Last week I jet setted out to Chicago to spend some quality time with my lovely childhood friend Andy; upon my touchdown at O’hare, it didn’t take long to get swept head over heels for this Midwestern metropolis. I was whisked away into a whirlwind of fixed gear bikes, Chicago synonymous cuisine, and a locally operated coffee roaster that was kind enough to open its doors to our lens and pen.
Situated in the meatpacking district, along Chicago’s west side, the 1800 block of W Fulton is home to Intelligentsia Coffee’s Roasting Works. Snugging up to Goose Island Brewery, this small strip in a concrete sea of industry is a drinkable Disneyland to the vices that pick us up daily. Coming to life in 1995, Chicago based Intelligentsia Coffee (pronounced Intell-uh-gencia) has seen substantial growth and recently expanded to their current location on Fulton. Its roasted love will soon to be in five Coffeebar locations around Chicagoland (the company also has an LA roasting works to handle West Coast distribution).
Andy and I got buzzed in through a side door and were promptly met by web developer Matt Riddle and two cups of coffee. Our Doyo Ethiopia coffee came to life from a 211º specific water tap that was dripped through a Hario Pourover and into a Hario Range Server. If the process of manually dripping your own coffee isn’t familiar to you (it wasn’t to me either), it’s basically straight pouring kettle boiled water into a filter-lined, grind-filled, funneling device that makes a precise amount of coffee, perfectly — every time.
The grinds burble and puff up, as a steady stream of steaming water pours into their center. Translucent, butterscotch colored nectar drips in time like a metronome, a liquid sonnet splashing down into our glossy white ceramic cups. Fighting with my clunky camera in hand, I lift the glass to my lips and slurp up the steaming hot caffeinated life blood. Clean and crisp, it posses flavor nuances like you’d expect from stepped tea or old world wine. A delicate balance of acidity leads way to subtle sweet notes that, sip after sip, make your mind question if you’ve ever even experienced a real cup of coffee prior. All those years of drinking oily viscous bitter bullshit make me want to wrestle Juan Valdez, pilfer his donkey, and throw bricks through a Starbucks window before settling down at one of Intelligentsia’s fine Coffeebars for a delicious afternoon pick-me-up. To add weight to their punch, Intelligentsia goes to lengths greater than most when it comes to knowing the product they produce. Frequent trips are made to various regions to assure consistency. Working alongside the pickers and putting their hands at the beginning of the process assure proper wages and labor practices for all in a system they describe as direct trade.
We sip on and meander along. First into a room set up like a chemistry class from school, square jars of pre-roasted beans line up on a countertop, waiting for a chance to enter the micro-roaster, churning away tiny batches that are being picked apart and analyzed by a small group at the center. Exiting there, we head downstairs into the warehouse where “wake me up before you go go” scents float through aisles of floor to ceiling bean-filled jute sacks that wind us around until we encounter three massive roasters face to face. Sunlight pools onto a round table to our left; once again the rigorous process of sniff, taste, spit is ensuring uniformity and quality. Punk rock music sings along with the hums of massive roasters churning and burning away, as we were introduced to roaster (machines and the people running them are both called roasters), Alex Burbo. Between core samples pulled from the center of the tumbler to monitor the beans color, Alex chats it up about the passion and art that go into the process of creating coffee to Intelligentsia standards.
And for the process from seed to cup as a whole, Matt so kindly broke it down for me in a recent e-mail.
Seed to cup in a nutshell:
Coffee “beans” are the seed of a fruit grown on a tree.
Each fruit, called a cherry contains 2 beans.
In general, cherries are harvested once a year. The time of year varies by growing region.
Workers pick ripe cherries by hand. A tree can be gone over several times during the harvest season.
Cherries are delivered to a “depulper” where the fruit is separated from the bean. Typically, the fruit is used for compost, dried for fuel, etc.
The beans are then delivered to a “fermenting tank” where they are left to soak. This removes any remaining fruit from the bean.
After soaking, the beans are put on either patios or elevated tables to dry.
Beans are then packaged in large jute bags for transport.
Coffee is shipped.
Intelligentsia roasts the coffee beans in their roasting machines and packages it.
When you want some coffee, you grind the beans, and brew the coffee.
Fully fueled up on coffee and knowledge, Andy and I concluded our afternoon. From a working environment that’s livelier than one of their fresh roasted cups, to a crew of workers who’s minds, dedication, and creativity lend to the terroir of every blend, Intelligentsia Coffee exemplifies a progressive product and a work ethic of the highest caliber.