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.
Third Rail Coffee has been part of the New York speciality coffee scene for some time now. A chain of precisely two, this branch, in Greenwich Village, is the original, having opened seven years ago. It’s a small spot, not much bigger than Café Grumpy’s Lower East Side branch where I had started the day, with space inside for maybe 12.
The coffee’s from North Carolina’s Counter Culture, the Los Rosales single-origin Colombian on espresso, joined by a guest roaster. This guest spot focuses on East Coast roasters, exemplified by the choice during my visit, Boston’s George Howell. There’s a single-origin (sometimes blend) on bulk-brew, with a choice of four single-origins through the Chemex. These change every couple of months and are chalked up on boards next to the menu. As is often the case in the US, the focus is firmly on the coffee, with cookies if you’re hungry.
The first ever speciality coffee shop I visited in Philadelphia was Ultimo Coffee’s Graduate Hospital branch on Catherine Street. It is therefore a little ironic that it’s taken me two years to visit the original, Newbold, on South 15th Street, where Ultimo started back in 2009. As is usual in these cases, the loss is all mine.
Ultimo, rather unusually, shares the space with Brew, a speciality bottle beer company, with Ultimo and the coffee taking the front of the store and Brew taking the back, the two sharing the seating. Ultimo, also unusually, has a strong focus on pour-over coffee, something which is slowly catching on in the US, but which Ultimo has championed from the start, using BeeHouse drippers to serve an interesting selection of single-origin filters to go with two more on espresso.
During my visit in February, Counter Culture was the house-roaster, with occasional guests on espresso and filter. However, since then Ultimo has started roasting its own coffee (with the roastery based at Newbold), which is now available on-line and in both stores. If you’re in a hurry, there’s bulk-brew until 11am, while for those with a sweet tooth, there’s a selection of cake.
As much as I liked the original Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston, which I visited last year, in comparison, I adored the Gainsborough branch. Both are in Boston’s Back Bay and are, in fact, just ten minutes’ walk from each other, albeit on different branches of Boston’s Green Line. Along with the equally close Render Coffee, they make the neighbourhood a go-to area for great coffee.
All the Pavements serve Counter Culture coffee. At Gainsborough, different beans, which change every two months or so, are available on espresso, bulk-brew and hand-pour, plus there’s a decaf option too. During my visit, they were all single-origins: a Bolivian Nueva Llusta on both espresso & bulk-brew, with a Kenyan Muthonjo on Aeropress (there’s usually a Chemex option on hand-pour as well), while the decaf was Peruvian.
The food is similar to Boylston: bagels and lunch/breakfast sandwiches, plus salads and cake. However, in terms of layout and atmosphere, Gainsborough and Boylston are like chalk and cheese. While Boylston is long, thin and very hectic, Gainsborough is square (in shape) and much more relaxed. There’s probably not much to choose between the two in size, but Gainsborough feels bigger and is certainly more spacious.
I’ve saved the first until last, so to speak. On my trip to Philadelphia back in March, Ultimo Coffee was my first port of call, fresh off the train from Boston, whisked there by my generous host for the weekend, Greg of Coffee Guru App fame. It seems appropriate that of the nine Coffee Spots I visited (11 if you count The Franklin Fountain and Jany’s), it’s the last to be written up.
The Graduate Hospital branch on Catharine Street is the second of Philadelphia’s two Ultimos, the westernmost Coffee Spot that I visited (the original, on S 15th Street, is a long way out of town and would easily have been the furthest south had I made it there; next time, maybe). After leaving the Amtrak Station and crossing the river, turn right and it’s a straight run down 22nd Street to Ultimo, making it a logical place to start my coffee tour.
Ultimo serves Counter Culture coffee (with occasional guest roasters) with an emphasis on filter. Chemex is available until 11 o’clock in the morning, with V60 on the go throughout the day. There’s a choice of three single-origins, with single-origin house and guest espressos, plus decaf. There’s a range of sandwiches and cakes too.
December 2016: Ultimo now roasts all its own coffee which it serves in both its stores.
I think I’ve found a new favourite in Boston. Head a few blocks along Columbus Avenue past my favourite breakfast spot, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, and you’ll find Render Coffee, just before the junction with Massachusetts Avenue. Ironically, I found it from the other direction, walking south along Mass Ave from Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston. Although only 10 minutes from Pavement, the contrast couldn’t have been sharper, going from the busy Pavement to the relatively laid-back calm of Render. Quiet, but not empty, it was a relaxed and relaxing place to spend the afternoon.
Like Pavement, Render serves Counter Culture as both espresso and pour-over, along with guest coffees (both from Gracenote Coffee during my visits). One of the things I really liked is there’s no bulk-brew filter coffee. Instead, Render only offers hand-pour. There’s also an excellent selection of food and cake.
Long and thin seems to be a theme for Boston coffee shops and Render is no different in this respect. Accessed by a short flight of steps up from Columbus Avenue, you can sit right at the front and watch the traffic go by, or better still, sit at the back where there’s an excellent fireplace and conservatory!