Straight Dope Chicago

Fighting ignorance since 1973 • It’s taking longer than we thought

[ Home ] [ Message Boards ] [ What is SD Chicago? ] [ Straight Dope World HQ ] [ Chicago Reader Home ]

What's the best coffee value in Chicago?
June 11, 2009 — part 1 of 2 parts

Dear Cecil:

I just moved in from Seattle and am already missing Zoka's, if anyone has ever been there. What is the closest match to them in Chicago?   

— Ivan G., via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

You're speaking, I presume, of Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea Company, which roasts its own coffees and sells them to the public in brewed and pre-brewed form at several shops in metropolitan Seattle. I haven't been to one, but am told the company offers a fine product. However, I venture to say we have a shop or two in Chicago that should serve your purposes. Likewise, if you want hot dogs, pizza, or Italian beef, we probably have something that will fill the bill. The point I'm trying to get across, Ivan, is that asking if Chicago has any decent coffee vendors is like asking if they know how to play baseball in New York. I'm not speaking of Starbucks or some other big chain, but rather of certain small locally-owned artisan roasters, some of which are quite good and one or two of which are spoken of in hushed tones by coffee aficionados. Rather than simply gush about such establishments, however, it seemed to me that in hard times I had a responsibility to provide Straight Dope readers with something more. It's all very well to  brew a cup of java that can make the gods weep — but for those whose interest in coffee doesn't amount to an obsession (that is, most of us), is such a cup worth its sticker price? Thus this project, to be presented in two parts. This week we'll review the rudiments of coffee culture and visit a few representative players on Chicago's coffee scene. Next week we'll conclude our tour and put samples of their products to the test.

Naturally for a job like this you want assistance. I knew who to ask — my friend Mike R., patron of the arts and man of the world. Mike had an educated palate. Me, well, let's just say this is one area where I'd felt a need to conserve the neurons. All the better. Mike would know what a person of discriminating taste would recognize in a good coffee. I'd know what would be detected by the average shlub.

I also needed an introduction to the world of coffee, and here again I knew who to call — Mike Phillips, recently named the third best barista in the world, and best in the U.S. Mike works for Intelligentsia Coffee, one of Chicago's leading artisan roasters. He suggested that a fair test would span the gamut of coffee vendors in the city, ranging from national chains to one-outlet shops. The criteria: the coffee must be available both fresh-brewed over the counter and on a package basis. His suggested list:

  • Intelligentsia, with shops at 3123 N. Broadway, 53 W. Jackson, and Millennium Park — higher volume local roaster

  • Metropolis Coffee, 1039 W. Granville — medium volume local roaster

  • Star Lounge Coffee, 2521 W. Chicago — small local roaster

  • Starbucks Coffee — large high-end chain roaster

  • Dunkin' Donuts — large chain roaster, not so high end.

The inclusion of Dunkin' Donuts sealed the deal. The company's coffee has its partisans, no question — they tie up traffic every morning at Ashland and Wellington queuing for the drive-up window. The stores aren't long on ambience, but one wanted to focus on fundamentals. We'd see if we could determine the most cost-effective brew.

I. INTELLIGENTSIA

We began by meeting with Mike Phillips and other Intelligentsia staff at the company's Broadway location — a pleasant venue full of overstuffed chairs and intense-looking individuals tapping on laptops. Here my education in coffee culture began. I hoped the subject would be a little less complicated than was the case with, say, wine. Alas, no. Within minutes of our shaking hands, Mike broached the subject of terroir.

Terroir was originally a wine term. It means (I express this crudely) the environmental characteristics of an agricultural region as manifested in its products. Coffee and tea may be said to have terroir as well as wine, it turns out.  Indeed, my impression after some discussion with Mike and company is that once you've mastered the intricacies of wine, you're ready to tackle coffee, which is really complex. The practical implication of terroir is that you need to know the region in which a coffee was grown, and ideally the name and location of the coffee farm, the elevation of the fields — coffee is commonly grown on hilly or mountainous terrain — and whether (I exaggerate only slightly) the coffee beans were harvested on a sunny day. All these things will be reflected in the way the coffee tastes. In short — this requires a bit of mental adjustment — you're supposed to pay attention to your coffee. You're not just supposed to pour a gallon down your gullet to jolt yourself awake.

The Intelligentsia folks had a good deal else to say along these lines, which I can't begin to cover in detail, but here are the salient thoughts:

  • Coffee is complicated. Perhaps you're getting that already, but the following may erase any lingering doubts: Some two to three hundred chemical compounds have been identified in wine that presumably contribute to its flavor (or so I was informed). The comparable figure for coffee is 1,500.

  • Coffee is best drunk black. Mixing coffee with other ingredients isn't completely gauche; witness the many coffee variants using milk, which have an ancient and honorable tradition. Cream and sugar, however … no. The Intelligentsia people stoically accepted the fact that people polluted their coffee with these substances, but you could see the thought pained them — ketchup on your hot dog is the closest equivalent. Some felt C&S were the first step on the road to a beverage having a bit of coffee flavoring — five minutes listening to people order at Starbucks will persuade you that road is pretty short. The more charitable view was that cream and sugar were a way of salvaging coffee that had been abysmally made. That brings us to our central point.

  • Coffee is easy to mess up. While one doesn't want to splash wine in a tumbler with some ice, on the whole serving wine isn't that complicated and relatively little can go wrong. Not so with coffee. At every stage of the process, from roasting to selling to brewing, there's a risk — perhaps a likelihood — that someone will muck it up. Unlike wine, most coffees don't improve with age; they start off at peak quality and thereafter get worse — and some coffee is roasted months before it's sold. The device used to brew the coffee may be insufficiently clean and impart a bitter taste. Once brewed, the coffee may sit for hours in the pot (granted, this is more the case with cubicle and truck-stop coffee). Finally, the dunce who drinks the coffee … well, no need to go round on that again.

You see the implications, I'm sure. Wine can be taxing enough. But who wants to start the day feeling he hasn't done right by his coffee? Nonetheless I conceded the essential point: good coffee had unsuspected subtleties. Whether those subtleties justified the expense remained to be seen.

After further consultation with Mike Phillips, we settled on a method of operation. We'd compare black coffee from each of the five vendors, brewed at home under (relatively) controlled conditions, so that we could do a side-by-side comparison. First, though, we'd visit all the shops to sample their wares, talk with the staff, and purchase some representative coffees. We had no special preference for growing region, but we'd attempt to ascertain where the coffee had come from and, more importantly, when it had been roasted and when brewed. We'd gauge how knowledgeable the staff seemed to be, and then when we got home we'd judge the stuff's taste. 

Some will say this method was calculated to skew the results in Intelligentsia's favor, since the company's bagged coffees had wonderfully detailed labels with everything but pictures of the farmer's children, the coffee was freshly roasted and brewed, and the staff constituted a veritable institute of coffee lore. Too bad. This was the Straight Dope. If you got points for knowing what you were doing, we didn't want to hear whining that this was unfair. Besides, as we'd discover, Intelligentsia wasn't the only coffee roaster in town whose employees had some clue what they were about.

II. STAR LOUNGE

One of the things any journalist realizes is that when you pull out a notebook and start asking questions it's hard to conduct your business incognito. I suppose I could have been stealthier than I was. I sat down at the bar (before becoming a coffee bar, Star Lounge, which is in Humboldt Park, had apparently been a bar bar), plopped down a legal pad, and announced, "We're here on a mission." This attracted the attention of a young fellow who turned out to the owner, roaster, and chief barista, Jesse Diaz. With no further prompting he embarked on an impassioned if somewhat discursive history and critique of the coffee business, delivered at top speed while roaming from one end of the bar to the other attending to customers. Since he was out of earshot during a portion of this time I can't give an entirely coherent account of what was said. "This guy's got a lot of caffeine in him," my buddy Mike observed. However, it's fair to say we were charmed, not only by Jesse but by the Star Lounge, which notwithstanding that it served coffee instead of Budweiser appeared to be a classic neighborhood joint. Regulars wandered in periodically for a cup of the usual (granted, exquisitely prepared usual) and a few minutes' chat. Local artwork lined the walls.

Best of all, I was delighted to discover, the coffee-preparation methodology was thoroughly unpretentious. My experience with coffee shops to that point suggested that elaborate machinery was required. Not at Star Lounge. Jesse produced a board that had had holes drilled in it and ordinary Melitta plastic cones attached. Setting up the board on the bar, he put a filter and some coffee in each cone, placed a cup beneath, then poured in hot water for samples. It was at this point that we hauled up on the challenge of blueberry notes.

Anyone familiar with wine knows the custom of describing a particular vintage's flavor in terms of various forms of plant life, none of which is ever a grape. Coffee, I had discovered, was the same way. I forget what brew Jesse had placed in front of us, but he said it had blueberry notes.

I wasn't getting the blueberries. My friend Mike, in contrast, sniffed the cup, took a few well-aerated sips, and swirled them in his mouth. "Yeah, blueberries," he said.

"You sure this isn't power of suggestion?" I asked.

"Oh, no. Definitely blueberries." Other people one might suspect of going along so as not to appear undiscerning. Not Mike.

I confessed to Jesse that the blueberries weren't working for me. He suggested an alternative approach. He had a cup of the same coffee made up espresso-style — that is, in concentrated form.

I took a sip. "I'm getting the blueberries!" I exclaimed. Indeed, I felt that my palate was experiencing a runaway blueberry train, along with numerous other sensations of the brass-band-during-a-thunderstorm variety. No matter. We'd established that blueberry notes, and by extension all such descriptions, weren't necessarily a figment of someone's imagination — I could detect them, even if at this stage of coffee study I was obliged to essentially mainline the product to do so. Pleased with our progress, we purchased a couple bags of coffee from Jesse and were on our way.

III. STARBUCKS

It's customary these days to speak of Starbucks in deprecating terms. Mike and I wished to avoid this. Starbucks had, after all, introduced the country to the idea that coffee could be more than liquefied caffeine. Nonetheless, after 45 minutes with hyperactive Jesse, stopping in for coffee at Starbucks was inevitably a bit dull. We sampled cups of an Asian coffee called Komodo Dragon, which a helpful young barista named Melissa informed us had been ground that morning. "It tastes metallic," Mike said. I had to agree — it had the characteristic taste of coffee too long in the pot. We bought a pound of organic shade-grown coffee from Mexico for home testing purposes. When had it been roasted? "February," Melissa informed us. Ah. Well, we'd had enough coffee for one day. Time for a break. Tomorrow we'd reconvene.

Next week: More touring, plus the Test.

 — Cecil Adams

Follow STRAIGHT DOPE CHICAGO on twitter, assuming Little Ed remembers to send the feeds out, and if nothing else observe his fumblings with a technology that is obviously beyond him.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to cecil@chicagoreader.com or post them on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board.

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Advertise on the Straight Dope! Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.

Copyright 1996-2008 Sun-Times Media, LLC.