Saturday Series: The Rialta Coffee Tour, Part 13

The Ultimate Coffee Road Trip Across the United States.

This week:  Ohio to Tennessee

Editor’s note:  We began publishing reports from Don Niemyer about the cafes he visited on his cross-country coffee tour back in the summer of 2013, and we’ve loved following his journey, learning about amazing coffeehouses out there in the United States, ever since. We’ll be publishing reports from Don about his recent journey around the Central and Northern states every Saturday this fall. To catch up on Don’s earlier posts about his explorations of coffee culture throughout the Western United States, click  HERE. Following are links to Don’s posts from this current Saturday Series:

Part 1: Oregon to Amarillo, Texas
Part 2: Oklahoma to South Dakota
Part 3: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Part 4: Wisconsin to Michigan
Part 5: Chicago, Illinois
Part 6: Indiana to Washington, D.C.
Part 7: Virginia to Florida
Special Edition: The Big Central Coffee Competitions in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Part 8: Maryland to Pennsylvania
Part 9: Delaware to Rhode Island
Part 10: Massachusetts to Maine
Part 11: Vermont
Part 12: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

We hope you continue to enjoy Don’s reports as much as we do!

By Don Niemyer
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

2014:  What a year!

As we wrap this year up, it’s amazing to think of how it began for us. My family and I had been living in a tiny VW Rialta RV for almost two years, running a coffee business in Portland, Ore. We moved into the RV because our shop was for sale and we had been planning an epic, national coffee tour and wanted to be ready to go when the time came. Admittedly, we also have some pretty intense minimalist leanings, which prodded us into becoming mobile tiny-house people, as well. These two things working together made a tiny RV a great fit for us. So we began 2014 with one eye on our business and one eye on the road.

Now, 12 months later, our shop is in the capable hands of its new owners, and we are over 15,000 miles and 200 coffee shops down that road we’d been eyeballing. Of course, as you know, we have been trying to share some of that journey here with you, sorting through the experience to highlight some of the most interesting things we’ve found as we went, and shining a spotlight on some of the hard-working people who are in the trenches making it all happen. We hope you’ve enjoyed the journey thus far!

This week, we travel between Ohio and Tennessee.
This week, we travel between Ohio and Tennessee.

But as we’ve traveled, we’ve had a few other priorities to juggle. We’ve been homeschooling our two girls, ages 8 and 10. We’ve been visiting family and friends as we go. We’ve been judging coffee competitions. And of course we’ve done quite a bit of sightseeing. We’ve even had competing priorities in how we report. Sometimes we talk about the best shops. Sometimes we highlight innovations that we find valuable or interesting. Occasionally we include something just because it’s weird. And then there’s that sub-goal of including something from each of the lower 48 states (we’ve conceded that we won’t be able to get the RV to Hawaii or Alaska).

So why do I tell you all this today? Well, partly because I’m thinking about how good 2014 has been to us and I’m getting all nostalgic and grateful (Kleenex, please!), and naturally I’m wondering how 2015 is going to shake out and that type of thing. That’s part of it. The other part is that in order to make sense of this post, you’re going to need to be thinking about those competing priorities because we are all over the place. We’ll start at an Interstate rest area near Cleveland, Ohio, and end up at my sister’s house in Cleveland, Tennessee. In between, we’ll visit coffee competitions, out-of-the-way shops, closed shops (arrrg!), shops in churches, backwards shops, and more. Yep, it’s gonna get weird on the Rialta Coffee Tour, just the way we like it. So buckle up, here we go!

coffee tour
We love roadside rest areas! They offer quick and easy access to so many things we value: Space for the kids to run around, bathrooms, water stations for the RV (see above), coffee ¦ ¦Wait ¦COFFEE?!? At a rest area!?!
coffee tour
Well, I’m not saying it was the best coffee in Ohio, but you gotta give this state props. Smack in between the toilets and the gift shop we found this setup, complete with La Marzocco GB5, Mazzer grinders, and a Fetco brew tower. WAY better than the usual four-hour-old pot of Folgers you usually find over by the tour guide maps. Way to go, O-HI-O!
coffee tour
On over in Toledo, we read online about a little shop named Plate 21. They sounded pretty great, so we stopped in to check ˜em out.
What we found at Plate 21 was a passionate crew, embedded deep into the local culture, making a difference, changing a community, and doing it with excellence. Owner Sandy Spang gave us the run-down, and the run-down was pretty impressive. Not to mention the coffee by Madcap.  Great stuff!
What we found at Plate 21 was a passionate crew, embedded deep into the local culture, making a difference, changing a community, and doing it with excellence. Owner Sandy Spang gave us the run-down, and the run-down was pretty impressive. Not to mention the coffee by Madcap. Great stuff!
Crescendo is an outfit we found by accident when we passed through Madison again on our way to the Big Central in Minneapolis. We had a great Americano, and a great chat with owner Cait Shanahan. She's been the manager for years, and recently purchased the business. They're serving Milwaukee's Anodyne Coffee Roasters, and probably have the strongest live music venue we've seen on the tour.  Couldn't leave these guys out!
Crescendo is an outfit we found by accident when we passed through Madison again on our way to the Big Central in Minneapolis. We had a great Americano, and a great chat with owner Cait Shanahan. She’s been the manager for years, and recently purchased the business. They’re serving Milwaukee’s Anodyne Coffee Roasters, and probably have the strongest live music venue we’ve seen on the tour. Couldn’t leave these guys out!
Remember that winter storm that left 6 feet of snow in Buffalo? Yeah, well we were in Minnesota at the Big Central Barista Competition when that thing hit, so we tore out of town and headed south.  We were flying through Iowa with our hair on fire, but we wanted to snag at least one shop from the state as we passed through. Luckily, Brewed Awakenings in Cedar Rapids had us covered!
Remember that winter storm that left 6 feet of snow in Buffalo? Yeah, well we were in Minnesota at the Big Central Barista Competition when that thing hit, so we tore out of town and headed south. We were flying through Iowa with our hair on fire, but we wanted to snag at least one shop from the state as we passed through. Luckily, Brewed Awakenings in Cedar Rapids had us covered!
Even though we hit the guys at Brewed Awakenings so early they were barely open, they couldn't have been nicer! They offer PT's Coffee, and have a great in-house bakery as well.  Just what we needed as we continued south!
Even though we hit the guys at Brewed Awakenings so early they were barely open, they couldn’t have been nicer! They offer PT’s Coffee, and have a great in-house bakery as well. Just what we needed as we continued south!
Speaking of Minnesota, remember this guy from our report on the Big Central? Well, you should, because even though it was Ramades Roldan's first year to compete, he won first place, representing Blueprint Coffee Roasters out of St. Louis, Missouri.  Incidentally, Blueprint also had the 3rd place finisher with Nora Brady. Pretty impressive!
Speaking of Minnesota, remember this guy from our report on the Big Central? Well, you should, because even though it was Ramades Roldan’s first year to compete, he won first place, representing Blueprint Coffee Roasters out of St. Louis, Missouri. Incidentally, Blueprint also had the 3rd place finisher with Nora Brady. Pretty impressive!
Carissa and I both had the honor of judging Ramades at the competition (Carissa on sensory and myself on tech), and we'd never been to Blueprint, so as we fled Snowpocalypse 2014 and breezed through Iowa into St. Louis, we looked up his café and stopped in for a visit.
Carissa and I both had the honor of judging Ramades at the competition (Carissa on sensory and myself on tech), and we’d never been to Blueprint, so as we fled Snowpocalypse 2014 and breezed through Iowa into St. Louis, we looked up his café and stopped in for a visit.
Unfortunately, we arrived at 2:10 on a Monday afternoon, only to discover that the café closes at 2:00 on Monday. Arrg! But we still wanted to include them on the tour, if for no other reason to showcase their very clever use of humongo Scrabble letters to indicate the object of our frustration. Were they still open? NOPE.
Unfortunately, we arrived at 2:10 on a Monday afternoon, only to discover that the café closes at 2:00 on Monday. Arrg! But we still wanted to include them on the tour, if for no other reason to showcase their very clever use of humongo Scrabble letters to indicate the object of our frustration. Were they still open? NOPE.
We finally arrived in the little-ish town of Cleveland, Tenn., where we settled in for a visit with my sister and her sweet family. They informed us that, even though Chatanooga is the nearby  œcool town,  Cleveland has a bit of a coffee scene, too. That's when they introduced us to Bonlife, which in addition to having great coffee, a beautiful space, and an owner who wins Aeropress championships, might just have the best tagline we've seen: Drink a Better Story.
We finally arrived in the little-ish town of Cleveland, Tenn., where we settled in for a visit with my sister and her sweet family. They informed us that, even though Chatanooga is the nearby œcool town,  Cleveland has a bit of a coffee scene, too. That’s when they introduced us to Bonlife, which in addition to having great coffee, a beautiful space, and an owner who wins Aeropress championships, might just have the best tagline we’ve seen: Drink a Better Story.
I love that tagline! You know what else I love? Magic tables that fold down from the wall!
I love that tagline! You know what else I love? Magic tables that fold down from the wall!
Of course, we weren't going to be kept out of Chatanooga for long. So as my sister kept an eye on our kidlets, the lady and I slipped into  œChatt  (as the locals seem to call it) and found Camphouse Coffee, a community work space that is part of a local church called Mission Chatanooga.
Of course, we weren’t going to be kept out of Chatanooga for long. So as my sister kept an eye on our kidlets, the lady and I slipped into œChatt  (as the locals seem to call it) and found Camphouse Coffee, a community work space that is part of a local church called Mission Chatanooga.
coffee tour
We caught them at the tail end of their time residing in this pretty darn nice space, but Jenna, the manager, informed us they were relocating soon. We checked out pics of their new space online, and it is GORGEOUS. Nonetheless, we loved our visit, we loved our drinks, and we loved Jenna, who was super gracious and helpful. Lots of churches do coffee. Hardly any of them do it well. Camphouse does it great.
One of the questions we get asked all the time is which cafés have been our favorites. Our answer often depends on where we've been recently, what kind of mood we're in, and so on.  But one café that always gets mentioned? Brash, in Chatanooga, Tenn.
One of the questions we get asked all the time is which cafés have been our favorites. Our answer often depends on where we’ve been recently, what kind of mood we’re in, and so on. But one café that always gets mentioned? Brash, in Chatanooga, Tenn.
When you walk into Brash, you immediately have the sense that you're in a special place. The interior is clean and simple, but stunning. Then you start to get the sense that something is different ¦.what could it be? Then you realize ”There is no bar. Just a wall of equipment, then one large table in the middle of the room.
When you walk into Brash, you immediately have the sense that you’re in a special place. The interior is clean and simple, but stunning. Then you start to get the sense that something is different ¦.what could it be? Then you realize ”There is no bar. Just a wall of equipment, then one large table in the middle of the room.
The guy second from the left is owner Matt Ludwikowski, who says the idea of the table was to reproduce the sense of community you get around the kitchen table, or preparing meals with friends and family. We walk into a lot of coffee shops, and I gotta tell you, the experience at Brash was one-of-a-kind.
The guy second from the left is owner Matt Ludwikowski, who says the idea of the table was to reproduce the sense of community you get around the kitchen table, or preparing meals with friends and family. We walk into a lot of coffee shops, and I gotta tell you, the experience at Brash was one-of-a-kind.
Another thing that's unique about Brash? Matt's backwards journey to running a café. He went to Latin America, accidentally made friends with some farmers, started importing their coffees, then roasting them, and eventually opened this café. Now he labels the coffees by the farmer's name. For espresso the day we visited, we chose between the Miguel and the Ruben.  We kinda loved that.
Another thing that’s unique about Brash? Matt’s backwards journey to running a café. He went to Latin America, accidentally made friends with some farmers, started importing their coffees, then roasting them, and eventually opened this café. Now he labels the coffees by the farmer’s name. For espresso the day we visited, we chose between the Miguel and the Ruben. We kinda loved that.
Yes, we'd just found one of our favorite cafés of the trip, but our kids were probably driving their aunt Julie nutso by now, so we headed back to Cleveland, parked the Rialta in her driveway, and took a few days off. We had been coffee sleuthing for about 5 months now, and it was time for a break.
Yes, we’d just found one of our favorite cafés of the trip, but our kids were probably driving their aunt Julie nutso by now, so we headed back to Cleveland, parked the Rialta in her driveway, and took a few days off. We had been coffee sleuthing for about 5 months now, and it was time for a break.

Well, 2014 is in the books, and as you can see, we’re takin’ er easy for a few days. And say, why don’t you take a little rest your own self? You’ve worked hard this year, and by doggies, you deserve it. Pull a chair by the fire, kick up your feet, and do some reflecting on how awesome you were in 2014. And after you’ve swatted your back a couple times, take another minute and just think about this: If 2014 was this awesome, what might 2015 hold that will even be more amazing? Only time will tell! And only time will tell what the Rialta Coffee Tour will turn up as we continue our journey. But whatever it is, we’ll have that report for you right here soon, so be sure to check back! Until then, follow us at our social media sites, or at DonNiemyer.com. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Editor note: Seems Don more than deserves a week off, right? So check back on January 13 for the next installment of the Rialta Coffee Tour.  

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

donandcarissa

Don Niemyer  used to own three coffee shops in Portland, Ore., where he and his wife Carissa spent 8 years immersed in the excellent coffee culture there, milking it like a dairy cow for every drop of expertise it would give them, making lots of friends, doing some USBC judging, and learning all they could. One day, they decided to move their kids closer to family, so they bought a tiny RV, moved into it, and have been œmoving to Colorado  ever since, visiting coffee shops, practicing minimalism, and having lots of fun. That was over two years ago. One of these days, they might even end up living in Colorado.

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