Jackson Boulevard in The Loop long before I knew what speciality coffee was. Since then, Intelligentsia has spread its wings, with six Chicago locations, plus outposts on the West Coast (four Los Angeles locations) and East Coast (High Line Hotel in New York City and now two branches in Boston).

The Millennium Park coffee bar, down in The Loop, is the fourth Chicago Intelligentsia I’ve visited and the only surprise is that it’s taken me so long. Occupying a simple spot, it’s a large, open, high-ceiling space with, given the size, minimal interior seating in an uncluttered layout, plus a small outside seating area. The coffee, as ever, is excellent, Black Cat, decaf and a daily single-origin leading the way on espresso, another single-origin on batch brew and two more on pour-over, all changing daily. The pour-over, by the way, uses the (new to me) Poursteady automatic system. There’s also a wide range of Kilogram Teas and a small cake and savoury selection.

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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.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying from Chicago (Again)

My British Airways Boeing 777-200 on the stand at Chicago O'Hare airport, waiting to take me back to the UK.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.

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