Saturday, January 9, 2010

Not All Coffee Created Equal

The first time I visited Europe I could have cared less about the coffee. My friend Coco stomped and sighed if the rest of us took too long to decide on a breakfast spot, so anxious was she to get her fix.

But a few years later, I'd developed a taste for the stuff myself. And
now, a decade or two after, I'm a full-on junkie. Only, I'm possibly worse than Coco because I'm extremely picky about what I drink. I don't want flavorings, and I don't want milk or sugar--I crave the flavor of coffee (well, and perhaps the caffeine holds some small attraction...)

Similar to wine, the flavor a coffee bean possesses is a result of work, terroir and skill. And a lack of any can result in the equivalent of jug wine.

Fortunately, Chicago boasts one of the country's premier coffee roasters--Intelligentsia. Carefully sourcing its beans and engaging in fair trade practices, the company is perhaps what Starbuck's set out to be.

The small company has well-trained barristas that actually pull shots of espresso and steam milk--unlike Starbuck's which years ago replaced its manual espresso machines with robo-machines that create soulless and ill-crafted coffee drinks.

Starbuck's once invested in training, ensuring that baristas knew the difference between a latte and cappuccino and how to craft perfect drinks. But once the drive for profit outweighed the drive to create a fine product, the chain sacrificed its coffee cred. Which works for me, because Intelligentsia hopped in to fill the city's fine coffee void and created cafes that have more character and even better coffee.

From offering some of the finest and most expensive beans in the world, to boasting championship-winning baristas, Intelligentsia takes coffee seriously.

In fact, recently, the company began offering coffee brewed with a Chemex® coffee-maker. A non-electric, hourglass shaped glass vessel, Chemex® creates coffee that's tasty, pure and flavorful. And the baristas at Intelligentsia swear by them.

While Intelligentsia has only a few locations in the city, including its Old World, classic cafe in the historic Monadnock Building which served as inspiration for the cafe in The Gods of Venice, its coffees are carried in some of the city's best restaurants as well as Whole Foods. And the company also does a booming on-line business.

Finally, because we midwesterners are so generous-minded, the West Side company even shared its sublime approach to coffee with our West Coast brothers and sisters by opening shops in L.A.--proving that California is not the source of all things tasty and sublime.

Photos courtesy Todd Burbo.


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