Chicago is proving to be the hotspot for independent coffee roasters and brewers.
By Danielle Braff
(Chicago) Move over, Seattle. Chicago is quickly becoming the new coffee mecca. When Starbucks was looking for the perfect spot to launch its world’s largest roastery, it looked no further than the Windy City. The five-story, 35,000 square foot coffee haven on the Magnificent Mile is rarely without a long line of eager fans out the door - but it’s far from the only spot to get a caffeine fix here.
There are more than 100,000 coffee-related businesses in the United States, according to Apartment Guide, and Chicago is now ranked number 2 in the nation for the top cities based on total coffee shops, with 2.6 coffee shops per square mile (it’s only beaten by New York). As a contrast, Portland has just 2.5 coffee shops per square mile.
Chicago has finally gotten a coffee bug, and we simply can’t get enough of the locally roasted, craft coffee. Within the last year, former Chicago Bulls player Jimmy Butler founded Big Face Coffee while Chicago Cub Ian Happ invested in Connect Roasters while Junebug Cafe, Botanical Cafe and La Borra Cafe were just some of a few that joined the independent mixes.
Chicago has adopted a unique method of sourcing and roasting where coffee brands are able to travel and source their own beans directly from the farmers, says Xi Marquez, a sustainability and lifestyle influencer in Chicago, and an avid coffee drinker. Beans can’t be grown in the midwest, so this creates a great deal of variety and tremendous quality in a city that needs fuel for its hustle and bustle.
“But personally, I think there are some other factors that help,” Marquez says. “For one, the neighborhood culture of Chicago creates an environment where every neighborhood can have its own local coffee spot - folks love to have their go-to local spots within walking distance that they can return to time and time again.” The harsh winters don’t hurt either, she added.
And Chicagoans have attached themselves to the elevated coffee experience. Marquez’ favorite coffee beans to take home are from The Coffee & Tea Exchange in Chicago, and she loves her local Pilsen coffee shop, Brew Brew Coffee & Tea, which uses the local roaster, Passion House.
“I believe Chicago is like the rest of the country - the city is not necessarily more into coffee - they’ve just discovered more specialty coffee,” says Michael Schultz, the CEO of Infuse Hospitality based in Chicago, whose brand, Fairgrounds Craft Coffee & Tea, currently operates eight locations in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Dallas. “Just like the trends in craft cocktails and wine - they’re discovering the nuances in quality coffee.”
Chicago roasters are creating their own flavor notes and variety within their specialty coffees, and the roasters are opening shops to showcase their products, Schultz says.
Dark Matter Coffee is one of the big names shaking up Chicago's coffee industry. They deal directly with their farming partners, sourcing beans that are either exclusive or not readily available in the US market, explains Kyle Hodges, of Dark Matter Coffee.
"Our culinary outlook on coffee has propelled us to create or extend new fermentation practices, barrel aged and cask conditioned coffees," Hodges says.
They're not the only innovators, however.
Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters, an artisan coffee roaster in Roselle, 30 minutes outside Chicago, opened in March 2018, researches, sources and roasts their own coffee in small batches. They typically feature more than 10 different roasts from light to dark, and they have varieties within roast level, countries of origin and pricing.
“One of the most fulfilling parts of running this business has been introducing people to what a coffee roaster is all about,” says Alex Behrens, the co-founder of Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters.
Although Chicago is quickly becoming a coffee city, most of the coffee drinkers are humble sippers.
“While we attract a fair share of coffee aficionados, the number of regular folks far outnumbers the share of folks with refined paletes,” Behrens says. “One of the most fulfilling parts of running this business has been introducing people to what a coffee roaster is all about.”
We'll drink to that.
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