The Bean Guide: a coffee shop primer

A good coffee shop does a very unique and interesting thing. Through its existence alone it brings people, many of whom are in desperate need of caffeine and who despise the arrival of morning, into intimate, crowded and loud settings, makes them wait in line with relative strangers. All for a cup of coffee that is more expensive than can be made in the privacy, and quiet, of home. These places exert a pull that has turned drinking coffee  into a shared community experience that can be more gratifying than the coffee itself.

Of course, the community essence of coffee shops has been happily co-opted by corporate America. In an effort to create community as defined by corporate efficiency, the Starbucks and Seattle’s Best of the coffee world have predictable settings, in¬† predictable places where drinking assembly line produced coffee is all meant to “recreate” the coffee shop experience. We accept these places for what they are. Their ubiquity means that more people are being introduced to the wonders of the bean. And just because these corporate enclaves exist does not mean that independent shops suffer; there is evidence that suggests that having a Starbucks near an independent coffee shop actually increases the independent’s business. Check out Taylor Clark’s article about it at Slate.com.

But we are not interested Starbucks. Instead, TWW wants to know; where are the best (independent) coffee shops? What makes them great? And, perhaps most importantly, where are they in relation to a great run, ride or hike? To this end, this glorious dream of making sure you know where to get your outside and caffeine fix within mating distance of each other, we have established a few guiding principles that we look to when assessing coffee shops. Our hope is to include coffee joints that we find community centric, innovative, fun to hang out in (even if in spandex), produce insanely good coffee, and are near enough to a route to make stopping there an easy detour. In consideration of these principles, we assess coffee shops using the the following, rough, guidelines (listed in no particular order):

1. Ambiance: No one likes walking into a coffee shop that feels like a library. When the door opens is it talking and laughing we hear? Or the noise of Mac groupies popping their heads over their screens to assess whether to pause World of Warfcraft? Are we going to be mocked because of our spandex, or embraced? Important considerations.

2. Interior design: Yep, we’re metro, and we care about how the inside of a place looks. Is it warm and inviting or cold and modern? Are there big tables for spreading out? Is there art on the walls that was not purchased at Target? The look of a place goes a long way in determing whether to cover our spandex or running shorts with pants first.

3. Community focus: Not that sponsoring a softball team isn’t great, but we want a place that thinks a bit more creatively: free coffee for firemen, supporting coffee plant farmers in developing nations, microfinancing advocacy, participating in neighborhood events, free dog treats. Things that people can get involved in and care about, without having to swing a bat.

4. Quality of “the bean”: While being a great community spot and cozy couches can make a coffee shop fun to play scrabble in, if the coffee isn’t good, there is little point in sticking around. Our palates are not defined enough to get into the subtle nuances that good coffee entails, so we abide by our litmus test: ordering an Americano (espresso in hot water). In our experience, the quality of the Americano is directly related to the quality of the rest of the drink board. It should be dark and rich and taste almost sweet. Bere!

5. Attractivness of the staff: Admittedly a shallow and superficial value assessment that should have little bearing on the quality of the coffee joint, but c’mon, who wants to roll into the coffee house first thing in the morning to be greeted by the uggo skulking behind the counter like Gollum? “My preciouuuussss….” We don’t. So deal.

6. Location: The nearest intersection is not our concern here; rather, where is the shop in location to a great ride or run? How far away is it from a long hike? These are the questions we ponder when planning our outside/coffee double strike, hence we try and include coffee shops that can be used as a starting point, waypoint or endpoint for epic shred sessions.

7. Indy cred: Basically, is this place doing new, innovative things and rocking to its own beat, or has it been created from the Sears Catalog section titled “Independent Coffee Shop Components” with instructions in English and Chinese.

And there you have it; our rough shod guide to sorting out the good from the not so good when it comes to coffee shops. Check them out, let us know what you think and please, make sure when ordering not to call the girl behind the counter Gollum. Danka.

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