Today, the entire cafe experience has transcended a physical four-walls-and-a-ceiling space where people enjoy hot and cold (and significantly expensive) beverages and loiter for annoyingly long periods of time. It has traveled beyond the quick morning cafe pick-me-up (which is what 5-Hour Energy and gas stations are for anyway). It has become a marketing ploy used by McDonalds (McCafe sound familiar?), Starbucks, and trendy fair-trade suppliers. Most importantly, it has become a lifestyle.
Forgive me, I mispoke. The cafe experience has always been a lifestyle until it was capitalised apon by said Starbucks and McDonalds. But before all this corporate money mongerers stole the cafe identity, it came from somewhere original, unique, avant-garde, creative, and it came from people who lived and breathed coffee and tea and dedicated their entire lives to pull one great espresso. True, most of these aficionados hailed from France or Italy (or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter) but something can be said about the classic cafes within American borders which chains like Starbucks strive so hard to imitate. There really is something about those indie, hipster-riddled cafes stocked with beans who’s names no one can pronounce. Everyone recognises it, everyone can feel and see it, but it is so intangible that no one can really put a definition on it or truly capture its essence.
I love coffee and tea. I always have. Now, I must state a disclaimer: in light of my previous anti-Starbucks comments, I must admit that Starbucks’ anniversary blend of aged sumatra beans is what originally got me hooked on coffee. Thankfully, since then, through the help of numerous cafe’s and my coffee-geek of a brother, I’ve been able to expand my coffee palate and have regrettably become a coffee snob. I find it impossible to drink anything that hasn’t been prepared with a pour-over, french press, or, my favourite, coffee syphon. Therefore, in homage to the world of truly great cups of coffee and tea, I shall share with you some of my favourite cafes in America that truly embody this intangible coffee house lifestyle and experience. Cafe’s are listed in no particular order – all are equally amazing and unique.
1. Paradigm Coffee and Music – Sheboygan, WI – Though Paradigm does not offer pour-overs or syphon brews, Paradigm provides, to me, the epitome of the cafe experience. The place is decorated with dozens of unique bicycles and stocked with random, beautifully mismatched furniture. In the back of the cafe you’ll find Sheboygan’s first co-op, Goodside Grocery, run by nature child volunteers. Paradigm carries Rishi tea and Alterra coffee, as well as cafe sandwiches and snacks.
2. Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters – Chicago, IL – I am convinced that Intelligentsia offers the best cup of coffee you will discover in the continental United States. The cafe specialises in pour overs, syphons, and the aforementioned beans with unpronounceable names. The place is very chill, very cool, and more refined and sparse than most cafes. They also carry their own brand of tea, including a $7.oo oolong.
3. Metropolis Coffee Roasters – Chicago, IL – I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago and Metropolis is one of my favourite spots. I prefer the chaotic and artsy atmosphere to Intelligentsia’s more austere interior, and the coffee is nearly just as good.
5. Kickstand – Lincoln Park, Chicago, IL – Kickstand is a tiny hole-in-the-wall near the Blue Man Group Briar St. Theatre in Lincoln Park. They feature Metropolis Coffee and I enjoyed a beautiful Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a bean my brother got me hooked on.
6. Alterra on the Lake – Milwaukee, WI – Built into a beautiful old house and positioned directly across from Lake Michigan, Alterra naturally features Alterra coffee and teas. Alterra is, in my opinion, one of the best roasters around and their tea selection is unique and delicious.
7. Spiderhouse – Austin, TX – My wife Kaitlyn is from Austin and introduced me to this place. I have to say that Spiderhouse is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been in my entire life. Everyone there is so cool, I feel like the lame nerd with coke-bottle lenses and headgear when I step in – but a frequenter of Spiderhouse could make even that look cool. Spiderhouse carries a very simple beverage menu that highlights espresso and Yerba Mate, one of my favourite teas (other than Genmaicha). They also carry Kombucha on tap.
8. Kavarna – Green Bay, WI – I would never expect to find a hipster haven in Green Bay. Conveniently enough, I didn’t have to. My brother discovered this place and introduced it to my family. Kavarna features a vegetarian menu and a very diverse drink menu.
9. Gallery Espresso – Savannah, GA – Savannah is the most artsy city in the south, and the cafes are no exception. Gallery Espresso carries one of the most diverse tea selections I’ve ever seen in a cafe – its almost like stepping into a Teavana, but less commercialised and overmarketed and more unique and archetypal. Espresso beverages are decent also, but I would recommend stopping by and trying one of their literally hundreds of tea varieties.
10. The Sentient Bean – Savannah, GA – This place is amazing. I visited this cafe a number of times during my trip to Savannah, and once attended a showing of the film “The Day of the Triffids,” sponsored by the Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah. It is also the number one ranked independent film venue in Savannah. Great outdoor area, very quirky interior and staff, delicious bakery and cafe snacks, and an interesting beverages.
So there you go. I regret that my list does not include more diverse locations, but at the moment my travel budget is quite minimal. I’ll continue to update this list as I taste and experience.
My brother roasts and sells coffee beans and it would be great if you would check out his website here.