Coffee here is like water. And I was determined to soak it up like a fish.
I was meeting my extended family out here, but I arrived early to explore the coffee shops in the country’s most caffeinated city. I mapped it out to determine where I could hit the most shops the quickest and, over the course of about three hours, I had ingested six shots of espresso and two cups of coffee, at five different coffee shops. (I actually visited six but, sadly, my heart was beating too fast to purchase anything at the last shop.)
Needless to say, I sprinted around downtown and the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. And there wasn’t much jet lag after that rocket-boost of caffeine.
In many ways, Seattle is where the coffee explosion that is reverberating across the country first began. It is the birthplace of Starbucks, but also a whole movement of independent shops pushing espressos, pourovers, and drinks you’ve never heard of.
The current scene is a mixture of old, traditional coffee shops as well as a new generation aimed at keeping Seattle on top of its game and competing with its coffee sister to the south, Portland, Ore.
By some measures, Seattle has the highest density of coffee shops in the country. In 2010 the Seattle-Tacoma area had 1,646 coffee shops — or 3.5 shops for every 10,000 residents, according to a survey by market research firm NPD Group. Boston, by comparison, had 0.945, putting it at 11th in the country.
It’s hard to walk three blocks without coming across a tempting place to grab an espresso.
Maybe it’s the gray weather that makes you want to go somewhere cozy. In the home of Boeing, there’s an appreciation for the engineering behind each brew. In the city of Amazon, there’s an affinity for the practiced efficiency of a good barista.
Whatever the reason, I had found my home when I landed in Seattle.
When I travel to a new place, I always like to check out the coffee scene. Finding good coffee in many cities can be a challenge, and usually I’ll have two or three spots I want to check out.
With Seattle, it’s the opposite problem. There are so many places to see that it can be overwhelming.
It’s like going to New York in search of a good bagel. Or hunting down a suitable croissant in Paris, or the right chocolate nugget in Brussels. There’s actually a Seattle Coffee Crawl, where you pay $35 for a 2½-hour walking tour of coffee shops.
Alas, I didn’t have time for that. Instead I used one of my primary sources whenever traveling, which is to scour the comprehensive coffee-centric website Sprudge. Search the site for whatever city you’re heading to and it’ll bring up entries on some of the trendy stores. It had several guides that didn’t steer me wrong.
And luckily for me, when I arrived, Seattle Weekly had just published its annual “guide to what’s great in Seattle coffee culture,” a four-page spread with more than 15 recommended shops.
I started out with Caffe Ladro, which opened in 1994 and is considered one of the institutions. It’s a chain, but a small one. I ordered a cappuccino.
I knew I wanted to hit some of the city’s three V’s of coffee (Vivace, Victrola, and Vita). So next up was Victrola Coffee, a company that started in 2000. I went to its roastery, which is in a nice, airy building with exposed brick. A cheerful barista talked me into the latest offering, a Kenya Thika Peaberry pourover.
One thing I began to notice is that Seattle shops are very focused on espresso-based drinks (cappuccino, macchiato, latte, mocha), while many trendy coffee shops in other cities are pushing drip coffee (but hand poured, and done over the course of several minutes by a barista).
After polishing off the Kenya brew, I headed around the corner to Broadcast Coffee Roasters, where I tried to mix it up. I got a macchiato, which is an espresso with just a little bit of milk.
Not too far down the road was Stumptown. This is a Portland-based coffee shop, and when it came to Seattle in 2007, it was like an unwelcome invasion. Like a little Pacific Northwest battle for coffee supremacy.
Stumptown was more familiar to me, with its beans in heavy circulation all around the East Coast. I needed to slow things down, though, and I got a pourover of an Ethiopia Duromina, something that would take a bit to prepare and give me a chance to relax.
My next stop was about a mile away. A decent walk.
Here I went to Espresso Vivace. This place was initially disorienting. I felt like I’d walked through a door and suddenly into Italy. There were drinks on the menu I didn’t recognize. They serve no drip coffee. None.
I asked the barista a couple of questions and eventually settled on their Caffe Nico. He had to repeat this several times to me: It is a 4-ounce macchiato with dashes of orange, vanilla, and cinnamon. An orange peel is placed on the saucer.
I’m not normally one to have a lot added to my coffee, but this drink was memorable. The hint of orange in the coffee was as lovely as the blooming flower creation in the foam. The shop opens its windows on a nice day, so it’s also among the best to people-watch.
By this point, I was on such a high that I couldn’t bring myself to order from the last place I stopped, Analog Coffee. This is a neighborhood cafe whose simple look belies the fact that it serves cold-brew coffee that takes 15 hours to prepare.
Over the course of several more days, I had the chance to sample a lot more.
There are drive-through kiosks and street vendors selling coffee. There’s also a wealth of stores with the green and white siren of Starbucks. Because it’s a chain, I didn’t feel the need to go into any of them, except for two.
I visited the original store, which is in Pike Place market. It’s a small room filled with beans. I also went to Roy Street Coffee & Tea, which is affiliated with Starbucks and used as kind of a testing ground for new products. There’s no drip coffee here, only pourovers. It sells cold-brew coffee growlers.
One of my favorite spots was Milstead & Co. It brings in beans from around the country. The staff was friendly, eager to learn your tastes and help guide your selection. Baristas here are more like bartenders. Tell them what things you like to taste, and they’ll help you find it.
One of the most beautiful stores I saw was Storyville Coffee, in Pike Place. It’s perched up on the third floor, with big leather chairs and a cozy fireplace that makes you want to stay as long as possible.
We had diner coffee at the Athenian Inn, which has the bar where Tom Hanks sat in scenes for “Sleepless in the Seattle.”
And I was, admittedly, blissfully sleepless myself after all the caffeine.