Photograph: Anna Knott
Chicago’s indie coffee scene is suddenly steaming hot. Intelligentsia, which launched in Lake View in 1995, will add five locations in 2013—Logan Square, Wicker Park, and Old Town locally, along with New York and San Francisco—to its existing seven.
Earlier this year, Dollop in Buena Park and Bow Truss in Lake View added outposts in Streeterville and River North, respectively. Beginning this summer, Dark Matter will offer informal tours and a to-go coffee counter at its Ukrainian Village headquarters. And Asado is augmenting its roaster roster, opening sites in West Town this month and the Loop next year.
What’s got Chicago so high on boutique beans? Perhaps it’s the appeal of small-batch house roasting. (Asado will have roasters at each location; Dark Matter maxes out at eight pounds of beans at a time.)
It could be the fair-trade philosophy of many of these coffeehouses. Staff at Intelligentsia and Dark Matter regularly visit the Central and South American growers they work with, learning the business literally from the ground up. “From source to cup, we put forth a great deal of effort,” says Intelligentsia founder Doug Zell.
Or maybe it’s the fact that these places tend to sparkle with good service and community spirit. At Intelligentsia’s Logan Square store, set to open this month, baristas will provide diner-style service at a sit-down bar. With couches and a crackling fireplace, Asado’s West Town spot will invite lingering. “We’re trying to diminish the fast-food feel of coffee shops,” says Zell.
Dollop owner Dan Weiss credits his company’s “supertrained” java slingers for keeping people clamoring for the shop’s Metropolis-based concoctions. “The coffee subculture can be pretentious,” he says, “but we’re making it warm and welcoming.”
So with all the options suddenly available, we can pose a real question: Who is the best coffee roaster in Chicago?
That’s one to contemplate over a fresh cup that just came to town from Indonesia. Or east Africa. Or Central America. In Chicago, you can take your pick.