Once upon a time, people who ordered the exact same coffee beverage, day after day, without even minor alteration, used to baffle me. Then I stood in their shoes. If you have ever tried to order coffee before having coffee in the morning, you probably know that feeling of tongue-tied indecision, blurry-eyed inability to read a menu board, and wistful admiration for people who knew what they wanted before they even stepped into line. In such situations, having one standard drink makes a lot of sense. But not unless you also have a standard coffee shop from which to order.
More and more, independent cafes (i.e., those not linked directly to a roastery) are making a subtle shift away from carrying a single roaster's coffee. In some cases, this may result in occasional "featured" coffees. In others, it may result in a scheduled "featured coffee" day of the week. But for some, exemplified by the likes of Fremont's recently opened Milstead & Co., it results in a cafe that consistently carries coffee from a variety of roasters.
This arrangement forces savviness upon the consumer. Ordering coffee from an espresso menu adds a layer of complexity previously unknown to a process already remarkably complex. Back in 1998, when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan re(re)united on screen for the movie "You've Got Mail," there emerged one permanently-applicable quote in Tom Hanks' character's musing over a coffee order at Starbucks:
"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So, people who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self."
Prices have gone up, but the principle holds. And places like Milstead & Co, Tougo Coffee, and a handful of others (not to mention, an ever increasing ability to order your home coffee online from any roastery in the world) are challenging it. In these situations, your decision-making ability cannot hide behind the safety of normal "decision-making." No, you're required to make actual decisions. "Tall! Decaf! Cappuccino!" notwithstanding, there are now bigger choices to battle. Coava? Handsome? Velton's? African? Latin American? Bright? Earthy? Frankly, it can feel utterly overwhelming to make decisions between unfamiliar names and phrases.
So here, for you, are five roasters you may not yet know and must keep an eye out for. If you see them... choose them. There. That was easy enough!
1. Coava Coffee - Portland based Coava Coffee, highly competitive at barista competitions, turns out consistently good coffee. They particularly excel at slow bar brews, being a small enough company to roast it right and a successful enough company to bid for the best beans. When you see Coava on a pour-over menu, choose a cup of whatever is being offered. Want to check them out? Milstead regularly carries Coava's coffees.
2. Kuma Coffee - With a rapidly growing reputation in our own city and others, Seattle local Kuma Coffee is popping up all over the place. Specializing in single origin coffees, Kuma's real triumph as of late has been its Sumatra "Tano Batak." My intense personal loathing for Sumatran coffees had to be completely reconsidered after encountering this brew, which can be found at Kuma's Cafe in Wallingford, or most days at Trabant Coffee & Chai.
3. WreckingBall Coffee - Yet another excellent Californian venture (and there are many of them, currently), WreckingBall is available locally on a restricted schedule at Tougo Coffee in the Central District. Inquire at the shop about opportunities to catch their espresso on bar, though... If you're up for ordering a simple doppio espresso, WreckingBall is well worth that little extra effort.
4. Heart Roasters - Also from Portland and also available at Milstead & Co, but on a limited basis (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to count on). Heart has a divided review in the coffee community, and is ultimately extremely worth making your own mind up about... if possible, separately as espresso and on brew bar. They don't mince flavors in their roasting, and experience states that you will either be immediately unimpressed, or an instant, diehard fan.
5. Counter Culture - The odd one out on this list, Counter Culture is not a West Coast coffee. The company hails from North Carolina, and is doing some of the best coffee work you can find in the entire eastern half of the United States. Direct Trade Certified, sustainability-focused, and committed to roasting really, really good coffee, they are still relatively unknown in this city. You can find them on bar at Barista in Portland, or online. If you find Counter Culture's coffee being featured at a cafe in Seattle, order it. Decision made for you!