Saturday Series: The Rialta Coffee Tour, Part 5

The Ultimate Coffee Road Trip Across the United States.

This week:  Chicago, Illinois

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. To read the first installment from this new Saturday Series, click  HERE. To check out the second story, go  HERE. Read his third installment  HERE. Don’s fourth installment appears HERE. We hope you continue to enjoy Don’s reports as much as we do!

By Don Niemyer

What cities come to mind when you think of great coffee? Seattle? Portland? San Francisco? (Am I sounding too biased toward the West Coast?) I certainly wouldn’t dispute those places have each contributed meaningfully to the excellent café culture we’re all experiencing around the nation. But you can’t talk long about the great ones without mentioning Chicago. Intelligentsia alone has changed so much of the conversation about what is possible and what should be normal with coffee, including producing our nation’s first World Barista Champion a few years back. But a visit to Chicago today will quickly reveal that there is a LOT to be excited about there. So this week, we’re reporting exclusively from this beautiful and amazing city, sharing just a few of the great cafés we were able to visit while there.

Our route so far.
This week we start dipping south a bit, stopping to explore the cafe culture in the amazing city of Chicago.
Bowtruss is one of Chicago's great roasters, with three locations around the city. They're also one of Chicago's great builders-of-bean-shelves-from-old-boats.
Bow Truss is one of Chicago’s great roasters, with three locations around the city. They’re also one of Chicago’s great builders-of-bean-shelves-from-old-boats.
Beautiful space. Hospitable baristas. Excellent equipment. Strada with a skeleton hand under a dome: The guys at Gaslight have it all.
Beautiful space. Hospitable baristas. Excellent equipment. Strada with a skeleton hand under a dome: The guys at Gaslight have it all.
We thought Gaslight was just great. Super coffee and nice people. Plus, they share their roaster with another café in town, which strikes our chords of community and minimalism. Which brings us to ¦
We thought Gaslight was just great. Super coffee and nice people. Plus, they share their roaster with another café in town, which strikes our chords of community and minimalism. Which brings us to ¦
Wormhole! Another place for great coffee, but they have a few things that you're just not going to find anywhere else...
Wormhole! Another place for great coffee, but they have a few things that you’re just not going to find anywhere else…
...Like a full-sized Delorean and a bunch of other 80s themed memorabilia. You don't get points with us for weird, UNLESS you are weird with great coffee.  Then it's BONUS POINTS!
…Like a full-sized Delorean and a bunch of other 80s themed memorabilia. You don’t get points with us for weird, UNLESS you are weird with great coffee. Then it’s BONUS POINTS!
With a motto of  œBe Different; See Where it Takes You , Caffe Streets is one of Chicago's most interesting places to visit.  With street lamps lining the wall behind the café, and some of the most amazing woodwork you'll see (look up!) it would be worth a visit even if you didn't taste anything.
With a motto of œBe Different; See Where it Takes You , Caffe Streets is one of Chicago’s most interesting places to visit. With street lamps lining the wall behind the café, and some of the most amazing woodwork you’ll see (look up!) it would be worth a visit even if you didn’t taste anything.
Fortunately, the crew at Caffe Streets puts all that work into the aesthetic and ALSO their coffee. So I recommend going, looking, tasting, and loving.
Fortunately, the crew at Caffe Streets puts all that work into the aesthetic and ALSO their coffee. So I recommend going, looking, tasting, and loving.
So much of what Chicago knows about great coffee can be traced straight back to Intelligentsia. They've been diligently seeking out boundaries and pushing them further since 1995.  We visited their Wicker Park location and found them continuing the pattern. In this café, which they label a  œcontemporary Nordic aesthetic , they are pushing the boundaries related to seating, with these modular pieces hither and yon, available to arrange in whatever configuration suits your fancy.
So much of what Chicago knows about great coffee can be traced straight back to Intelligentsia. They’ve been diligently seeking out boundaries and pushing them further since 1995. We visited their Wicker Park location and found them continuing the pattern. In this café, which they label a œcontemporary Nordic aesthetic , they are pushing the boundaries related to seating, with these modular pieces hither and yon, available to arrange in whatever configuration suits your fancy.
And in the coffee arena, you'll find a gorgeous, custom painted Strada for your espresso needs, and this beautiful Modbar pourover setup to make your cup--and your palate--all giddy with glee.
And in the coffee arena of Intelligentsia, you’ll find a gorgeous, custom painted Strada for your espresso needs, and this beautiful Modbar pourover setup to make your cup–and your palate–all giddy with glee.
We found Ch'ava by following the trail of baristas in town headed there on their day off. In café after café we visited, the barista would name Ch'ava as a must-visit shop that takes their coffee VERY seriously. Obviously we weren't going to miss this, so we tracked it down and wandered in one morning, where we found owner Richard Park creating little gold nuggets like this one.
We found Ch’ava by following the trail of baristas in town headed there on their day off. In café after café we visited, the barista would name Ch’ava as a must-visit shop that takes their coffee VERY seriously. Obviously we weren’t going to miss this, so we tracked it down and wandered in one morning, where we found owner Richard Park creating little gold nuggets like this one.
Mr. Park could not have been more accommodating, and when he saw our interest and appreciation of what they were doing, he started bringing us out little tastes of what they do. What do they do? Far as we saw, they basically do excellence. The coffee was amazing. The food was thoughtful and creative.  And friends, if you happen to be into tea, this is your place. If you combined Bruce Lee, an active volcano, Albert Einstein, and that big white dude from Ghostbusters, and then taught it to make tea, you'd have the Ch'ava tea program. It's that good.
Mr. Park could not have been more accommodating, and when he saw our interest and appreciation of what they were doing, he started bringing us out little tastes of what they do. What do they do? Far as we saw, they basically do excellence. The coffee was amazing. The food was thoughtful and creative. And friends, if you happen to be into tea, this is your place. If you combined Bruce Lee, an active volcano, Albert Einstein, and that big white dude from Ghostbusters, and then taught it to make tea, you’d have the Ch’ava tea program. It’s that good.
Get in your car, drive immediately to Chicago, get out your little Google machine and make it take you to Ch'ava. No thanks necessary. Just knowing that I've changed your life is all the thanks I need.
Get in your car, drive immediately to Chicago, get out your little Google machine and make it take you to Ch’ava. No thanks necessary. Just knowing that I’ve changed your life is all the thanks I need.

 So that’s our report from Chicago! Thanks, Chicago, for treating us right and sending us on our way with bellies full of delicious coffee, and hearts inspired by excellence.

Next up, we’re heading on down to Kentucky and then out to DC. We’ll have that report for you right here next Saturday, so be sure to check back! Until then, follow us at our social media sites, or at DonNiemyer.com. See you soon!

About baristamagazine 1739 Articles
Barista Magazine is the leading trade magazine in the world for the professional coffee community.