For Roasters & Retailers

What’s in a cup? Chicago specialty roasters showcase sips in all shades of black

Sept. 28–For many, morning coffee is part of the routine–part of waking up. You don’t think; you just drink.

Still, the expectations for a cup of joe have risen in the last decade.

The Starbucks empire helped bring coffee that’s a cut above Folgers or Maxwell House to the masses, said Fairgrounds Coffee founder Michael Schultz. Like any effective gateway drug, once people got a taste, this coffee left people wanting more.

According to the National Coffee Association’s 2017 market research, the consumption of both out-of-home coffee and gourmet coffees rose to all-time highs this year, at 46 and 59 percent, respectively, of all cups of coffee consumed.

And so, in a world of Starbucks hegemony, smaller, specialty roasters and coffee shops have begun to bloom, boasting beans that yield coffee in all shades of black.

Coffee drinkers who have largely caffeinated themselves on the deep, dark roasts of ‘Bucks or Peet’s are now encountering myriad flavors in their cups, notes that are nutty, fruity, spicy, earthy, floral, sour and more. These specialty coffees are known as “third wave coffee,” said Schultz.

“Starbucks and these other groups go way past where specialty coffee roasters stop, because they roast it so deeply … That means you’re covering up a lot of the flavors you might notice versus when you’re roasting it lightly, as the majority of third wave roasters do,” he said.

While different factors throughout the growing, roasting, brewing and pouring processes affect the final product, Schultz points to the lighter roast as the key to capturing these different flavors.

“On this farm, next to all these coffee plants, they may be growing starfruit or mandarins or bananas. Who knows what?” he said. “But, by not over-roasting it, you’re getting a lot of those other flavor profiles. … You’re just getting to taste for the first time what was originally there. Taking these beans and getting them to the perfect state, that’s what’s having the biggest impact.”


Chicago in particular has been a hotbed for this movement, both for the roasters that start the process and the shops that make the final pour. The city boasts a roster of no fewer than 10 specialty roasters, and, in most parts of town, you can’t throw a bean–er, rock–without hitting a cozy cafe for coffee, usually sourced from a local roaster like Dark Matter, Metropolis, Intelligentsia and more.

Schultz’s own Fairgrounds Coffee shops have taken this newfound desire to choose and turned it into a business model. Rather than stocking beans from a single roaster, as most cafes do, Fairgrounds carries beans from multiple companies, giving customers not just the ability to pick their blend of coffee, but also the chance to pick the roaster that made it.

“It would be weird that you would walk into bar, and it would have 30 taps, and you can only get Budweiser or Budweiser,” Schultz said. “We found that strange at a certain point with coffee.”

Schultz referenced the craft beer boom as a close analogue to the specialty coffee movement, from the power of choice to drinkers embracing the exploration of new flavors. With so many roasters in Chicago–and industry-renowned roasters at that, Schutz points out–this city has become an exceptional place to explore specialty coffee.

Knowing where to start can be difficult and maybe daunting. Should you try something different, perhaps the sweet, nutty Spice Island blend from Metropolis, or Intelligentsia’s fruity, zesty Otoño blend? Or maybe start closer to home with something like A Love Supreme, Dark Matter’s house blend that strikes more traditional cocoa, fudge and cherry notes.

Most baristas can help orient new drinkers, Schultz said, particularly those serving specialty coffee brands. He said there has been an increase in training and education for baristas out of dedication to “protecting the integrity of the final product.” In other words: These are trained coffee professionals, and they can help.

The world of coffee can surely get complicated quickly, and Schultz said the industry is already into its next wave, with a focus on the technologies used and the types of flavors they can yield. But, it doesn’t have to be complicated, he emphasized: The most important benefit of having choices is that people can, more than ever, find a beverage they truly enjoy.

“You shouldn’t have to have a fancy mustache and a beard to enjoy (specialty coffee). Everyone should be able to enjoy it in an approachable manner. It shouldn’t be this elusive thing,” he said. “People should drink what they enjoy and have fun with it.”

RedEye’s Chicago Coffee Shop Picks

Build Coffee

6100 S. Blackstone Ave., 773-627-5058

This cozy new space–intimate with bookshelves and exposed brick walls– in Woodlawn goes beyond coffee beans, hosting performances and events from local artists and offering a curated selection of books and zines for sale. The coffee, from HalfWit roasters, is pretty good too.

Cafe Jumping Bean

1439 W. 18th St., 312-455-0019

Now in its 23rd year in Pilsen, this neighborhood classic roasts its own special blend of beans from Chicago’s Coffee and Tea Exchange. The vibrant cafe also serves sandwiches and adorns its walls with local art

Caffe Streets

1750 W. Division St., 773-278-2739

A modern coffee bar in Wicker Park, Caffe Streets serves Metric coffee within some lustrous bamboo walls–a continuous, parallel grain looks super-sleek–and a recessed ceiling that resembles a cappuccino swirl.


2530 N. Clark St., 773-687-8078

The first Chicago location of Milwaukee’s main coffee crush came to Lincoln Park earlier this year and boasts probably the best, biggest outdoor patio on this list. They also have a full cafe menu, and both cold brew and beer on tap (you read that right).

Common Cup

1501 W. Morse Ave., 773-338-0256

This cute neighborhood spot in Rogers Park brews Counter Culture coffee and serves a scrumptious selection of pies.

Currency Exchange Cafe

305 E. Garfield Blvd., 773-855-9163

Situated in the heart of Washington Park, this coffee shop in an actual renovated currency exchange is also a restaurant that serves “a modern pairing of Southern Soul and Mexican Spice,” per its website, and brews up Metropolis beans.

Ellipsis Coffeehouse

1259 W. Devon Ave., 773-654-1589

This simple coffee shop comes from a local husband-and-wife pair, serving up Counter Culture coffee in a rather simple space, with exposed brick and deep red painted walls providing pops of character.

Growling Rabbit

5938 N. Broadway, 773-654-1444

Going beyond coffee, this Edgewater spot is a full on “brunch pub, supper club,” per its website, with food options from waffles to tacos to omelets and most items in between, served in a new, larger space. Growling Rabbit gets its beans from Big Shoulders in Chicago.


2035 N. Western Ave., 773-904-8177

A modern, comfortable coffee shop up in Bucktown, Ipsento sources its own beans and also offers a small selection of breakfast items like sandwiches and pastries.


3123 N. Broadway, 773-348-8058

This sleek, starkly colored space was the flagship location for Chicago roaster Intelligentsia, and it still serves cup of coffee that’s as lovely as it is tasty. The location has also added more seating, including a bar area, in recent years.

Heritage Bicycles

2959 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-245-3005

The Heritage coffee shops specialize in two things: bikes and coffee. We’re only concerned with the one you can drink, and we can report that these bikers know good coffee, pouring up their own brand of beans in a clean white space.

Jackalope Coffee &Tea House

755 W. 32nd St., 312-888-3468

Something like Bridgeport’s banner coffee shop, Jackalope is as creative as its mythical namesake, with a vibrant interior and cups of Counter Culture coffee.


2212 N. Clybourn Ave., 773-360-7591

Leave your laptop behind when heading to this Lincoln Park spot–Kibbitznest eschews modern electronics for a quiet, library-esque space that caters to the printed word with a bookstore and book bar. The shop also serves food and pours Peet’s coffee.

Kopi Cafe

5317 N. Clark St., 773-989-5674

Space is a bit tight at this quirky Andersonville shop, but it has plenty of charm to go around, boasting walls bursting with books and a back area that’s actually a boutique. Kopi serves coffee from the Coffee and Tea Exchange.

Metropolis Coffee Company

1039 W. Granville Ave., 773-764-0400

The only storefront location from one of the city’s most popular roasters, Metropolis’s Edgewater location is a pretty standard coffee shop, serving its own beans and a pastry selection from the counter.


1117 W. Belmont Ave., 773-360-7553

Dark Matter’s Lakeview location specializes in espresso and rotating, hand-crafted specialty beverages and offers a selection of baked goods within its iridescent-blue walls adorned with surrealist art.

Perkolator Coffee

6032 W. Irving Park Road, 773-853-2261

Despite the name, Portage Park’s Perkolator Coffee does not store its coffee in any old-school percolators, but the space has plenty of retro character, with a tin ceiling, mustard-yellow walls and a large blackboard menu. It serves Metropolis coffee and a selection of breakfast items.

Plein Air Cafe

5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., 773-966-7531

The floor-to-ceiling windows of this expansive- all-white cafe brighten it up in a beautiful way, and loads of lush greenery add a lovely punctuation. For its drip coffee and espresso, Plein Air uses Four Letter Word, while its cold brew comes from Metric.

Portage Grounds

5501 W. Irving Park Road, 773-930-3693

This modern, well-lit shop in Portage Park features an indoor fireplace for cool weather and an outdoor patio for the warm. Grounds stocks its beans from Passion House and donuts from Do-Rite.

Royal Cafe

6764 N. Sheridan Road, 773-761-8100

Stop by this Rogers Park spot to find single-origin Ethiopian Coffee from Royal’s own Royal Coffee. Inside, the space evokes a diner, with a checkered-tile floor and two-tops and booths lining the walls, and it also serves Ethiopian breakfast.


112 N. Green St., 312-754-0431

World-renowned barista and latte artist Hiroshi Sawada’s inky, industrial-chic space has a ping pong table, pinball machine and punching bag, plus a painted espresso machine cranking out espressos and matcha-based beverages.

Smack Dab Bakery

6730 N. Clark St., 872-241-9111

Along with egg sandwiches on biscuits and other baked goods, Smack Dab serves coffee from HalfWit roasters in its quaint Rogers Park location.

Spoke and Bird

205 E. 18th St., 929-263-2473

This small shop in the South Loop feels like an airy bistro inside, but the big attraction is its enormous 100-plus-seat outdoor patio. Oh, and the coffee, which comes from Counter Culture.

Spoken Cafe

1812 W. Montrose Ave., 773-769-2000

This charming Ravenswood cafe feels like it could be someone’s living room, only the coffee–from Counter Culture and Milwaukee’s Kickapoo–is probably much better.

Star Lounge

2521 W. Chicago Ave., 773-384-7827

This funky, lively shop from Dark Matter is anchored by an extra-long coffee counter and also boasts an outdoor patio that’s dog-friendly. Word to the newbies: the music is much louder than the Maroon 5 albums playing at your local ‘Bucks.

@lucheezy —

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_ By Adam Lukach, Chicago Tribune

(Chicago Tribune)__

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