What is it about the perfect cup of coffee that gets us out of our homes and into our favorite local coffee shop? Is it the artisanal, hand-roasted beans? Perfectly balanced lattes prepared by trained professionals? Maybe it’s just the comfy atmosphere of a great coffee shop that keeps us coming back for more.
A truly great coffee shop has to feel special: some are like a cozy home away from home, others ideally sparse, like a clean blank slate in which you can revitalize. A place to recharge with a good book and a steaming drink or to chat up a friend over that perfect pastry you’re definitely going to stop eating after one more bite. The best spots have a bit of magic to them: ambiance with no pretense, friendly baristas, and of course, delicious coffee. Choosing your perfect shop takes time and patience, but once you’ve found it, you’re set for life.
Luckily, we’ve done some of the legwork for you with our latest list of the top spots for coffee in America in 2014. Working off of last year's America's Best Coffee Shops of 2013, we scoured the nation from Portland to Florida looking for truly remarkable spots to pop into for a little cup of heaven. We measured the spots based on a wide range of criteria. First off, of course, we evaluated the coffee. The shops on this list use high quality beans and have close relationships with their roasters — or are the roasters themselves. Next, we evaluated the culture of the shop. What’s the point of going out for coffee if the space is dreadful? The shops on our list have created great coffee cultures, and even if they have multiple locations, each one feels like a unique, tight-knit community space. We also took the baristas into consideration. Preparing and serving complicated coffee concoctions is an art form, and on our list, we’ve included some of the best-trained, most knowledgeable baristas around. Don’t worry, we didn’t forget the food! Although we didn’t weight the food as heavily as the coffee, we certainly paid attention to it. You’ll find coffee shops serving up James Beard Award-winning snacks along with some of the prettiest pastries around. A great coffee shop always leaves its customers eager for a return visit, and our list includes some exciting up-and-comers as well as established trend-makers too good for coffee lovers to miss.
To help us determine which shops around the country really stand out as spectacular, we asked a panel of experts to help us cull through all of the excellent submissions. Sarah Allen, editor and co-founder of Barista Magazine, weighs in on the process:
"I love and also hate nominating my favorite cafés in the United States — there are so many amazing ones to choose from, way more than ever fit onto one list. But really, this is a pretty great problem to have. The level of quality in both product and service in coffeehouses in the U.S. has put our country at the forefront of the specialty-coffee community worldwide. From micro-roasters with a fierce commitment to remaining completely hands-on from farm-to-cup, like Coava Coffee in Portland, Ore.; Verve Coffee in Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Colectivo Coffee in Milwaukee, Wis., to name a few; to the old guard that's been succeeding at the specialty game for more than 20 years like PT's Coffee out of Topeka, Kan.; to cafés that don't roast their own coffee but insist on the very best from the brands they carry — I'm talking about you, BARISTA in Portland, Ore. — we have the kind of leaders in specialty coffee that other industries envy. They are smart and driven, insightful and humble, and passionate to the nth degree. I'm honored every day to walk among them.”
Several of our panelists wished to remain anonymous, but we are pleased to acknowledge the invaluable help received from the following authorities in the field:
Sarah Allen, editor & co-founder, Barista Magazine
Park Brannen, Northeast Barista Champion
Pete Licata, World Champion Barista
Bill Walsh of The Pure Coffee Blog
1. Everyman Espresso — New York
"If you're tired of nerdy coffee shops that deliver great drinks but make you feel like a moron, then get yourself to the super-friendly Everyman Espresso," wrote the Village Voice in its review — and we couldn't have said it better. We can appreciate a coffee shop that doesn't just cater to the new wave of coffee nerds, but hopes to share its love of coffee for, well, the everyman. Sam Lewontin, the lead barista trainer for Everyman Espresso said it succinctly in a blog post, when defending brew methods:
"Customers, generally, don’t come into our stores looking for a lesson [in brewing methods]… What customers want, for the most part, is to be served tasty coffee in a way that makes them feel good about themselves."
That could be why there's no real menu in the shops, just a printed blurb about the coffee and locally sourced milk. With locations in both Soho and the East Village, Everyman Espresso serves its Counter Culture coffee with local milk from the Battenkill Valley Creamery in Salem, and a little bit of heart on the side.
2. Go Get Em Tiger — Los Angeles
“Charles Babinski and Kyle Glanville created a customer service experience that makes getting coffee seem as casual and fun as grabbing a drink at your local bar. I'll never go to Los Angeles again and not visit Go Get Em Tiger. This is absolutely one of my favorite coffee shops, from some of my favorite people in coffee.” — Park Brannen, North East Barista Champion
3. Saint Frank’s — San Francisco
“A gorgeously open coffeehouse in San Francisco's Russian Hill, Saint Frank's boasts a state-of-the-art under-the-counter espresso machine and delicious coffee roasted by Ritual Coffee Roasters. Absolutely worth a stop to soak in the aesthetics while sipping a fine coffee.” — Bill Walsh of The Pure Coffee Blog
4. Ultimo Coffee — Philadelphia
What makes Ultimo tick — and brings in Philadelphians in flocks? Simplicity. Considered a standard bearer of coffee nationally, Ultimo makes a beautiful cup, has killer customer service, and a relaxed, charming atmosphere.
“It’s about a good cup of coffee and a good atmosphere in which to enjoy it,” co-owner Aaron Ultimo put it simply in an interview. “In the end, I love the people in and around the industry, and I love the coffee that I get to drink every day.”
5. Peregrine Espresso — Washington, D.C.
Peregrine not only makes great coffee, they have created an excellent atmosphere and provide stellar customer service. Said Dawn Shank, one of their award-winning baristas:
"What makes Peregrine special? I would definitely say it's the energy between baristas and customers. I know that for a lot of baristas, talking about specialty coffee to customers is something that we really want to focus on and share without overly geeking out on customers, making it a welcoming environment where customers want to learn more about coffee and they don't feel intimidated or just turned off by something new or different."
6. Joule Coffee — Raleigh, N.C.
“Five years ago you couldn't find spots that prepared both solid food and coffee. Just as we start getting to see this model work better, Joule really leap-frogged every concept I've seen: this comes from a restaurant group that understands hospitality just as much as they do quality food and beverage. This is perhaps my favorite place to eat and drink coffee in the country.” — Park Brannen, North East Barista Champion
7. Milstead & Co. — Seattle
Owner Andrew Milstead has been praised for taking the most difficult approach to the coffee shop model — the multi-roaster model — and excelling at it. That means Milstead balances a slew of different roasters, from roasters as big as Stumptown to as small as Heart Roasters in Portland, Ore., to put forth the best coffee possible — and that’s not always as easy as it looks. Writes Jordan Michelman in Seattle Met,
"Coffee professionals regard the multiroaster model as the most difficult to pull off. It’s akin to a chef who works with different purveyors from week to week, a bartender who never sticks to the same base bourbon, or a band that plays a different set every night. The target is always moving, the parameters steadily shifting."
But it's Milstead’s dedication to the coffees he serves that make it rank so highly on our list for its quality. With more than 30 different coffees on the menu to sample at a time, you’ll never get a better education about coffee than at Milstead & Co. Stop by for a single-origin espresso, an Aeropress, or Clever drip coffee, and consider yourself schooled in the art of coffee.
8. Panther Coffee — Miami
“Panther has two great shops that have been thoughtfully designed for their respective neighborhoods. There is a charm to each that is not only uniquely Miami, but with the personality of their respective communities, while being home to one of the best baristas in country, Camila Ramos.” — Park Brannen, North East Barista Champion
9. PT’s at College Hill — Topeka, Kan.
Kansas’ most well-known roaster-turned-coffee-shop is a standard for coffee in the area, thanks to the dedication of the owners, Fred Polzin and Jeff Taylor. After opening PT’s Caffe Espresso in 1993, the two quickly learned what it meant to serve great coffee, not mediocre coffee, which is why the duo soon began roasting their own coffee.
"We could have sold our small business many times and retired or launched another career that would have probably made us more money," Taylor has written about PT’s. "But that’s not what we’re about. We are here to make great coffee and help our friends do the same."
Their dedication has paid off with some much-praised roasts (including an award for 2009 Roaster of the Year from Roast Magazine), as well as PT’s at College Hill. The coffee bar serves Flying Monkey espresso as the standard for its stand-alone espressos, lattes, and other drinks, as well as its drip coffees in Chemex, French press, Trifecta, and pour-over. All that, plus a food menu that will make you drool (hello, Flying Monkey chef salad), and a rotating craft beer tap and cocktail menu. PT’s at College Hill puts Topeka, Kan., on the coffee map.
10. Condesa Coffee — Atlanta
There's a lot to love at Condesa Coffee: a Counter Culture Coffee lineup of coffee brews, Intelligentsia teas, a killer cocktail and food menu, and a homey vibe that welcomes its neighbors. Condesa is well-regarded for the quality of its coffee (served both pour-over or Chemex), and has impeccable customer service. Perhaps it's the attention to detail that goes into every coffee (and coffee cocktails, yum) that pushes Condesa to the forefront of the growing Atlanta coffee scene.
See more of America's best coffee shops.
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