Chicago! City of big shoulders, hog butcher to the world and...the next Portland? Oh, I wouldn't say such a thing. But maybe. A resolute coffee city, Chicago's craft-coffee cups have been dominated by big-fish local heroes Intelligentsia, and the more modestly-sized fish Metropolis Coffee Roasters, for more than a decade. But suddenly (did someone at the zoning department get paid off for the remainder of their term?) new artisan microroasters and roastery cafes are popping up like, well, I already said it. Portland.
Sure, there's a good group of small-scale folks like Bridgeport Coffee Roasters, Dark Matter, and even Ipsento, who've been at their game for a while now, but boutique roasting in the Windy City may have hit the tipping point by the end of 2012, with burners fired up by Logan Square's Gaslight, Lakeview's Bow Truss, and HalfWit (the latter sharing roasting space with Gaslight to furnish another cafe, the Wormhole, in Wicker Park.) We took a quick spin around the Windy City to see what's special about these newest coffee purveyors.
Gaslight Coffee Roasters
When Zak Rye and Tristan Coulter met working at Metropolis Coffee Roasters in Rogers Park, the two realized it was destiny. Well, perhaps not destiny, but a great idea to go into business together, roasting coffee in an underserved part of Chicago absolutely full of people who wanted great coffee. Coincidentally, Intelligentsia finally realized this, too, and will open nearby in Logan Square later this year. There's no chance the competition will diminish the beauty of this cozy, handsomely spare cafe, though: the warmly appointed cafe focuses on comfort and a small suite of carefully-chosen coffees that work together nicely with the cafe's food offerings. (The kitchen focuses mainly on charcuterie, which is great if you're looking for a nibble of uncured elk alongside your Yirgacheffe.)
Rye, whose pedigree includes Ypsilanti, Michigan icon The Ugly Mug cafe, opened the space last fall with Coulter intending to change the things they hated most about cafes: bad food and worse service. "We wanted a place that doesn't have that strong of a genre attached to it, so everyone could feel really comfy here," says Rye of the neither too-hipster-nor-too-yuppie location on busy Milwaukee Avenue, whose small touches include hand-pressed wax seals on each bag of coffee roasted right in the back. Enjoy a pourover or syphon of one of their single origin features, like the Guatemala La Bolsa.
Gaslight Coffee Roasters
Bow Truss Coffee Roasters
Capitalizing on a beautiful storefront in Lakeview, Bow Truss Coffee Roasters opened their doors in June—yes, just down the street from the city's flagship Intelligentsia location (and employing more than a few of that company's ex-pats) but with a completely different style and sensibility.
The airy space is vaguely rustic and style-heavy (canoe shelves! irreverent tables!) and brings a younger feel to the neighborhood, along with an expanded palate of coffee offerings than what most Chicago, or even national, artisan roasters have been focused on in recent years. "I really like Kenyas and Ethiopians, and I like natural process coffees, which is not common in Chicago," said head roaster Dennis Jackson, whose more than a decade of experience includes a coffee career in the Czech Republic. Jackson's about to be off to Brazil—the host country to the first ever natural process-focused Cup of Excellence competition last year—to scout more coffees for the cute cafe, and, by the time Chicago thaws out for spring, Bow Truss will have a second location open on Wells, near the Merchandise Mart.
Bow Truss Coffee Roasters
HalfWit Coffee Roasters
HalfWit, partner company to The Wormhole and bakery Fritz Pastry, is part of a growing national trend of artisan roasters sharing roasting space with other companies. In this case, HalfWit actually shares the roaster (the machine) as well as the roaster (the person) with their friends at Gaslight.
Though Chris Oppenhuis mans the flames for both operations, each company chooses their coffees separately and prefers different styles, even if those differences are a very literal matter of degrees. HalfWit maintains a selection of 3-6 offerings at a time, including their staple TriForce Espresso, and focuses as much as anything on roasting for consistency and ease of brewing. "We're not picking really finicky coffees. My main goal is getting coffee to customers to that they can brew at home without having to follow super-specific specs," says The Wormhole's operations director Sara Travis. In addition to The Wormhole, HalfWit is currently supplying coffees to wholesale customers in Austin, TX, and Detroit, MI, as well as a few other Chicago spots.
HalfWit Coffee Roasters at the Wormhole
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 in 2013.