Indianapolis: A Midwest Community’s Coffee Scene Grows Up

Thanks to a burgeoning coffee culture, Indianapolis’s reputation of being just a flyover state is changing

BY JOANNA GREVES
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

With so many great coffee roasters and shops distinguishing well-known regions of the United States as coffee meccas, it makes sense that Indianapolis was overlooked by the larger specialty-coffee community for so long. And while  coffee culture in this Midwestern city  is still very much in its infancy, the success and popularity of a growing number of cafes are proving that Indianapolis is poised to be one of the country’s next big coffee destinations.

Here’s a look at some of the Indianapolis coffeehouses whose dedication to quality and service are putting this city on the specialty map.

QUILLS COFFEE
335 W. 9th St.

Quills Coffee, originally based in Louisville, Ky., is a relatively recent addition to the Indianapolis coffee community. Quills Coffee roasts in New Albany, Indiana, and is recognized as a leading  Midwest roasting company. Though the Indianapolis location is tucked back in a quiet alley off 9th and Senate, Quills’ cafe  has established a loyal customer base since opening  a year-and-a-half ago.

The baristas at Quills go through a six-month training program ”one of the most intensive in the state. The main focus at Quills is on customer education, and this focus is having a positive impact on the rest of the coffee community in Indianapolis, as well.
The baristas at Quills go through a six-month training program ”one of the most intensive in the state. The main focus at Quills is on customer education, and this focus is having a positive impact on the rest of the coffee community in Indianapolis, as well.
The Alchemist, with its combination of agave, cayenne, and cinnamon, is one of Quills' signature cappuccinos, and barista Ross Bemis makes a near perfect one every time.
The Alchemist, with its combination of agave, cayenne, and cinnamon, is one of Quills’ signature cappuccinos, and barista Ross Bemis makes a near perfect one every time.

Along with signature cappuccinos, Quills  offer single-origin pour overs that are rotated often. Right now, they are featuring a beautiful Burundi with notes of brown sugar and spices. Along with pourovers, Quills has recently started featuring single-origin espressos, such as the bright and tangy La Papaya from Ecuador.

The Quills cafe space features excellent workspaces with enclosed meeting rooms that can be reserved for groups of students. They have lots of seating and most importantly, plenty of outlets. The dim lighting and the soft wood counters and tables provide a soothing atmosphere to work in, which is why it’s often packed with students from the local universities. The team at Quills has worked hard to train baristas in the art of customer service, and in creating a welcoming environment. It is no surprise that their customer base continues to grow.

TINKER COFFEE COMPANY
212 E 16th St.

When Steve Hall and Jeff Johnson made the decision to open a roasting company in November of 2014, they knew very little about the coffee industry. They bought a Probat L12 and started experimenting, and ever since they figured it out, the results have been fantastic. In the last year and a half, Tinker has become a staple in Indianapolis not just at the roastery  location, but also grocery stores, restaurants, and in recent collaborations with local breweries.

 œAnything we do, we want to be the best at it," says Steve. "We had to learn everything ”roasting, tasting, green-coffee buying ”from scratch. Everything we learn increases our passion for the product.  Their drive to be the best has lead them to consistently put out great coffees, such as their blueberry bomb of an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and their recent Malawi Misuku, a rich, velvety, chocolaty cup.
œAnything we do, we want to be the best at it,” says Steve. “We had to learn everything ”roasting, tasting, green-coffee buying ”from scratch. Everything we learn increases our passion for the product.  Steve and Jeff’s  drive to be the best has lead them to consistently put out great coffees, such as their blueberry bomb of an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and their recent Malawi Misuku, a rich, velvety, chocolaty cup.

 

Tinker is a roastery and not a full cafe, but it's open to the public. Photo courtesy of Tinker Coffee Company
Tinker is a roastery and not a full cafe, but it’s open to the public. Photo courtesy of Tinker Coffee Company

Although Tinker has no plans to open up a café any time soon, Steve and Jeff are heavily involved in coffee education in the community. Every Sunday, they hold a small cupping class, these classes are often where the public gets their first introduction to the art of cupping to taste flavor profiles in different coffees; these classes are so successful they are currently sold out through July.

œThe coffee community here in Indianapolis is still in its infancy and one of the most important ways to educate customers is through approachability and hospitality,” Steve says.

The approach seems to be working.

BEE COFFEE ROASTERS
5510 Lafayette Rd. & 201 S. Capitol St.

Bee Coffee Roasters was one of the first specialty shops in Indianapolis. Eight years later, Bee  continues to drive the growing coffee scene in Indianapolis.

One of the ways in which Bee Coffee is expanding interest in specialty coffee is through events. Andy Gilman, one of the co-owners, has spent the past year and a half coordinating a local latte art throwdown known as The League of Lattes. Bj Davis, the other co-owner, is passionate about educating customers and baristas in the art of specialty coffee and frequents  community events such as Yelp’s White Night and Dig-in, a food fair celebrating local food and beverages.

At Bee's downtown location, you can hang out with some strange creatures while enjoying a pourover.
At Bee’s downtown location, you can hang out with some strange creatures while enjoying a pourover.

Bee Coffee features many single-origin coffees, the most popular of which is the bright, fruit-forward El Eden. These Mexican naturals are perennial best sellers at the shops.

One of the most unique things about Bee Coffee is the shops’ diverse relationship with local breweries such as Sun King, Triton, Black Acre, and New Day  Craft. Through the Bee Barrel Program, Bj and Andy  have experimented with green coffee aged in rye, stout, porter, and blackberry mead barrels. The barrel aging adds some intense malt and hoppy flavors that make for interesting coffees. The Breakfast Magpie blackberry mead coffee from New Day, for example, flies off the shelves. The team at Bee  loves to play with coffee, and because of this innovative attitude, the reputation of Bee Coffee as one of the best shops in the city continues to grow.

RABBLE COFFEE
2119 E. 10th St.

Another newcomer to Indianapolis is Rabble Coffee, which is located in the Woodruff Place neighborhood. Owner Josie Hunckler’s goal is to provide her community with a coffee shop to call their own. When she moved to Indianapolis last spring, Josie had no plans to open a cafe. But by August, Rabble was celebrating opening day. Rabble is the kind of shop that anyone can walk into and feel comfortable. The coffee is hot, the pastries are huge, and you can even choose your own mug.

Plenty of mugs to choose from at Rabble Coffee.
Plenty of mugs to choose from at Rabble Coffee.

Although Rabble is a young shop, Josie’s goal is to provide the best product possible for her neighbors. To do that, she works closely with local roasters like Bee and Tinker to develop flavors distinctive to Rabble. Tinker roasts a custom blend called Rouser for the shop that is evocative of comforting, old-fashioned diner coffee. Rabble keeps the menu simple with drip coffee and espresso-based drinks, though Josie is considering adding pourovers to the menu now that she feels more comfortable with running a shop.

Rabble stays busy with loads of community events:  Game nights draw a crowd, and  poetry readings and local art openings are also popular. Josie has made Rabble one of the few really family-friendly coffeehouses  in the city. A few Saturdays a month, she brings in Mr. Daniel, a local kids’ musician to entertain the neighborhood children while their parents enjoy a cup of coffee. With this kind of welcoming attitude, Rabble is quickly making a niche for itself in Indianapolis.

CALVIN FLETCHER’S COFFEE COMPANY
647 Virginia Ave.

Calvin Fletcher’s is one of the most eclectic coffee shops in the city. With books everywhere, warm rugs, pops of bright color, and an old fireplace with paintings for sale hanging all around, it is the premier coffee spot for Fletcher Place and Fountain Square residents. Calvin Fletcher’s is owned by father-son duo Doug and Jeff Litsey. Both men embrace the idea of community wholeheartedly. They give away a portion of their profits to various local charity organizations as a part of their operating philosophy.

Calvin Fletcher’s offers a couple of single-origin pourover options from Jameson Coffee Roasters, though Doug has plans to begin roasting in the next few months. They have many of the standard espresso options, including the Calvin Pepper, a cappuccino made with honey and cayenne.

The Calvin Pepper cappuccino.
The Calvin Pepper cappuccino, paired with a tasty croissant.

Calvin Fletcher’s has been one of the most popular meeting spots in town for the past few years. In fact, Doug and Jeff had to move to a bigger location to meet the demands of their growing customer base. Even with the growth they have experienced, the baristas at Calvin Fletcher’s know many of their customers by their name. Clearly, Calvin Fletcher’s community-based approach towards coffee has been the root of their success.

MILKTOOTH
534 Virginia Ave.

Everyone in Indianapolis (and beyond) talks about the food at Milktooth, but the coffee program deserves some recognition, too. Milktooth is currently the only multi-roaster style coffee bar in the city. This concept has brought phenomenal coffees from Heart Roasters, Parlor Coffee, Phil & Sebastian, Huckleberry Roasters, and many others Indianapolis. When asked what he looks for when selecting guest coffees, head barista Mitchell Tellstrom says, œI cup blind, and I look for the best, that’s it. Nothing complicated about it. 

The food and coffee are both top notch at Milktooth.
The food and coffee are both top notch at Milktooth.

Jon Brooks, head chef and co-owner of Milktooth, is famous for playing with his food, and the results are delicious, and this freestyle  attitude extends to the coffee menu, as well. The standard latte and cappuccino are always available, but there are featured drinks such as the Love Train (espresso, sage, vanilla, coconut, and caramel sticky bun sauce) and the Café Shakerado (espresso and Mexican brown sugar syrup shaken over ice) that the baristas change up often.

The Modbar setup at Milktooth is a draw for curious customers waiting for a table, and once the customers start asking questions, they usually walk away with a coffee in their hand. Milktooth prides itself in being a little left of normal, and this allows them to showcase the flexibility of coffee in a way not many other shops around are able to.
The Modbar setup at Milktooth is a draw for curious customers waiting for a table, and once the customers start asking questions, they usually walk away with a coffee in their hand. Milktooth prides itself in being a little left of normal, and this allows them to showcase the flexibility of coffee in a way not many other shops around are able to.

 

THE LEAGUE OF LATTES

One Thursday night every month, all across the country, baristas gather to throwdown against each other, and the coffee community in Indianapolis in no exception. Started in 2014, The League of Lattes brings the Indianapolis coffee community together at a different shop around the city each month for some friendly competition.

The Indianapolis coffee community comes together monthly for The League of Lattes, a lighthearted competition in pouring amazing latte art.
The Indianapolis coffee community comes together monthly for The League of Lattes, a lighthearted competition in pouring amazing latte art.

This competition allows baristas from different shops to learn from each other, to befriend each other, and talk about their experiences in the coffee community. The establishment of the League has been an important step for the growth of coffee culture in Indianapolis. While the competition mainly boasted locals in the beginning, it now draws baristas from all over the state.

Behind the good-natured jabs, the shaking and the sweating, the ooh’s and ahh’s as three minutes tick by  and the competitor sets down a gorgeous pour,  is a sense that something bigger than the baristas is happening. After applauding  the talents  of other coffee professionals in the community, baristas leave the competition inspired to create a better product for the customers, and an even stronger coffee community for themselves.

The coffee scene in Indianapolis has been growing steadily for the past several years, but it is a community still in its infancy, which is good. This lack of saturation allows room for the small shops, the weird shops, and also newcomers to specialty coffee who might be intimidated by the established coffee cultures of Chicago or Portland. Indianapolis’s coffee community still  has lots to learn, but it’s  growing together. This is an exciting time to be in the coffee industry in the Midwest, and in Indianapolis specifically. Local shop owners, baristas, and roasters are working hard to  dispel the notion that Indiana is just a stop somewhere between Los Angeles and New York.

 

Author Photo

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joanna Greves
is a barista and junior roaster at Bee Coffee Roasters in Indianapolis. She is an English major at Indiana University, so like her boss says, she will probably be working in coffee for the rest of her life. Which is fine with her.

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Coming to Indy after living for five years in Russia (where coffee culture is just… nonexistent) I was so pleased to find so many great cafe options! Indy deserves more recognition for its awesome scene.

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