Let’s just say Grand Rapids, Mich., was never particularly high on my list of places to spend some quality time. OK, it wasn’t even on the list. But as soon as I stepped into MadCap Coffee, eyed the cozy seats and the wooden bar, and ordered a cappuccino, I knew I was in the right place.
There was a brilliant rosetta and just the right amount of milk that — in a sign of a true coffee shop — was poured into a porcelain cup that was only 6 ounces.
Pure heaven, it seems, was achieved: First-rate coffee in a second-rate city (no offense to Gerald Ford’s hometown).
Over the past two years, I’ve traveled across the country covering the presidential campaign for this newspaper. Some of my colleagues used the extensive time on the road to sample martinis. Others had a knack for picking out the best local restaurant, or scouring for a nice hotel in an odd city.
Me? As a self-professed coffee snob, I used it to sample some of the best coffee culture in the world.
I had an exquisite cappuccino at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem, the perfect pourover at Aviano Coffee in Denver, and a lovely cafe con leche at ZaZa Cuban Coffee in terminal B of the Orlando International Airport. Oftentimes, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to make sure I had time to walk to a nearby coffee shop and be back to catch the campaign bus.
I learned that the Las Vegas Strip has a lot of things, but one thing it’s missing is a decent place for coffee (plenty of johns, one might say, but nowhere to find a quality cup of joe). A delightful surprise came in Salt Lake City — home of Mormonism, which discourages caffeine consumption — when I discovered several stellar coffee shops.
These expeditions were selfish. While political reporters for generations have used coffee as an entry point to capturing a slice of Americana, interviewing average folk as they sip at diners, I used it to get out of the campaign bubble — to, however briefly, experience a new city in a new way.
It wasn’t the personal connection I was seeking so much as it was the adventure in finding the places, keeping me rooted on what at times became a solitary expedition in foreign locales. When I was a kid, I collected keychains wherever we traveled; these coffee shops, in a way, were my keychains.
They served as my home away from home — and office. I wrote about the political challenges of Mitt Romney’s auto bailout position from Astro Coffee in Detroit. From Nobrow Coffee & Tea Co. in Salt Lake City, I explored the mixture of apprehension and pride Mormons felt having one of their own as a presidential nominee. From the booths at Lucky Bros’ Coffee in Columbus, I wrote about the voters in Ohio that every political consultant in the country was eyeing.
I discovered that New Hampshire may be first in the nation to hold its primary, but it’s far from first in the nation for coffee (and yes, I know, America runs on Dunkin’ — but this guy doesn’t). In the continued rivalry between Iowa and New Hampshire over political importance, Des Moines easily has Manchester beat on the best coffee scene. But a warning: Charleston, in third-in-the-nation-to-vote South Carolina, tops them both (I’m looking at you, Hope and Union Coffee Co.).
By day, I would listen to Romney as he spoke about entrepreneurialism, about jobs, and about an innovative economy. He toured factories, and hosted small business round tables. But what I discovered was that my mornings often began in one corridor of the US economy that seems to be thriving, and often in the most unexpected of places.
Even as coffee is becoming much more of a specialty — like wine or cheese, rather than the commodity it has been for generations — boutique places that used to be found only on the snobby coasts are now widely accessible in the heartland.
These independent coffee shops are sprouting in places like Columbus, Milwaukee, and Richmond. They create a small number of jobs impossible to outsource, they roast their own beans, and they’ve created a market for people willing to put down, in the most extreme cases like Cafe Grumpy in New York, $12 for a cup of coffee.
These places all fall under the label “third wave coffee,” a term meant to describe a new era that relies on specialized beans handled with utmost care. Under this rubric, the first wave was the early 20th century when Folgers caught on and coffee became a household need (coffee is basic, like at a diner, somewhat watery). Second wave was in the 1960s, first with Peet’s Coffee & Tea in California and later taking off with Starbucks (darker roasts, higher prices).
Third wave is more specialized. It is less corporate (most have only one independent shop), and more individualized (often cups are brewed one at a time). The most influential in the movement are considered to be Counter Culture (Durham, N.C.), Stumptown (Portland, Ore.), and Intelligencia (Chicago).
Because it’s decentralized, it means a traveling coffee connoisseur has more room for error. It’s not like walking into a Starbucks and knowing exactly what the oatmeal will taste like, or being certain that the cup of Pike’s Place blend you had in Portland, Ore., will taste the exact same as the one you will have in Portland, Maine.
Some signs you’re in the right place: wooden floors; menu written with chalk; ceramic cups; baristas wearing hats, skinny ties, or tattoos; shop equipment that looks like it could be used for a grand science experiment.
Some signs you’re in the wrong place: Styrofoam cups; a bank of flavor shots ready to squirt into a cup that shouldn’t need artificial additives; whipped cream; things for sale there that have nothing to do with coffee.
The places that strive for high-end coffee are not so much your living room — as Starbucks attempts to be — as your high-end kitchen, with stainless steel appliances and blond wood floors and cabinets.
I’m not saying I have an adamant distaste for Starbucks; many mornings in Manchester, N.H., found me eating their familiar-tasting oatmeal and drinking a grande cup.
But seeking coffee in this new era of independent stores is, well, more fun. It’s an adventure to find the type of place that will suit your caffeinated needs.
Yes, they can be snobby and pretentious. You might feel out of place (“Do you guys do pumpkin spice?” someone asked at Gimme! Coffee in New York. Everyone laughed at the absurdity).
Some places are nothing short of ridiculous. (Here’s how Stumptown describes one of its beans: “Unlike Caturra, Pacas or Catuai, the Tekisic varietal maintains great internodal spacing and is therefore a lower yielding varietal in comparison to the aforementioned varietals.”)
But one sip of a finely pulled espresso can make you a lifelong convert.
Once, on a reporting trip back to Boston on Super Tuesday, I went into newly-opened Pavement Coffeehouse in the Back Bay and ordered a cup of black coffee. They used a digital scale to measure out my beans. That’s silly, I scoffed.
But within a few months, I had bought a scale myself so I could do the same at home with my French press or my cafe solo.
I’m now back in Washington, a city where the decent coffee scene continues to improve. And as I adjust to life that involves far less travel, I am comforted by this: MadCap Coffee, that shop I first discovered on a quiet day in Grand Rapids nearly a year ago, is expanding. They intend to open their second cafe in Washington. And just a 15-minute detour on my morning commute.
Matt Viser can be reached at