How Chicago Became a Coffee Roaster’s Town
Restaurants & Bars

How Chicago Became a Coffee Roaster’s Town

Erin Meister
about 3 years ago

If there’s an iconic food to be found somewhere in America, you better believe Chicago is going to have its own special spin on it. From hot dogs to pizza to the classic Italian beef sandwich—heck, there’s even a Chicago style of popcorn—Chicagoans are definitely some of the best-eating American city dwellers, hands down. It’s no surprise, then, that the Windy City would also have its own thriving, growing, and uniquely Chicagoan coffee scene. Over the past few years, “locally roasted” here has not only meant literally within the borders of greater Chicagoland, but also as in with that particular edge that gives the beans and the brews here some kind of specific Chi-Town terroir.

While Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea was the longtime standard-bearer for local specialty coffee, these days there are more and more small craft roasters working on small machines or in offbeat spaces, cranking out coffees that easily give more widely recognized “coffee towns” like Seattle, Portland, and New York a run for their money. How did Chicago become such a roaster’s village, though? We asked Mandy Spirito, director of coffee for Halfwit Coffee Roasters, whose roasting operations are in Logan Square. “Well, Chicago is pretty dang cold in the winter, and I know I feel a lot better walking around in the bitter cold with a cup of coffee in my hands,” she kids. “All joking aside, Chicago’s reputation as a food-obsessed city really holds up. I’ve never lived in a place with so many culinary options, and folks so willing to branch out and try everything.”

According to Mandy, that give-it-a-try attitude extends to giving small business a boost, too. “Chicago seems to support a wide variety of local businesses, roasters included. I think that’s buoyed by the support the coffee community here offers each other, and a really unique kind of can-do attitude that I haven’t really seen anywhere else that really allows roasters to establish their own micro-communities.” It’s true that coffee people—both those who work in it and those who are real obsessives of it—tend to form their own little social units, a kind of “takes one to know one” kinship that is contagious rather than cliquey. “That Midwestern hospitality really shines in the [coffee] community are: You need to borrow equipment because something went down? Someone’s got you covered. Run out of decaf? Got you covered. I like to think that we’re a lovable group of friendly nerds, in coffee life and in real life. I mean, we have an actual Delorean over at the Wormhole [Halfwit’s sister cafe in Wicker Park].”

If you’re hankering to try a bit of what Chicago’s been brewing lately, here are some of the best local roasters to come up in the past few years—including Halfwit and a few of Mandy’s other favorite lovable friendly coffee nerds.

Halfwit Coffee Roasters

These coffee eggheads are all about the process, the details, and the little inside jokes that can feel like a super friendly inside joke, even if you don’t always 100% get the reference. Check out the company’s Moonbat Blend, a sweet combo of easy-drinking favorites punched up with just a little bit of fruit to keep things funky.

Big Shoulders Coffee

“No-nonsense” is how most Chicago natives would describe both themselves and their city, and the same goes for Big Shoulders, a small but mighty roasting company with three retail locations, whose coffee bags cut right through the B.S. and tell you exactly what you need to know: Where’s this coffee from, and what does it taste like? Bingo, bango.

Dark Matter Coffee Roasters

This offbeat company roasts to the beat of its own drum, and rocks out to it, too.

It doesn’t just have a mission, it’s got a “manifesto,” and in addition to a regular line of blends like “Unicorn Blood” and “A Love Supreme,” Dark Matter thrills in collaborations with musicians (check out the Mastadon collab blend called Crack the Skye), artists, and other local misfits, outsiders, and rock & rollers.

Four Letter Word

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This tiny company, a project started by childhood friends who roast out of The Plant collective space in Back of the Yards, is one of Mandy’s favorite local sleepers. “They seem to fly below the radar because they don’t have a storefront, but I swear it, every time I have a cup I’m bowled over.”

Gaslight Coffee Roasters

Another cut-to-the-chase type roasting company (Chicago doesn’t mince many words), this roaster-retailer has a well-curated selection of single-origin coffees from all over the world, focusing on flavor, intentional sourcing, and letting the beans speak for themselves.

Ipsento Coffee

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Chicago has its fair share of brainiacs, and all brainiacs love coffee. Ipsento is the perfect spot to land oneself a thinking cup—after all, the name is a word coined from the Latin ipse, or “self,” and sentio, “to discover.” Discover yourself over a fine-tuned shot of espresso.

Metric Coffee Co.

Another of Mandy’s favorite Gotham City gems, Metric has “fantastic coffee and fantastic humans to boot.” In fact, the bottom of the company’s retail bags say, “Made by humans,” though it modestly doesn’t specify that they are fantastic.)

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