The Best Coffee in Every State: How We Decided, and What We Learned
Everything is changing—again. That's the thing you need to know about coffee in the United States, right now. After an astonishingly productive decade, one that left the landscape utterly transformed, it looks as if we're going in for another round. This is exciting.
Just a few short years after so many American towns and cities were first finding themselves dazzled by the bells and whistles of what's been referred as third wave culture, by lighter, more balanced roasts, by the notion of sourcing, by the latest behind-the-counter gadgetry, the bar is once again being raised.
Quite simply, now that we have these things almost everywhere, wowing the public isn't so easy. Talking the talk is no longer enough. Appealing, minimalist café spaces, custom-made aprons, science lab-worthy cold brew set-ups—no longer enough. These days, you can buy nitro cold brew in your average supermarket. We have convenience store chains sourcing single-estate coffees. There's a ton of competition out there. More and more, greatness is a must.
Ten years ago, maybe a little more, putting together a list of the best coffee in the United States might have taken a day or two, and it could have been done from behind a desk; our recently published list, where we chose a favorite in each of the 50 states, took months to compile. Standards were high, because in most cases, they could be; in some states, the choices are now overwhelming. Specifically, there were four important criteria for selection:
#1 Ideally, we were looking for roasters at or near the top of the craft, but pushing things a little further than that, we were really on the hunt for ambitious, newer roasters, ones that might still be aiming toward the ideal, while managing to pick up a lot of buzz (and an award or two) along the way.
#2 Engagement. Ambitious sourcing efforts and skilled roasters—great stuff, but who was also engaging successfully with their communities? Ideally, there would be a destination-worthy café, or an on-premises tasting lab, a business bringing something to the local conversation, beyond latte art skills and optimized-for-Instagram aesthetics. These shops ought to be places of welcome, places of warmth. Coming across those that met this ideal, it was hard to not be more than a little biased in their favor. (Example: Connecticut, where Hartford's Story & Soil won out.)
#3 Who are the innovators, and where are they working? Many states are quickly loading up with roasting talent—who's out there, taking the risks, trying new things, going the extra mile, moving out of the more cozier, major markets into new areas?
#4 In the end, it was mostly about the user experience. Food & Wine is not a trade publication, coffee has plenty of those—this list was not created for the benefit of the industry, but rather for the consumer. As such, a conscious decision was made to keep away from the technical. There are plenty of places you can go to read about who's got the latest equipment, or who is venturing furthest into the wilds for the best beans—our goal was remain relentlessly focused on the customer. That's why the final hurdle, and perhaps the most important one, was service. Treat the product with respect, absolutely, but always treat your customer with that same respect. As time goes on, as competition stiffens, this will only become more important.
Many otherwise excellent candidates fell down on at least one of these fronts, and that's understandable—there are so many things that can go wrong with coffee, even in the most capable hands. That said, it's thrilling to consider the fact that more than 40 states on our list hit most, if not all of their marks—no doubt in short order, we'll see all 50 performing on an even higher level. (Frankly, I can't wait for us to do this all over again.) In the meantime, here are a few interesting takeaways:
Some of the best work is being done in some of the most unlikely places. From Northwest Arkansas (Onyx) to small-town Wisconsin (Ruby) to the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Passenger), some of the most exciting stuff is happening well outside of the big cities, and that's a trend that ought to continue. It's not just roasters, either—these days, you can find talented baristas just about anywhere. (Shout out, for example, to the team at Silver Grizzly Espresso, in Longview, Texas—there are many shops in major cities that should be taking lessons from you. Please keep up the good work.)
Modern-day coffee is looking more and more like modern-day America. From the award-winning work Paul Bonds is doing at BeanFruit in Jackson, Miss., to promising new roasters like Michelle Quiroz at Reserva in South Texas and Alyza Bohbot's City Girl Coffee up in Minnesota, which sources from women-owned farms around the world, to a slew of terrific cafes created by people who don't fit the stereotype of the lookalike Anglo hipster, there's a whole lot more diversity within the scene than meets the eye, and in the years to come, you can expect more still. That's worth celebrating.
Service is still lagging, but hopefully not for long. The cliché of the self-serious barista telling you "we do things differently here," when in fact everyone's pretty much doing the same thing now, has grown tiresome. Conversely, there are still too many roasters that let standards fall by the wayside in their retail operations—either they don't know, or they don't care; either way, unfortunate. Times have changed, coffee isn't the cheap thrill it used to be, and the average customer is only going to get smarter—the holdouts will have to get with it, or get left behind.
We owe the old-timers. Intelligentsia (Chicago, 1995), Counter Culture (Durham, NC, 1995), Stumptown (Portland, OR, 1999) and Blue Bottle (Oakland, CA, 2002) may now be settling into old age, three of them under new ownership, but without them, we'd never have come this far, so fast. Many people doing great work out there began by training up with one or the other, later spinning off to do their own thing. One location of Blue Bottle—the first on the East Coast, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, opening barely a decade ago—managed to turn out the talent behind no less than three businesses that ended up on our list: Passenger Coffee in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Tandem Coffee, in Portland, Maine, and Fox in the Snow, one of the most impressive café/bakery setups between the coasts right now, out in Columbus, Ohio. Here's to the next wave of graduates.