Updated: May 28, 2020
Although this blog is--mostly--about my writing journey, it’s fueled in no small part by the dark elixer of life. Since my wife and I started traveling full-time in our RV I’ve done most of my writing in coffee shops, both as a way to get out and explore new cities and to guard against becoming a hermit. Over the years, I’ve visited a couple hundred coffee shops, both in my hometown of Denver, Colorado and in my travels around the north and west parts of the United States and Canada. I will stop in for an espresso whenever and wherever I encounter a new place.
It seems like finding good coffee would be relatively easy, especially since we have Yelp and Google and best-of lists overflowing with recommendations. The problem with coffee recommendations and reviews is they mostly consist of generic praise like “Great coffee. They always toast my bagel just right.” Or “I can’t believe this place doesn’t have XYZ syrup. 4 stars.” Or “a homeless person asked me for change a half block from the shop. 1 star.” Ninety-nine percent of these reviews barely mention the actual coffee, nevermind whether the place serves dark or light roast, or barista quality.
Coffee preference is a very personal thing. For example: twenty percent of the population absolutely loves sour things. Who knew? This explains the popularity of so-called ‘blonde roast’ beans--which I believe to be an abomination created by the devil, or maybe terrorists, to bring about the collapse of Western Society--first popularized at Starbucks and now taking over the majority of new shops.
I am a dark roast--dark, not charred to an empty husk of charcoal flavored dust--guy through and through. Dark roast brings out the rich, earthy flavors in coffee and makes a drink that delivers on the promise of the beans’ heavenly aroma. Good coffee is full bodied and spreads slowly throughout your mouth like melted chocolate, or a delicious bearnaise sauce, involving all your taste buds, and lingers there until your next sip.
So why is it so hard to find good coffee in the US? Why is it that in the vast majority of shops--even the ones that roast their own beans and employ vest-wearing hipsters sporting long sideburns and stylish facial hair--the coffee isn’t very good. Taking away my own dark roast preference, most places have such poor training the baristas can’t even tell you what kind of beans they serve much less take the time to adjust their machines for optimal flavor. Note: The problem does not seem to be as extensive in Europe or Canada the coffee is, overall of a more consistent and higher quality, even though baristas/bartenders don’t usually receive tips and most are free of creative facial hair and clothing. With the exception of a guy in Vittoria, Spain who seemed to be actively trying to undermine his shop’s reputation. His americanos were done by just running the water through the portafilter until the coffee cup was full. Sadly that drink was probably better than 90% of the americanos I've had in US coffee shops.
I blame Starbucks. In an effort to increase sales, the coffee behemoth began promoting their blender drinks to non-coffee drinkers along with their blonde roast so that people drinking $7 concoctions of milk, sugar, carmel, whipped cream, brownie chunks, M&M's and whatever else will boost their already astronomical calorie counts can’t even taste the coffee.
Nevermind decide whether they like the beans used to make it. Did you know Starbucks puts the same number of shots and all three sizes of their drinks? The sad result is that in order to get a consistent ‘good’ cup, we coffee people have to make it ourselves (this is my coffee setup), or spend a lot of energy finding the few and far between shops who take the time and energy to do it right.
In Denver my favorites are Kaladi Coffee (and anyone who buys their beans, because their baristas also undergo training at the Kaladi facility) and Ink! Coffee because both maintain a high level of consistency and quality even as they've expanded throughout the Denver metro area. Caffeina, and Java Hyde Park, in Boise both serve a consistently awesome espresso. Caffeina also serves their espresso in a very stylish double-walled cup. Santa Barbara Roasting Company is a good place for beans, anything from extremely light brown to dark dark dark black, but their espresso is marred by such maddening inconsistency in preparation that I don’t drink it there. I would rather drive the forty miles to Ojai Roasting Company for beans and a good espresso.
I’m really not as big of a curmudgeon as I seem. There's nothing wrong with coffee milkshakes. I just think they should be served at places like Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins who know how to make a shake. Then, coffee shops could serve actual coffee for actual coffee drinkers.