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For coffee trends, Chicago’s indie shops surpass Starbucks

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Updated: May 2, 2013 6:01AM

‘Clean balanced flavors with a low acidity.”

“Elegant with almond and cocoa sweetness.”

“Soft grapefruit citrus balanced by peanut butter earthiness.”

Wine-tasting notes from a new, trendy Chicago restaurant? Hardly. Those were the descriptions of three of the coffees of the day available at River West’s Big Shoulders Coffee on a recent Sunday.

While Starbucks may have initiated the desire for better-quality coffee years ago, before some of us even realized there was such a thing — and now that we have, we can never go back — the Seattle-based java giant no longer leads the way in coffee trends. Rather, it’s the small, independently owned spots with their roasted-in-house beans and meticulously brewed cups of coffee that are creating the buzz these days in cities all over the country, including Chicago.

Take, for instance, Bow Truss (, which recently opened its second cafe near the Merchandise Mart. Owner Phil Tadros is no stranger to the coffee biz, having opened up a number of shops over the last 15 years, including Dollop, Kickstand and Noble Tree. “I originally ended up in coffee because I was too young to open a bar and it was affordable at the time,” he says.

Last summer Tadros, along with other veteran coffee pros including some former Intelligentsia staffers — “Intelligentsia definitely paved the way in Chicago for specialty coffee as far as standards goes,” he says — decided to take his passion even further and opened Lakeview’s Bow Truss, a coffee roasting facility that also features a small, no-frills cafe.

In Logan Square, Tristan Coulter and Zak Rye have been roasting coffee at Gaslight Coffee Roasters ( since last September. At the bar, you’ll find three to four of their coffees featured each day along with a guest roast, and, like at Big Shoulders, each is paired with a specific brewing method that best highlights the beans’ natural flavors.

Gaslight shares its roaster with HalfWit Coffee Roasters (, whose owner Travis Schaffner is also behind the Wormhole coffee house ( and Lincoln Park’s Fritz Pastry.

The openness and sharing of knowledge is typical of this new breed of java aficionados. Bow Truss recently collaborated on a coffee with another local roaster, Dark Matter ( New Gotham Coffee Community, a group made up of Chicago coffee professionals and enthusiasts, regularly hosts friendly competitive events — latte art throwdowns, anyone? — as well as educational and social gatherings.

At the core of this movement is a conscientious awareness of the origin of the beans.

“Sourcing is very important,” says Tim Coonan of Big Shoulders ( “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

After having worked in the restaurant business as a chef and culinary school instructor for 30 years and with 15 years experience as a home coffee roaster, Coonan combined his expertise to open Big Shoulders almost two years ago. Coonan, like the other roasters here, directly sources his beans from farmers who practice “thoughtful agriculture,” which not only affects the taste of the coffee, he says, but the area’s sustainability. “It’s important to have all those things in harmony,” he says.

At Metropolis Coffee Company (, father-and-son owners Jeff and Tony Dreyfuss take that concept even further. “We want to make sure our coffee has a large impact on the world,” says Tony Dreyfuss, which begins with buying great coffee from farmers who respect their land and, in turn, paying the farmers a fair price for their product. This philosophy is working for the Edgewater company: This summer, look for a Metropolis cafe at Midway Airport.

To help spread the coffee love, Metropolis posts coffee instruction videos on its website, ranging from how to use a French press to latte milk steaming. “It all based on this open-sourced belief that the more the merrier,” says Tony Dreyfuss. “We’ve been trapped from the origin of our products for far too long, and coffee is just one.”

Another area that has seen a significant change is the move away from dark roasted coffees to lighter ones. “Much in that wine has moved toward celebrating the ‘terroir’ of a particular area, coffee is seeing that, too,” says Coonan, who adds the best way to achieve that is by roasting with a gentle hand. Says Tony Dreyfuss in regard to dark roasted coffee, “At some point you are not tasting the coffee in and of itself anymore, you are tasting the roast.”

And if you’ve visited any of these indie coffee shops in the last few years, you’ll have noticed that brewing methods have changed, too, with a move away from automated batch equipment to more of an artisanal hands-on approach with individually brewed cups of coffee.

So what about all those ubiquitous pod coffee machines? While the coffee pros admit they’re convenient, taste is another issue. “I can’t say that when I’ve been in a hotel, I haven’t used one of those, but I’m not proud of it,” says Tony Dreyfuss. “Once you start down the path realizing that coffee can be this beautiful thing, it becomes harder to do that.”

Lisa Shames is the dining editor at CS magazine.

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