Has the coffee market become oversaturated? Some say not at all; coffee consumption actually reached its peak in 1946, when Americans consumed about 48 gallons per year. (Can you imagine how many pourover coffees that would be today?)
We scoured for the best independent coffee shops and chains that have changed the way we drink coffee. Our criteria? The best quality in coffee and food, atmosphere, customer service, and the "unique" factor.
We then asked our coffee experts — coffee bloggers, roasters, shop owners, baristas, and educators — to nominate the shops they loved. Our panel then voted on a list of nearly 150 coffee shops from coast to coast. In the end, we narrowed down our list to the most highly ranked (and most talked about) 33 shops and chains that are riding into the fourth wave of coffee and beyond.
Some of the coffee shops you may know well; Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Blue Bottle all made the cut for an overall quality that’s hard to beat. And many of the shops on our list serve roasts from Stumptown and Intelligentsia, proving that they're the roasts to beat. (Another roaster we saw over and over again on our list? Counter Culture Coffee Co., based in Raleigh, N.C. While Counter Culture doesn’t operate any storefronts and instead focuses on supplying shops and educating the public, it too is a winner in our eyes.) Some of the shops have added on roasteries for a true "farm-to-table" approach. And some of our shops operate under a multiroaster model, serving a selection of roasts from the big guys, like Stumptown, and the local providers.
Here's a list of the top 10:
1. Ultimo Coffee , Philadelphia
We come full circle on our list, from one Philadelphia coffee shop to another. What makes Ultimo tick — and brings in Philadelphians in flocks? Simplicity, and a little bit of love. In the constant battle over which cities have the best coffee culture — East Coast versus West Coast, New York City versus Philadelphia — it frequently boils down to the people behind the counter. And many will argue that Philadelphia, often seen as the underdog to the big cities of the Northeast, is hands-down the winner for the best cup of coffee because the coffee scene there is hardly home to the snobbery that can come with "Third Wave" coffee. Sure, you’ll find pour-over drip coffee and Chemex batches at Ultimo, along with niche coffee roasts (all from Counter Culture Coffee Roaster) and artisanal sandwiches (new from American Sardine Bar). But what you won’t find at Ultimo is an attitude — and that’s exactly what our panelists noted Ultimo so highly for in the customer service and atmosphere categories. In an interview with Counter Culture Coffee, co-owner Aaron Ultimo put it simply: it’s about a good cup of coffee and a good atmosphere in which to enjoy it. "In the end, I love the people in and around the industry, and I love the coffee that I get to drink every day," he said. That, plus the shop’s dedication to educating the public with free cuppings and tastings, makes it worthy of a heavy title. (Bonus points for the craft beer store the Newbold location shares its space with — caffeine to start the day, beer to end it.)
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2. Gimme! Coffee, New York
The upstate New York coffee roaster turned New York-centric chain of independent shops was making "Third Wave" coffee before it was even a thing. Consider what Ben Phelan wrote in GQ back in 2007, when Gimme was just seven years old, had opened its Williamsburg location four years earlier (you know, before Williamsburg was a hot spot for coffee), and was currently shopping for its Manhattan location: "… A new wave of coffee shops — like Brooklyn's Gimme [and peers around the country] — have a radical idea about coffee: that it can be elevated above mere drinkability and can be a culinary product equal to single-malt Scotch." Since then, Gimme has transformed into the godfather of craft coffee, paving the way for today’s flashier coffee chains like Blue Bottle. Thanks to carefully sourced, "farm to cup" beans, artisanal roasting (they were recently named Roaster of the Year by Roast magazine), and its homegrown roots, Gimme is quite often the standard that coffee shops and up-and-coming chains hope to achieve. Not to mention a crop of baristas that are hard to find in today’s day and age. Wrote one barista on the company blog as a sort of "in defense" of the profession, "As a Barista, I have a lot of priorities that I'm juggling at any given time — coffee information, flavor notes, side work, how many trips downstairs I have to make with crates of milk — but if I'm doing my job right, the top of that list should be the person standing across the counter from me. Even if he or she chooses to ignore me. Even if he's on his phone or she's wearing sunglasses. Even if he orders a caramel macchiato or a dry cappuccino or an espresso to go. I don't care. I still love them. And I'll still make them the best coffee I can because there are no rules for me when it comes to customers."
3. Barista, Portland, Ore.
After seeing Portlandia’s "barista manifesto" sketch, it’s easy to assume that coffee shops in Portland, Ore., are well, out there. But a look just one of the coffee shops in Portland shows that there’s substance behind the title of America’s coffee capital. What Barista does particularly well is showcase the best roasters of the Northwest in a "multi-roaster" model with a rotating list of roasts that range from hyper-local roasters (like Seattle’s Kuma) to Stumptown. It’s just part of Billy Wilson's, barista champion and owner of Barista’s three locations, perspective on coffee culture as a whole. It’s much bigger than just one shop or one roaster — "I see this new coffee movement as something that goes straight back to farms and villages in the Third World," he said to the Willamette Week. "It can literally change the lives of whole families. So I want to do it well."
4. Courier Coffee Roasters, Portland, Ore.
Courier Coffee Roasters may have paved the way for Barista, Stumptown, and other Portland-area coffee shops as one of the most independent, "low-fi" coffee shops around. Known for its hand-roasted, small-batch coffees, Courier Coffee originally started as a bike-delivery roasting company. You can still get your coffee delivered by bike, but the brick-and-mortar shop is at heart a local coffee shop — with a vinyl collection, hip-hop turntable, freshly baked muesli and baked goods, pour-over coffee dripped into Mason jars, and not much else. The shop takes into consideration the bean from start to finish, only roasting, grinding, and brewing the amount the baristas think they’ll serve per day — quite literally the freshest cup of coffee you’ll get in PDX. The shop even uses KF-4 23K Swissgold paper filters for a taste that’s as clean as a French press. It’s the kind of coffee shop that revels in its simplicity — and keeps customers coming back for more.
5. Café Grumpy, New York City
Café Grumpy may be now best known as Ray and Hannah's coffee shop on Girls to those outside of New York City, but New Yorkers know it as the coffee shop to go to. What sets Café Grumpy apart in a sea of coffee shops in the Big Apple is its own roasted coffee. Co-founder Caroline Bell told Food GPS in an interview that they started roasting their beans in 2009 in order to take coffee into their own hands and now, the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, company produces seven different roasts from Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, and others. It's what turns a long list of coffee drinks into something beyond an ordinary cup of joe. But Café Grumpy is most loved by coffee lovers for its dedication to maintaining a true coffeehouse vibe at its four New York City locations. Gone are the laptop drones hooked up to an endless stream of Wi-Fi — it's one of the few shops without Internet. Instead, what you get is a relaxed atmosphere with real conversations hanging in the air. Said Bell to The New York Times back in 2010, "I appreciate the idea of when you go someplace and it feels like a home away from home, but I don’t think it should be a home office away from home." (Now, if only coffee shops could ban smartphones.)
6. Lamill Coffee Boutique, Los Angeles
Compared to the other coffee shops on the list, Lamill isn’t going to have the comfy, cozy vibe you’d expect to find in a coffee shop. But there’s a reason why it’s called a "boutique" and not house or shop — Lamill translates the coffeehouse cup of joe into a chic, modern take. Consider Lamill the white-tablecloth restaurant of coffee shops, says owner Craig Min: "Most beverage places today have instant, industrial ways of making their drinks and use mass-produced syrups and powders," he says. "… We’re sourcing the highest-quality, fresh ingredients to make the syrups, extracts, and consommés that go into our beverages." How is Lamill changing the game? Allowing customers to pick their "extraction" (Clover, Chemex, Eva Solo, French press, hand-drip iced coffee, Japanese hand-drip, or siphon brew) and their coffee bean, or from a long list of espresso drinks. Lamill brings a new level of sophistication and polish to your cup of coffee (and tea, too).
7. Stumptown, Various Locations
Throw Stumptown into the great coffee debate, and you’ll get a variety of opinions. Some love it, some hate it. Some say it doesn’t deserve to be called a great coffee shop, that it’s gone corporate. Yet our panelists ranked Stumptown higher than the majority of coffee shops and above the six nominated coffee chains for its quality of coffee, atmosphere, and customer service. No doubt that Stumptown was the game-changer in the field of coffee; what Starbucks is to Seattle, Stumptown is to Portland. Portland Food and Drink put it best: "Love ‘em or loathe them, Stumptown has given Portland a reputation as a serious coffee city, and has turned the industry upside down by cultivating consumers to demand higher quality, and to push cafés into being willing to provide it. Stumptown realized early on that great beans were nothing if the beverages made from them were poorly executed. They have insisted on intense — some might say rigid — training, equipment programs and wholesale buying requirements." Slowly but surely, Stumptown is bringing its quality roasts from coast to coast; after a successful opening of a roaster in Red Hook, N.Y., and two Manhattan locations (one of which soon to open in Chelsea), the summer of 2012 brought new reports of a Los Angeles Stumptown.
8. Ritual Coffee Roasters, San Francisco
There is no shortage of good coffee in San Francisco — but based on our panelists’ votes, Ritual Coffee Roasters blew the competition out of the water. What did it? The nearly perfect scores for its coffee and single-origin espresso, sourced from Central America, South America, and Africa and brewed in Japanese V60 cone brewers. At the shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco, and its accompanying locations (a coffee bar in the Bayview neighborhood, a shipping container at Proxy in Hayes Valley, and in the Oxbow Market in Napa), it's just coffee, pure and simple. It’s no wonder the Valencia flagship attracts a wide range of residents, from yuppies to coffee geeks, which may explain the high score for atmosphere. In a city that’s buzzing with caffeine, Ritual will continue to hold its spot as the best.
9. Joe the Art of Coffee, New York and Philadelphia
Everyone knows Joe for their exceptional lattes, cappuccinos, and espresso — they serve undoubtedly some of the best you’ll find in New York City. Our panelists raved about Joe's quality coffee, atmosphere, and unparalleled customer service. Now that the company is about to turn 10, the owners have reflected on what’s made them a success. "When we opened, we didn’t know anything. My guess is that if I went back and tasted coffee from back then, I’d probably be pretty horrified," said co-owner Jonathan Rubinstein to the New York Daily News. Now, Joe is constantly recognized for its roasts (having just won a 2013 Good Food Award for its Ethiopian Camp brew) and Intelligentsia offerings, as well as its accessibility for the average Joe (get it?) consumer. "If you're a fan of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and don't think you fit in with the high-end consumer, we're going to do everything we can to bridge that gap and make you realize that coffee fanatics are coffee fanatics no matter what you drink or how you drink," Rubinstein recently said to Eater. Now that the Rubinsteins are taking Joe across state lines to Philly, the Joe empire is getting just a bit bigger each year.
10. Intelligentsia, Various Locations
Intelligentsia may be one of the fastest growing coffee chains in the nation; the chain is now expanding into San Francisco and New York City, on top of its locations in Los Angeles and Chicago, its home base. And we can see why: Intelligentsia ranked consistently high among our panelists for the quality of coffee, atmosphere, and customer service. Plus, Intelligentsia is dedicated to teaching the public exactly how they roast their direct-trade beans and serve their espresso drinks. (Word has it that the Intelligentsia barista training program is one of the hardest to graduate from.)