Watch It, Seattle: Chicago-Area Coffees
Two aspects of this month's cupping of Chicago-area specialty coffees surprised: First, the relative small number of specialty coffee roasters we found serving a region so large and sophisticated; and second, the high quality of the coffees this small number of roasters produced.
A colleague took a quick run through a couple of Chicago-area supermarkets and turned up almost no Chicago-area specialty coffees on the shelves, the main exception being the Papa Nicholas line. Even when we ordered via the Internet, we had to extend our "Chicago-area" definition to include Madison, Wisconsin, that Berkeley/Austin-like bastion of university-spawned alternative living in southern Wisconsin, to turn up enough specialty roasters to do a decent sampling. It actually appears that Madison, a relatively small city, is home to more specialty coffee roasters than Chicago.
On the other hand, an unprecedented percentage of the coffees these Chicago-area roasters produced turned out to be exceptionally good and impressively distinctive: One third of the eighteen coffees we sourced from Chicago-area roasters for this month's article attracted ratings of 90 or over. This is a much higher percentage of success than achieved by coffees we sampled in February 2004 from the many specialty roasters in Seattle and Portland, for example (Pacific Northwest Coffees), cities that rightfully are considered leaders in American specialty coffee.
Reasons? Perhaps specialty coffee buyers in the Middle West are still a small, self-selected group of people who genuinely love fine coffee rather than people who buy specialty coffee because they feel it is an obligation imposed by their lifestyle.
Or perhaps some of the success of the Chicago-area coffees could derive from the freedom afforded roasters by what I assume may be a regional openness to degree or style of roast.
Look at the difference in roast levels for the two top-rated coffees from Ancora Coffee, for example, and consider the implications of this difference. The Ancora Kenya AA (94) was roasted dark while the Rwanda Bufcafe (93), a softer, less intense coffee, was roasted much lighter. This difference suggests that some of these Chicago-area roasters may be choosing roast levels more on the basis of what they feel best showcases the particular coffee in the roasting machine rather than on the basis of the "darker-is-better-because-that's-what-my-customers-think-specialty-coffee-is" thinking that often seems to dominate specialty coffee production on the West Coast. I suspect the low-key beauty of the Rwanda coffee would have been seriously impaired at a darker roast, whereas a darker roast may have helped sweeten and deepen the intense acidity of the very high-grown Kenya.
Meaningful Sensory Metaphor
But all of that is mere speculation. For whatever reasons, an impressive number of these Chicago-area coffees were excellent, including many that didn't make it over 90 but are reviewed here and well worth sampling. And generally these were all interesting coffees. The under-80-rated failures (there were two among the eighteen samples) were clearly failures owing to defective green coffee (musty, badly fermented) rather than problems in the roasting.
But, aside from these two exceptions, single-origins were extremely well-selected and blends thoughtfully conceived with sensory properties that actually had a meaningful relationship to the name or theme of the blend. The Superior Chicago Blues Blend advanced a plausibly funky sensory metaphor for nightclubs and blues, for example, the Mocha-Java from Papa Nicholas properly conveyed the antique and exotic properties of this 18th century blend idea, the breakfast blends were individualistic but appropriately traditional, and the Papa Nicholas Hawaiian Blend was suitably delicate and balmy.
It's Not That
I should add the disclaimer that I was born and raised in Chicago, but cite as evidence for my impartiality the fact that I never drank coffee when I lived there, having stuck to Coca-Cola until I visited Europe and moved to California. I also confess that I did like Madison very much, but back then Madison was all about the bars and not the Kenya AA.