The loud slurping noises were coming from a room toward the back of the coffeehouse as Miro Lomeli lifted cup after cup of brown liquid to his lips.
"I'm aerating the coffee as it goes in," he explained, taking another slurp from one of five cups lined up on a table to be assessed for aroma, fragrance and taste. Behind him, across from the large windows looking out onto Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square, was the large black machine in which he roasts the beans in the way he thinks best suits each particular coffee.
"I think what we really focus on is trying to bring out the inherent qualities of the coffees, letting the coffees express themselves," Lomeli said.
Gaslight Coffee Roasters — where Lomeli was doing his work while the baristas up front served single-cup pour-overs of coffees from Colombia (menu taste notes: "lemongrass, chocolate"), Guatemala ("bright, honey, raisin") and Ethiopia ("blueberry, sweet tobacco") — is one of an ever-rising number of Chicago specialty coffeehouses that devote much energy and know-how to extracting flavors from coffee beans and presenting them to an increasingly discerning public.
Gone are the days when your default cup of Joe was brewed from canned grounds in an industrial machine before lingering on a warmer. That's a remnant of coffee's First Wave. The Second Wave, as explained by Ric Rhinehart, executive director of Specialty Coffee Association of America, was marked by the rise of Starbucks and fellow chains such as Caribou and Peet's, which emphasized freshness and taste and raised customers' expectations.
The Third Wave is where we are now, a period in which coffee is not about uniformity but a diversity of tastes and experiences, whether offered by such thriving local roasting/retail businesses as Intelligentsia and Metropolis or the many smaller shops and roasters popping up across the city. Rhinehart likened coffee's evolution to that of cheese, which used to be more a matter of choosing between white and yellow but now is an artisan product from which you may learn much about the particular cheesemaker and farm, the aging and ripening processes and the particular animals involved.
Coffee is traveling a similar path as shops develop close relationships with farms and importers, and pursue individual aesthetics regarding roasting and brewing.
"We're learning more and more about what it is that makes coffee smell good and taste good and feel good in our mouths," Rhinehart said. "And because we have so much focus on making it smell, taste and feel great, we're experimenting more, taking more risks, paying more attention to the details."
Said Richard Park, owner of Ch'ava Cafe on North Clark in the Ravenswood neighborhood: "There's a little bit of science and a little bit of art, but we don't like to call it that. We approach it like a chef would food. There's more than one way to make a great steak."
There's certainly more than one way to make a great cup of coffee — or to roast a great batch of beans — so any consensus on the city's best coffee is unlikely to be reached. It's a matter of taste, whether we're discussing the type and origin of beans or how lightly they're roasted or how the flavor is drawn from them via a proliferation of brewing methods.
Let's set aside the wide world of espresso drinks and look at what's commonly called coffee, which for years tended to be made in a drip pot (if not a percolator) or, if you wanted to get fancy, steeped in a French press. Now far more attention is being paid on a cup-by-cup basis, with customers ponying up $2 to $5-plus for the enhanced experience.
The Wormhole Coffee on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park prepares its international array of beans (roasted by its sister company HalfWit) in a variety of methods: a single-cup V60 dripper, a larger Chemex dripper, an AeroPress and a Fetco brewing machine. The theories driving the V60 and Chemex are relatively similar: In both cases, beans that have been precisely measured and ground are placed into a cone that contains a freshly dampened paper filter, and hot water is poured over the grounds until the proper amount of liquid has passed through.
The Chemex may deal in higher volumes, but a key difference is that the Chemex filter tends to be slightly thicker than the V60's, thus removing more of the heavier materials and resulting in "a cleaner, lighter-bodied, juicier cup," said Devin Conathan, a barista at Bow Truss Coffee Roasters on Broadway in Lakeview.
Still, Wormhole general manager Stevie Baka said, "a Chemex and a V60 are going to be relatively similar. An AeroPress is an immersion brewing method, similar to a French press. It will have a silky body and mouth feel."
With an AeroPress, the ground coffee is immersed in the hot water for 60 to 120 seconds before being pushed out through a paper filter via air pressure, a process some tout as extracting more flavor than a traditional French press while still producing a full-bodied cup.
Park, who works mostly with Intelligentsia coffees at Ch'ava instead of roasting his own, said he uses the V60 or Chemex for coffees in which he wants to bring out more complex flavors, while the AeroPress is better suited for highlighting one or two flavors with a "fuller, more marshmallowy" texture. One morning he was preparing a floral, delicate Colombian coffee on the V60 while spotlighting the blunter, pearlike sweetness of a Bolivian coffee in the AeroPress. Upon serving the drinks, Park noted that he prefers the Colombian one hot and the Bolivian one on the cooler side.
"It can't just be a good cup of coffee," he said. "There has to be something we're trying to convey, something we're trying to express."
Intelligentsia, launched in a Lakeview storefront in 1995 and now boasting locations in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, typically offers up three coffees in three preparations: V60, Chemex and Cafe Solo, the last of which is another steeping method — except this one holds the coffee and water in a neoprene-jacked glass carafe until, after four minutes, it is poured through the lid's mesh filter.
On one morning at the recently remodeled Lakeview Intelligentsia, a barista was preparing a Zambian coffee ("grapefruit, green apple, Champagne") on the Chemex and the darker Persephone Seasonal blend ("apricot jam, supple, ginger") on the Cafe Solo. The Zambian one came out brighter, tangier around the edges, engaging more areas of the tongue while the Persephone was more reddish, cloudier and with a denser flavor.
A couple of weeks later, when a barista at the Intelligentsia near Millennium Park prepared the Persephone on the Chemex, it was lighter and zippier.
Big Shoulders, which has its green roaster in the window of its small corner storefront at Chicago and Milwaukee avenues, offers coffees prepared not only in a drip pot, a French press and a Chemex but also via a single-cup Clever dripper, which looks like a V60 except it has a stopper on the bottom, so the coffee steeps for 31/2 minutes before it is released.
"The method really pulls everything out of the bean," said barista Ian McDuffie. "It's a way to get the full flavor."
The Asado Coffee Company on Irving Park Road keeps things simple by offering three of its own roasted coffees as single-cup pour-overs prepared in yet another device: a Bee House dripper, which is a ceramic cone with a paper filter. Not only does this intimate storefront not brew pots (though it does offer espresso drinks), but it doesn't carry decaf or artificial sweeteners, and it doesn't set out cream or a sweetener (in this case simple syrup made from raw sugar), so if you'd like anything in your coffee, you ask.
"We usually do it for them," said Kevin Ashtari, Asado's self-proclaimed "coffeeist," noting that his roasting method brings out an unparalleled "sweetness in the bean."
Asado opened the Irving Park location in 2009 and a sleeker shop on Chicago Avenue in West Town in December, with a downtown location on Jackson Boulevard due in August. Ashtari said he's feeling financial pressure to serve pots of coffee when Asado opens downtown, but "we don't want to do that. We want to continue to serve (single-cup) drip style. So it's going to be that constant battle between business and art."
That battle can get personal.
One Ch'ava customer flamed Park on Yelp in 2012 as she complained about his refusal to serve espresso drinks to go; he'd told her she might try Starbucks instead.
"Please step off what you think is your coffee high horse and serve me my coffee the way I would like," she wrote. Park responded with an impassioned defense of his craft, concluding, "As a business I have a right, I believe, to create a product the way I feel it is best. As a consumer, your right is not to do as you wish but to patronize another business instead."
Specialty shops may walk a fine line as they take their coffee connoisseurship seriously while trying not to appear snobby. Ch'ava and Wormhole, among other shops, require baristas to go through extensive training and testing before they're allowed to prepare drinks for customers — call it the coffee world's bar exam. Baka said Wormhole's goal is "quality, consistency and fun," and she stressed, "We want to make it accessible without being pretentious."
Bridgeport Coffee Company general manager Michael Pilkington pointedly noted that at his roaster/retailer's original, homey South Side location, "no one's going to turn their nose up at you when you walk in the door."
He also said the shop, which has two sister locations in the city, is moving away from single-cup pour-overs in favor of more traditionally brewed coffee.
"The brewers that we use right now are so fantastic; it makes a terrific cup of coffee just like that," he said. "I think a lot of these coffeehouses get a little carried away with it, honestly."
Jesse Diaz, who owns the Ukrainian Village-based Dark Matter roaster/retail shop and the nearby Star Lounge, said the upcoming Dark Matter location in Lakeview won't be doing pour-overs at all and instead will use drip machines while also highlighting six different espressos.
Much of Diaz's energy goes into such envelope-pushing efforts as aging beans in bourbon and cognac barrels and collaborating with the Indiana-based 3 Floyds beer-maker on various products.
Although many baristas say they enjoy checking out the other shops' coffees, Diaz said this community has a cutthroat streak, especially when it comes to selling beans to wholesale clients such as restaurants and other coffeehouses. "They all get along on the surface, but no one gets along," he said.
Yet even as Diaz dismisses one of his competitors as making "coffee for my dad," he and his fellow coffee specialists brighten up when describing what makes their own coffees stand out. Passing along the knowledge and passion is part of the fun.
"We want people to know we're really dedicated to this here," Bow Truss barista Brian Ensminger said. "Now we're talking about farms. Now we're talking about microclimates. But that's geeky barista stuff."
Here are three brewing methods you may encounter in local coffee shops:
Single-cup pour-over drip
How it's done: Precisely measured grounds are placed into a damp paper filter inside a cone-shaped dripper, and hot water is poured slowly into the grounds until the proper amount of liquid has passed through.
Result: An often clean, bright cup of coffee that, through the filtering process, is thought to highlight complex flavors.
Examples: V60, Chemex, Bee House dripper.
How it's done: Grounds are immersed in hot water for a set amount of time, then passed through a filter with or without a boost of manual pressure.
Result: A relatively full-bodied cup that contains more sediment and oils than a more heavily filtered drip coffee.
Examples: French press, AeroPress, Cafe Solo. (The Clever dripper, used by Big Shoulders, combines the above two, both immersing the grounds and passing them through a cone-shaped filter.)
Drip coffee machine
How it's done: As in the single-cup pour-over, your standard drip coffee machine passes water through coffee grounds and a filter, but the volumes are greater and less precisely controlled, and the process is faster overall.
Result: Coffee that may not pull out as many distinct flavors as a single-cup pour-over but also may offer a fuller, more pleasing mouth feel to those who prefer this traditional approach.
Examples: Many drip coffee makers are used in coffee shops, restaurants and homes.
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