America is one caffeinated nation. A whopping 83 percent of us drink coffee, at a cost of $30 billion a year. What was once a bitter utilitarian draft meant to kick-start the day has been transformed over the past two decades into a nuanced beverage with a story behind it. Your average barista these days can talk about origin, acidity, and terroir with the poetry once reserved for sommeliers. And coffeehouses themselves have morphed from scruffy dens of laptop-toting hip kids to sophisticated tasting bars with edgy design, creative food pairings, and environmental savvy. But with shops shilling everything from chicory cold-brew to $30-a-cup coffee plucked from civet poop, it's hard to separate the real-deal java joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsters. "What I look for is good coffee from good people who make you feel good when you walk in the door, no matter who you are," Matt Lounsbury, vice president of cult coffee company Stumptown, says. "I distill it down to that." We tend to agree. So we've combed the country for the coffee shops that combine craft with hospitality, for inviting spaces that spark creativity, and for roasters who know how to make your morning brew tell a story. These are our picks for the USA's top 25 coffee shops.
(12 locations throughout New York and the Bay Area)
Your favorite app? That slick pair of Google Glasses? They just might have been created by engineers hepped up on Blue Bottle, the tech industry's caffeination station of choice. The appeal (beyond several locations throughout the Bay Area and NYC) comes from the meticulous care taken from bean to cup. Coffee is roasted on vintage gear and served within 48 hours of roasting. Iced coffee is courtesy of mad-scientist-style contraptions imported from Kyoto. And even your standard cup of joe takes a minimum of five minutes, as the beans are ground and individually filtered when you order. But all that care has paid off. In January the company scored $25.75 million in funding from techy A-listers like Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom and Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, as well as Google Ventures, to open new shops throughout the country. Watch out, Starbucks.
(3 locations in Santa Cruz, California)
When people think coffee culture, they tend to think of cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. But this Santa Cruz roaster has been steadily building a coffee company that ranks among the best of the best in the USA. Their largely single-origin brews change seasonally depending on what's coming in from the farms they work with in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Staff often spend their mornings surfing and mountain biking before rolling into Verve's flagship café and roastery, an industrial space wrapped in reclaimed wood and aged metals. An in-house designer makes the packaging along with slick skate decks and tees. But for all their laid-back Cali cool, the staff are exacting, constantly experimenting to produce drinks that stay true to the origins of their beans, using a vintage 1965 Probat roaster. In 2014, they'll be adding an L.A. outpost in the hip downtown arts district.
(3 locations in San Francisco)
Though it's located just a mile from the offices of Twitter and Zynga, Four Barrel is a decidedly unplugged coffee shop. There's no Wi-Fi, no outlets, and Instagramming might earn you some raised eyebrows. In its place? Conversation over reclaimed-wood-beam tables, jokes about the shop's boar's head taxidermy, the occasional appearance of a brass band, and pure, unadulterated enjoyment of high-quality coffee, sourced and roasted by Four Barrel founder—and Ritual Roasters cofounder—Jeremy Tooker. A new location in Portola, opened in fall 2013, plans to add a small outdoor park to further the playful vibe.
(12 locations in Milwaukee)
Opened in 1993 as Alterra Coffee Roasters, this Milwaukee company has long been at the vanguard of the U.S. coffee movement, expanding to a network of 12 cafés throughout the city. After 20 years, it renamed itself Colectivo, after the buses the staff ride when they visit partner coffee farms in Central America. The collective vibe is on display at all of the outposts, with free tastings and manual brewing demos, and superior beans sourced after two decades of working with coffee farmers around the world. The cafés also serve as community meeting places, playing host to free Monday night concerts by musicians from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In the summer, their historic Lakefront café hosts the Florentine Opera and Música del Lago outdoor music series.
3940 Main St., Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City, Missouri, has the best U.S. coffee scene you've never heard of. And Oddly Correct is its punk-rock older brother. Owner Gregory Kolsto learned his craft traveling to Central and South America buying beans for Krispy Kreme's coffee program. But he fled the corporate life to work for a Kansas City roaster before starting his own business out of a friend's garage. The shop now occupies a spot on gentrifying Main Street. Reclaimed wood from old coffee pallets and poured concrete form the counters; DJs pop in on occasion to spin records during the morning rush; and coffees roasted in their facility down the street are sold in bags with funky letterpressed illustrations. The shop serves three new coffees weekly—no sugar or milk allowed—and a selection of espresso drinks made with local whole milk. Watch for innovative experiments like their Hop! Toddi, a cold-brew coffee with hops.
1847 E. Burnside St., Portland, Oregon
Trailhead Coffee Roasters couldn't be more Portland unless you put a bird on it. Owner Charlie Wicker has been pedaling…literally…his fair-trade, locally roasted brews from a traveling bike coffee bar that he modeled after Art Deco trains. The beans are grown by a cooperative of female farmers in Central/South America and Africa, and the entire company is carbon-neutral, with wholesale bean deliveries made locally by—you guessed it—bike. Buy a cup of caramel-y medium-roasted pour-over made off the back of Wicker's bike at a local farmers' market. Or head to his new brick-and-mortar shop, the Accidental Café, where you can do side-by-side tastings or buy a bag of beans still warm from the roaster.
75-5770 Ali'i Drive Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. to commercially grow coffee. And the opening of Daylight Mind this fall in Kona now means coffee fans can go from farm to roaster to cup in a matter of days. Helmed by Shawn Steiman, who has a Ph.D. in coffee studies, the complex houses a roastery, farm-to-table restaurant, and coffee school with everything from afternoon cuppings to a two-and-a-half-day crash course on coffee farming, roasting, brewing, and tasting. But the real joy here is in grabbing an oceanfront seat and whiling away a few hours sipping freshly brewed Papa Kona coffee while tucking into hearty locavore fare like pork waffles with toasted local macadamia nuts and Maui pineapple, or a Kiawe smoked pork po'boy with Kona coffee BBQ sauce.
125 North 6th St., Brooklyn, New York
160 5th Ave., New York
Think Italy is our only rival for most caffeinated nation? Then you've never been to Australia. Australians buy more than 2 billion cups per year and are such coffee snobs that they basically sent Starbucks packing when the company attempted to expand its chain there. That's why the U.S. is lucky to have stolen Oz roaster Toby Smith. After working on coffee plantations in Brazil and Guatemala, he started roasting beans in his mom's garage in Sydney. Now he's got two shops in New York—an old-school boîte of an espresso bar on 5th Avenue and an airy living-room-like space of reclaimed wood and tufted sofas in a former meat-provisioning house in Williamsburg. Head to the latter, where the beans are roasted on-site, and get some Down Under cred by ordering a flat white (basically a smaller, stronger latte) that's made with the city's first La Marzocco Strada machine (the Cadillac of coffee equipment).
(3 locations in Washington, D.C.)
Peregrine Espresso certainly has coffee cred. Owner Ryan Jensen has won regional barista competitions and the shop took top East Coast honors at the America's Best Coffeehouse competition. But what we love about Peregrine is that they're using their skills for the powers of good, with friendly baristas serving as coffee ambassadors, doling out tasting notes or suggesting brews in a pretension-free environment. They also offer local coffeehounds bike delivery service, showing up regularly to drop off bags of the best in-season, single-origin coffees.
(3 locations in San Francisco, 1 in Napa)
In a city of good coffee, Ritual stands out not for bean snobbery, sexy gadgetry, or whiz-bang preparation but for the kind of well-refined consistency you want in your morning cup of joe. You get your velvety single-origin brew prepared just so on a Japanese V60 glass dripper. Or maybe frothed into a rich latte with local Clover Farms milk. Because the company has kept its operations small—with just four shops—Ritual lets the personality of each location shine through. Sip in the sunshine from the Hayes Valley location in a repurposed shipping container, or at the Bayview outpost in the funky industrial-tinged nursery Flora Grubb Gardens. The original Valencia Street location is classic coffee shop cool, while the reclaimed-wood Napa stand helps fuel up sippers perusing the artisanal purveyors at the famous Oxbow Public Market.
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