Chicagoans take their coffee seriously, and not just when they're drinking it.
"For a long time in Chicago, coffee shops were split into two camps," said Zaida Dedolph of HalfWit Coffee Roasters. "Ones that served Intelligentsia, and ones that served Metropolis."
While some pledge unyielding allegiance toward one of the city's two big-name roasters, a number of more modest, small-batch operations opening over the past few years have brought even more richness to the local coffee-roasting community. That, coupled with existing roasters opening—or planning to open—new locations, means a cup of coffee made from beans roasted within city limits is easier to find than ever.
"There is so much room for growth in Chicago," said Chris Chacko, founder of Sparrow Coffee Roastery, which opened its facility last year in the West Loop and now roasts coffee for more than 80 restaurants, including fine-dining destinations such as Grace and El Ideas. He's also actively looking for a retail space. "I really want to see Chicago like another Portland," he said.
It's clear coffee drinkers are embracing the perks of both Chicago's established roasters and artisanal newbies. The numbers speak for themselves.
Think you go through a ton of coffee? Metropolis Coffee Company is on track to roast 800,000 pounds of beans this year -- that's more than 2,100 pounds. per day. The company's plans for a Midway location are on hold, pending the airport's privatization.
Every roaster has to start somewhere. Four years ago, Tim Coonan started planning his roasts for Big Shoulders Coffee, experimenting with 12-ounce batches he roasted on his stovetop. Now his West Town cafe sells more than 1,000 pounds every week.
Since opening in 2011, Joshua Millman of Passion House Coffee Roasters has watched his reputation and his beans spread throughout Chicago, with his roasts now available in approximately 40 locations around the city.
Sharing is caring for some roasters. In March 2012, HalfWit Coffee Roasters started humbly, roasting 140-gram batches of coffee in an employee's kitchen. Now, they share a space in Logan Square with 8-month-old Gaslight Coffee Roasters, where their 12-kilo roaster has helped them land their beans in four cities (with a fifth on the way).
Though Asado Coffee Company has maintained only one coffee shop since its 2009 opening, it plans to add two more locations by the end of 2014. A West Town location at 1651 W. Chicago Ave. will open later this year, with another to follow next year in the Loop's Pickwick Stable building at 22 E. Jackson Blvd.
Year-old Lakeview outfit Bow Truss Coffee Roasters expanded its reach earlier this year by opening a new location in River North. With 14 seats, it's designed more for grab-and-go than camping out for the afternoon.
If your brewing skills stop with popping in a fresh K-cup, Ipsento Coffee House wants to help you step up your game. The cafe hosts regular Coffee 101 classes that teach you how to choose better beans and brew like the pros. The frequently-sold-out 2-hour classes host 8 people each.
Later this year, Bridgeport Coffee will branch out from the neighborhood from which it takes its name. The coffeehouse will expand into the Roosevelt Collection development in the South Loop, occupying a new, 850-square-foot location.
Dark Matter Coffee wants to bring coffee lovers closer to where it all begins, but just a few at a time. The owners recently opened a coffee bar located inside its Ukrainian Village roasting facility with an ultra-exclusive seating capacity of four.
Finding your favorite blend takes experimentation, and lots of it. Beverly Bakery and Coffee Roasters offers 26 different types of coffee, making the choice significantly more complicated than "regular or decaf."
Coffee flavors are strongly affected by the conditions in which the beans grow. Just ask Stefan Hersh of Buzz Artisanal Coffee Roaster, who has been roasting for Buzz since 2011 and sources beans from more than 12 locales around the world.
Small-batch coffee roasting is steadily gaining popularity, but some local artisans are ahead of their time: The Coffee & Tea Exchange in Lakeview, family-owned since its inception, opened in 1975 and has been roasting daily ever since.
Sparrow Coffee Roastery is focused on making the roasting process as earth-friendly as possible. Owner Chris Chacko reports that the operation uses one-fifth the natural gas as a typical roastery of the same size, thanks to an eco-friendly coffee roaster that operates without an energy-hogging afterburner.
It takes more than coffee to make a cafe. The mural in University Village's Demitasse Coffee, hand-painted by international mural artist Joel Bergner, took 2 months to complete in 2001. He spent at least four days per week on the mural, which was the first of his career; if redone today, he estimates that it would take as little as one day to paint one of comparable size.
ASK THE ROASTERS
Why is locally roasted coffee booming?
"People don't want to think of coffee as something corporate, but as more of a style choice. Choosing a specialty coffee can make you seem more discerning." --Stephen Morrissey, director of marketing and communications for Intelligentsia
"For a long time, coffee was just considered a commodity. It wasn't a special thing or a treat, it was something you had in your cupboard ... Now people are more conscious of environmental and global issues of food production. It's easy to think of Joe the farmer down the street with his pitchfork, growing carrots. He's local, he's part of the community. It's harder to relate to coffee, but we're trying to get people to think of a larger global community." --Zaida Dedolph, director of operations of Time Bandits LLC, which operates HalfWit Coffee and The Wormhole
"People want to have more say in where their money goes. There's a market for well-done crafts, whatever they might be. People are just more thoughtful about consumption." --Tim Coonan, owner of Big Shoulders
How much influence does the roaster have over the quality of the coffee?
"There's nothing a roaster can do to make coffee better. That's determined much earlier, by the farms and the farmers." --Stephen Morrissey, Intelligentsia
"You can have an OK green coffee and roast it to be a great coffee. It's all about figuring out what it takes to draw out the best in it ... it's a little bit of science and a little bit of magic." --Zaida Dedolph, Time Bandits LLC
"You can go buy the best beans, but ... without a quality roaster, not only the equipment, but the person who stands behind it, you're not going to be able to pull the flavors out of it. More people are beginning to realize that there are more layers of flavor to coffee and that it can be like a fine brandy or wine ... if the layperson can't taste those nuances, then the roaster did something wrong." –Chris Chacko, founder of Sparrow Coffee Roastery
"It depends on the quality of the beans when they leave the farm, but it's also the roaster's job to bring out the right flavors. If you roast the bean right, you can turn any coffee bean into a really great cup of coffee. You just have to know the right technique." --Jessica Shaver, Asado Coffee Company
How competitive is the coffee industry?
"It can be challenging. At the same time, though, the more coffee roasters there are, the more people are educated about coffee, and the more people want a better cup of coffee. And that's good for everyone." --Joshua Millman, owner of Passion House
"When you try to explain why a cup of coffee is special, it can be really difficult. It's still served in a paper cup for three dollars. So it can seem really pretentious and disingenuous. ...When you only have a few people making that argument, it's hard. When you have more and more people making that argument, it's a good thing." --Stephen Morrissey, Intelligentsia
How do you educate people about coffee?
"While we take it seriously, how we make it, how we brew it, we want to downplay that. I don't want to participate in the sort of drama that can happen so easily with coffee. We have to remember: It's just a cup of coffee." --Tim Coonan, Big Shoulders
"If you cover it up with sugar or flavored syrups, you're not going to taste the bean. We don't do that here, and I don't know why people think of that as snobby, because really, it's for their benefit. If they're getting a coffee drink, we want it to be the best coffee drink they can get." --Jessica Shaver, Asado Coffee Company
Tom VanBuren is a RedEye special contributor. Additional reporting by Lisa Arnett. email@example.com| @redeyeeatdrink