It's the Starbucks Capital of the USA, the birthplace of specialty coffee in America and the only place you can reliably get a cappuccino at the laundromat—so why aren't there more truly exceptional coffee places in Seattle? We've got our hunches—it's a city steeped in a certain tradition of coffee, and one where there's plenty of coffee that's at least very good—so digging the most special cafes out of the throngs of "specialty cafes" can be a toughie. And though any rundown of the top of the tops in the Emerald City is sure to incite minor street riots, we're pleased to point you toward the truly best stops on the Seattle Coffee Tour, as we see it.
Milstead & Co.
It's not the trend in Seattle to prepare coffee roasted by other people, which is perhaps the biggest shock to the system Milstead & Co. delivered Seattle on opening last fall. Proprietor Andrew Milstead cut his coffee teeth at Kopplin's Coffee in St. Paul, MN—one of the nation's premier multi-roaster coffee shops—and has brought to Seattle the not-widespread concepts of a rotating roaster roster and a variety of drip coffee methods beyond French Press.
Try a single origin Costa Rica from nearby Coava Coffee Roasters in Portland, or an Ethiopian from coffee neighbor Lladro, prepared in an Aeropress with the custom house method. Or one of the single origin espressos in the hoppers adjacent a state-of-the-art La Marzocco Strada. The room is gently calm-grey, like Seattle's own cloud cover, and the perfect place to indulge in a graciously curated tour of some of the nation's best coffees prepared with care...even if they weren't all roasted in Seattle.
Milstead & Co.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Whether or not Stumptown truly entered the Seattle scene as a grudge match or not is the stuff of local legend, but the roaster's incursion into a city where roasters previously only started with the letter "V" was a Seattle game changer.
Offering selections far beyond intensely pulled espresso (but still offering that) and branching out to exquisite filter coffees prepared on Chemex and other modes, Stumptown showcases its vast lineup of great coffees in two locations, the roastery-cafe at 12th and Madison (more Scando-styley, and with sexy views of the roastery downstairs and daily public cuppings) and on Pine Street (offering a more straightforward and decidedly hipster aesthetic). Don't get too distracted by the hand pies and vegan donuts, or do, but enjoy the daily coffee offerings as among the best in the city.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
One of the oldest of the old school in the Bolo-Tie-via-Italian-Tradition vein of espresso preparation is coffee legend David Schomer's Vivace. This longstanding Capitol Hill walk-up kiosk still wins for old school charm and neighborhood appeal.
Enjoy the local roaster's balanced, soothing espresso drinks (nothing too weird in the cup here) streetside, a far cry from the company's other Italian-caffé-chic locations, like the one in the shadow of Seattle's ginormous REI complex colloquially known as the "REI Vivace"!) Sturdy, delicious coffee is in endless supply here, served by some of the most skilled baristas on the hill, if not the city.
If you live in a city with a quality coffee scene, the odds are disturbingly high that you know someone that once worked at Victrola. This local roaster's launched dozens of coffee careers that have shaped the current specialty landscape, and their two Seattle shops continue to offer steady, reliable espresso drinks in handsome fashion, as is done in the roastery-cafe on Pike Street. As with Vivace, the flavor profiles favored here don't offer anything too terribly outré—but sometimes you just want a great locally roasted coffee with huge Seattle history behind it... and this, friends, is just that coffee.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.