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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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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