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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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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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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La Colombe, Gold Coast

My espresso, a single-origin Papua New Guinea, served in a glass at the Gold Coast branch of La Colombe.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.

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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.

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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.

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