Just before the full onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent a day exploring Wicker Park, one of many Chicago neighbourhood clustered along Milwaukee Avenue. I visited three coffee shops along the way, Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea, Purple Llama (now sadly permanently closed) and the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, Intelligentsia. It’s appropriate that, in the week that I wrote about Canopy Coffee, the first coffee shop I visited since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the UK, that I should also feature the last coffee shop I visited before COVID-19 forced many coffee shops to close.
As regular readers know, I have a soft spot for Intelligentsia, one of Chicago’s pioneering roaster/coffee shop chains. I first visited its coffee bar in the Monadnock Building on Jackson Boulevard in 2003, long before my Coffee Spot days. The Wicker Park location is a more recent addition, occupying an open, light-filled space on the ground floor of an apartment block on the corner of Division and Ashland. There’s the usual Intelligentsia offering of coffee, Kilogram tea, cakes/savouries and a large retail selection. There are three espresso options: Black Cat, single-origin and decaf, while pour-over and batch-brew each have their own single-origin.
We could have gone straight to the airport, but instead we made a detour to the Midtown reason to visit Dancing Goats (or to use its full name, The Dancing Goats® Coffee Bar Midtown). Dancing Goats (part of Batdorf & Bronson coffee roasters) is one of four Atlanta-based coffee shops (with another five in Washington State, where it all started).
Dancing Goats is firmly in the speciality coffee world, but with a mass-market offering. There’s a small espresso-based menu combined with a much larger menu offering the typical American “large” drinks, featuring 20oz lattes amongst other things. The retail coffee offering mirrors this, with multiple blends supplemented by a smaller range of single-origins. Meanwhile, if you’re hungry, there’s a small range of cake.
Although I spent a week in Atlanta with Amanda, we were in the suburbs, a 40-minute drive from the city, so I didn’t have much opportunity for coffee shop visits. With that in mind, when we arrived on the train from New York, we made a beeline for Octane: Westside and, from there, went to Firelight Coffee Roasters, which had come highly recommended (not least by the baristas at Octane).
Firelight began as a roaster in 2014, moving into its current premises, at the back of the Strongbox West co-working space, in 2015. It was much smaller then, but Firelight has slowly built out into the space, which now acts as both roastery and a small, cosy coffee shop. This serves as an in-house coffee shop for Strongbox tenants as well as a tasting room for curious visitors such as Amanda and me.
The coffee offering is straightforward, with a seasonal blend on espresso, daily single-origin on batch brew and the rest of the roastery’s output (typically five single-origins) on pour-over. Just be warned, however, that Firelight only opens from 09:00 to 13:30 and is closed at weekends, with roasting taking place out of hours on Monday and Saturday afternoons.
In mid-March, I’d just arrived in Chicago and was looking forward to spending a couple of weeks exploring the city’s excellent speciality coffee scene, interleaved with a series of work calls in the late afternoons/evenings. In the end, I managed just one day before the COVID-19 pandemic cut short my trip and I beat a hasty path for home. Today’s Coffee Spot, Purple Llama, is one of three coffee shops that I managed to visit on my single day in Chicago.
Purple Llama is on West Division Street, where it runs along the southern edge of Chicago’s Wicker Park neighbourhood. It feels like it’s been on my list forever, since so many people mention it to me, but, in reality, it’s only been three years since Purple Llama first opened in April 2017.
Purple Llama combines speciality coffee and music, offering a range of vinyl records for sale alongside some outstanding coffee. A multi-roaster, the coffee is drawn from a selection of roasters across the US and Europe, with the specific beans on offer changing once a week. There are multiple options on espresso, batch-brew and pour-over, along with around 10 teas and a range of cakes if you’re hungry.
April 2020: Sad news. I believe that due to COVID-19, Purple Llama has decided to permanently close.
I became aware of Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea when I discovered the Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar inside my office building at River Point North. Although Infuse runs in-house coffee bars, the staff told me about Fairgrounds, Infuse’s sister company which runs cafés. That was in 2017, when Infuse had just opened, although it’s taken me another 2½ years before I’ve managed to visit Fairgrounds, although for once I’ve done it right, visiting its Bucktown location, which, like Infuse, opened in 2017, along with another Fairgrounds in The Loop.
Although it started in Chicago, Fairgrounds now has cafés in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Los Angeles to join the (currently) three Chicago locations, plus two more in the suburbs. They all have the same mission, which is shared with Infuse: to serve a wide range of excellent coffee on espresso and filter, plus cold brew, nitro brew, various elixirs and tea. To this end, there’s a blend, decaf and rotating single-origin on espresso, plus three more blends, a further three single-origins and a decaf on pour-over, sourced from roasters across America. If you’re hungry, Fairgrounds had an all-day breakfast menu, sandwiches, salad bowls and soup, plus various snacks, bites and cake.
In the wild, coffee has over 120 individual species. However, two species dominate commercially grown coffee: Arabica and Robusta, with Arabica accounting for the vast majority of speciality coffee. Other species are occasionally commercially grown, and last weekend at Terremoto Coffee in New York, Amanda and I were presented with Coffea eugenioides, a rare species indigenous to the East African highlands, including Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and western Tanzania.
Coffea eugenioides (Eugenioides for short) is, in fact, one of Arabica’s two parent species, the other being Robusta. The Eugenioides at Terremoto was roasted by Neat, a roaster/importer in Darien, Connecticut, and comes from a farm, Las Nubes, in Colombia. Naturally, we had to try it, ending up with a pour-over, an espresso and, to try it in milk, a cortado. Our barista also provided us with a shot of the house espresso (a washed Colombian) and a batch brew sample (a washed Honduran) for comparison!
Normally, I’d write this up as part of my description of the coffee shop, but since Eugenioides is so different from anything that I’ve tried before, I’ve dedicated this entire Saturday Supplement to it, with Terremoto featuring in its own Coffee Spot.
Until Monday, I’d never been to Atlanta. The closest I’d come was passing through Peachtree Station en-route to New Orleans two years ago. I also managed a brief stop at the airport in January on my way to Portland. However, on Monday this week, Amanda and I stepped off Amtrak’s Crescent Service (the very same train that I caught to New Orleans) and I was in Atlanta. Naturally, our thoughts to turned to coffee, and where better to start than with Octane?
Octane was a pioneer of Atlanta’s speciality coffee scene until it was bought in 2017 by Revelator Coffee, much to the consternation of many. Octane had several locations in the city, but the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, Octane: Westside, is, I believe, the original and the only one to retain the Octane name.
Located in a converted garage, it’s a large, spacious place, with a small amount of outside seating and limited parking. The Petunias blend is on espresso, with two single-origins on pour-over via the Chemex. If you want something stiffer, there’s a full bar, offering a wide range of drinks from 11:30 each day. If you’re hungry, there’s a broad selection of cakes and savouries.
There’s not much to Terremoto, just a bench outside and three small tables inside, but size is no limit to its ambition when it comes to coffee. Its most eye-catching feature is the gold Slayer espresso machine, but the real star is the coffee itself. Terremoto serves a wide selection of single-origins on both espresso and pour-over (Kalita Wave), one of which is also available on batch brew, plus there’s a small selection of cakes and pastries if you are hungry.
Little Woodfords is in the Woodfords Corner neighbourhood of Portland, just west of Back Cove. The staff at Tandem Coffee Roasters tipped me off when I was visiting Amanda last summer and, while we popped in on that trip, I didn’t have a chance to write it up. As a result, on my return to Portland last week, I made it a priority to call in, visiting one sunny Tuesday morning.
Little Woodfords occupies a bright, spacious spot on the busy Forest Avenue, close to its junction with Woodford Street. It’s fairly small, but feels much bigger thanks to the high ceilings (I would guess at least 4 metres) and a tall bay window that runs the full width of the store front, catching the midday and afternoon sun.
The coffee’s from Vivid Coffee Roasters in Vermont, with a single option on espresso, batch brew and flash brew (a pour-over over ice, akin to a Japanese iced coffee). The coffee changes every six months, Little Woodfords working with Vivid to select the particular bean/blend. There’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits, complete with gluten-free options.
This has all the hallmarks of Café Grumpy, including its trademark no laptop policy. While you can argue with the merits or otherwise of this, Café Grumpy’s very upfront about this. The coffee offering’s the same across all branches: house-blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, five single-origins (including a decaf) on pour-over and two more on bulk-brew. It’s also worth remembering that while now it seems that everyone on the East Coast’s offering pour-over, Café Grumpy was doing it long before it was trendy.
In terms of layout, the Fashion District branch takes the no laptop philosophy to its logical conclusion. The seating consists of two large, communal tables, plus a bench at the back. While you can sit quietly by yourself, it really is designed to promote communication!