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What's the best coffee value in Chicago?
June 18, 2009 — part 2 of 2 parts

To the Teeming Millions:

This week we conclude our search for Chicago's best coffee for hard times. In part 1 of this two-part series, we sampled coffees from Intelligentsia, Star Lounge, and Starbucks. This time we'll check out the offerings at Metropolis and Dunkin' Donuts, then retire to the lab for taste testing.

— Cecil Adams

IV. METROPOLIS COFFEE

One of the reasons your columnist loves this job is that it gives him an excuse to visit places he might not otherwise see. OK, you could walk around blindfolded just about anywhere in Chicago and be confident of stumbling into a Starbucks, assuming you didn't first get wiped out by a bike messenger. But an outfit like Star Lounge in Humboldt Park … you have to live in the neighborhood to know about a place like that, or else be a lot more of a coffee cultist than I am. Metropolis Coffee in Edgewater is in the same category. It's one of those engaging establishments that makes you think: How'd this place wind up here? — here being an ordinary neighborhood, as opposed to some overpriced tourist sink downtown. However, having fortified oneself with caffeinated beverages and studied the matter, one begins to get a glimpse of what it takes to run a successful coffee business. Let's examine the essential elements.

Location. Nothing against Edgewater, but when the cabbies tell conventioneers from Indianapolis where best to sample the fleshpots of Chicago, they're probably not leading off with Granville Avenue. Metropolis's shop at Granville and Kenmore has something else going for it, though: It's two hundred yards from the el in a crowded neighborhood. To operate a coffee shop within walking distance of the residences of several thousand people; to have a large fraction of these individuals arising at seven each weekday morning knowing they must drag themselves to work or wind up sleeping under a park bench, but having at that point sufficient mental resources to support but one additional thought; and to have that thought be Gawd, I need some coffee … I'm just saying that puts you in a favorable economic situation.  Sure, the vendor of said coffee might as well be 7-Eleven as you. But it's a start.

Ambience.  That's where the next element of successful coffee shop strategy comes in. One wants to sell good coffee, ideally in a memorable venue, so that the one-rung-above-comatose purchasers will remember where they got it and find their way back. The coffee part we'll get to presently, but first a word about the decor. You might suppose designing a coffee house is a straightforward matter. One acknowledges certain common features: Funky furniture. A striking logo. Local artwork on the walls. You get a little help from corporate in Seattle, sure, piece of cake. But I'm betting it's tougher to put together if you're on your own. Metropolis, a bustling, cheerful place, seemed to me to have done an exemplary job on this front. I don't claim it'll push the Grand Canyon off the list of must-see locales in North America. I'm just saying it works.

People. I refer here to the baristas — the wage slaves who serve the coffee — and specifically to Patrick, whom my friend Mike and I, having descended upon Metropolis, nominated to tell us what we were drinking. This he was kind enough to stop by our table and do. Patrick spoke knowledgeably and with conviction (the coffee was from a sustainable organic farm in Brazil called the Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, a name worth paying extra money for no matter what the product tasted like), leading us to think that, if he wasn't the third-best barista in the world, as had been the case with Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia, or the owner of the shop, as was true of Jesse Diaz of Star Lounge, surely he was at least the shift manager. But no, he was just a barista. One wonders: Where do they find these people? You don't see this kind of enthusiasm among the counter staff at Wendy's. However you explain the discrepancy, there's much to be said for dealing with people who get a kick out of what they do.

Coffee. Now to the main event. Mike and I sipped cups of the Brazilian coffee referred to above, which Patrick informed us had been roasted a few days previously and ground immediately prior to brewing. Mike detected chocolate and cherry notes. I was oblivious to these subtleties but thought it was pretty good coffee — certainly as tasty as anything we'd had up to that point. Whether it was noticeably better was difficult to say, but that was the purpose of the upcoming taste test. We purchased a couple different coffees, one of them the Brazilian, and were off to our last stop.

V. DUNKIN' DONUTS

Of this familiar establishment it's unnecessary, and best not, to say too much. I merely observe that questions that seemed natural at Metropolis sounded pretty silly at Dunkin' Donuts. "Do you know when the beans for this were roasted?" I asked the woman behind the counter as she handed me a black coffee. "About two minutes ago," she replied. There was a bit of a language barrier. After a second try likewise went astray I gave up on roasting date but determined, or I thought I did, that the coffee was ground fresh each day. As for origin, a blurb on the front of the package I bought said the contents were "100 percent arabica coffee," which didn't appreciably narrow things down; more than 70 percent of the coffee grown in the world is arabica. The fine print was more helpful: "An arabica blend from Central and South America." That limited the range to a continent and a half.

But one didn't want to be a coffee snob. I sat down at a small table and had a sip. Mike, having reached his caffeine limit for the day, patiently watched.

"It tastes like lightly flavored hot water," I said.

"You're not getting the chocolate and cherry notes?" Mike asked.

"I'm barely getting coffee notes."

Mike reached for the cup, took a sip, and grimaced. "They must have made it wrong."

One had to hope so. If people lined up to buy such stuff and this was as good as it got, the country was in the grip of mass psychosis. I drank a bit more, wondering if a last-minute chemical reaction might impart some detectable taste. No dice. "They do make a good glazed donut, though," I said, wishing to be fair.

"Let's get out of here," said Mike. We took the packaged coffee with us; perhaps we'd have better luck in the lab.

VI. THE TASTE TEST

One would like to say our coffee-tasting methodology was a model of the experimenter's art, involving double-blind trials, a socioeconomically representative sampling panel, and the chi-square test. Didn't work out that way, owing to logistical complexities. Instead I brought the bagged coffee over to Mike's place and we spent a couple mornings brewing it up and sipping. For this purpose we used a collection of Melitta cones and filters, figuring if they were good enough for Jesse Diaz, they were good enough for us. Results:

Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend, $7.95/pound

Mike: "It tastes better than in the store, but it's still really thin, with no distinctive flavor. You can tell it's coffee, but there's not a lot of complexity. It smells flat and oily."

Me: Better than the dishwater served in the store, but still pretty bland. Does leave a pleasant buzz on the tongue, though. Probably not bad with a glazed donut.

Metropolis La Cordillera Blend, $12.95/pound

Mike: "It smells really rich — you can smell all kinds of things. There's a huge difference [compared to the Dunkin' Donuts coffee]. You can actually taste flavors. It's chocolaty, with blackberry or some sort of dark berry. There are layers of flavor."

Me: Not getting chocolate, berries or what have you but definitely richer, more going on, even if I can't tell exactly what.

Starbucks Organic Shade Grown Mexico, $13.45/pound

Mike: "You can absolutely tell this is Starbucks coffee because it has that weird smell, dry and oily. It's better than Dunkin' Donuts but not much. It's definitely got more flavor, but only one flavor. There's no complexity to it. It tastes flat."

Me: Less repulsed than Mike. Agree about odd smell although more noticeable in the bag than in the cup. Much better than Dunkin' Donuts — lush, silvery initial flavor, although this becomes less pronounced after multiple sips. Maybe a touch of chocolate. More acrid finish than Dunkin' Donuts. Jesus, starting to talk like a coffee geek.

Star Lounge Organic Mexican Chiapas, $13/pound

Mike: "You can smell right away there's a difference [compared to Starbucks], although I'm not sure what it is. Interesting, but not as complex as I would have expected. More flavor than Starbucks but not a heckuva lot more. I can taste a little chocolate but not really any berries. It's got more life than Starbucks."

Me: Has some tartness to it. I would say almost citrusy. On the whole, though, not much different from Starbucks.

Intelligentsia Los Inmortales El Salvador, $16/pound

Mike: "What a great smelling cup of coffee. I'm a little biased because I love Intelligentsia; some of my favorite restaurants serve it. It's really smooth, not bitter at all. Definitely some flavors in there, berry of some kind, maybe a little chocolate. Very good, I like it a lot, but it doesn't come off to me as complex. I do smell a little apple but I'm not sure I would have picked it out if they hadn't mentioned it [on the label]."

Me: Agree that none of these coffees are bitter. Rusty drainpipe taste I associate with much coffee clearly a function of dirty equipment. Distinctive aroma and flavor, so will buy "poised and articulate" description on label, but "with a sustaining sweetness"? Not by the common understanding of the term. Disagree with Mike about lack of complexity. While "notes of white grape and apple [assisting] the acidity as the cup finishes with turbinado sugar" is over my head, definitely a lot going on. On the whole, however, a Miles Davis type of coffee. Admirable, yes. Likable? Let's say it's an acquired taste.

Metropolis Brazil Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, $14.25/pound

Mike: "This smells so good, like dessert. [Metropolis's] coffees just seem to much richer than all the others. It smells like chocolate, blackberries, leather, tobacco in a good way. Really good smells. Talk about having flavor right away — very alive and fresh and ripe."

Me: A sweet smell, kind of a berry thing. Cherry almost.

Mike: "Not a sweet cherry. Maybe a chocolate-covered cherry."

Me: This is a more modulated coffee. The flavors are in there but they're dialed back — they're not screaming coffee! at you. Pleasant finish, doesn't leave you with coffee mouth. I like this coffee.

Star Lounge Organic Sumatra Lintong, $13/pound

Mike: "It smells like marijuana. Sometimes the French will describe a wine as barnyardy— not unpleasant, just very earthy. This one smells grassy, almost like tea. There might be something citrusy that I'm smelling. Lime? Maybe orange."

Me: Fruity smell. Mike's right, kind of a tea-like aspect to it. I get a whiff of grass every so often.

Mike: "Marijuana. Or hay."

Me: Don't know about marijuana. I'll buy hay. Distinctive flavor, like the Intelligentsia in that way.

VII. CONCLUSIONS

  • I venture to say if we had to buy a 20-pound bag of coffee to bring to a desert island, the Metropolis Brazil would be it. It made a rich, subtle brew that you didn't feel stupid for liking. The Metropolis La Cordillera was also very good.  The other high-end coffees you appreciated at an intellectual level while thinking it would require monastic dedication to habitually drink this stuff black.

  • That said, the high-end coffees, Starbucks included, didn't vary markedly in price, and all were dramatically better than the inexpensive Dunkin' Donuts blend, so whatever floats your boat.

  • After we were done it occurred to me we should have included Starbucks House Blend as one of the tested coffees. It's a little bland but in my opinion better than Dunkin' Donuts, and at $9.95/pound much cheaper than the high-end coffees. I prefer the Metropolis Brazil from a taste standpoint but you could make the case that Starbucks House Blend is a cost-effective choice.

  • The black-coffee test arguably makes for an unrealistic demonstration of coffee quality, since observation suggests only a minority drink their coffee with no accompaniment whatsoever. For that matter, while one doesn't want to sound too Parisian about it, the importance of considerations not strictly tied to taste is not to be denied. Take those wonderfully intricate patterns that the baristas at Intelligentsia and Metropolis (and probably Star Lounge, although I didn't see a demonstration there) weave into the surface of the lattes when pouring in the milk. Never mind that poverty stares you in the face. Surely there's value in starting your day with a drinkable work of art.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Kelly Meyer, to whom we owe a cup of coffee

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