The big, beautiful moment came from nowhere, on the worst possible day—a brittle, featureless January afternoon in one of those Southern cities you do not typically rush toward when looking to uncover trends. The morning had been filled with disappointment, and coffee that tasted like sadness, and I wasn’t the least bit optimistic, arriving at my final stop. But there was this brand new coffee bar that I apparently just had to see, and so I went, expecting nothing. The town was already full of coffee shops, and they were all pretty bad—new, old, didn't matter. Should this one be any different?
Well, it was. Inside, under the kind of careful lighting that makes everybody look better, behind the kind of bar you just want to run your fingers over, until somebody shouts at you to stop being weird, there was this group of very friendly people, studiously attentive to their work, turning out perfect cortados and lattes and the like, to the quiet delight of a standing room-only crowd. After a year of intense travel, from Florida to the Midwest to small towns in Texas, throughout the Pacific Northwest and dozens of states in between, there had been so many satisfying moments of discovery, but here? Really? I felt as if I’d finally turned over the final stone in America, only to find a perfect little coffee shop, the sort that could fit in beautifully, in places you might actually have heard of. For the first time that day, I couldn't help but smile, and it hit me. You know what? This whole coffee business? We might really be nailing this.
And how long, exactly, did it take? Well, not very long at all, actually, a decade, maybe a little more, since things really began to pick up steam, outside of the places that had already been so far ahead of the curve. We’ve still got miles to go, but let’s take this moment to be the slightest bit impressed with ourselves—think about everything that has happened, in such a short time, and about everything that keeps happening—this is no longer a drill, this is not a flash in the pan—the best coffee we've ever had is here to stay. Well done, America. Take a minute, pat yourselves on the back, and then let’s go fix everything else.
Exactly how good are things now, you ask. Possibly for the first time ever, each state now has a modern, up-to-speed coffee roaster doing at least very promising work, so there’s that—from North Dakota to Nevada to Oklahoma to Alabama, there are so many bright, often very young people jumping into the game, a group that becomes more representative by the year. (Out of the fifty states, roughly half of our picks are either owned or co-owned by women and/or people of color; among the hundreds more roasters and coffee shops you will see mentioned below, this trend only appears to intensify.) The world of coffee has become so much smaller, too, with so many buyers getting closer and closer to the source; American coffee drinkers now have access to a stunning selection of single estate, small lot, hard-to-find, rare varietal, magnificently obscure coffees, but equally important, as competition stiffens, as new roasters become more experienced, and as more consumers learn to ask for better, the quality of the finished product continues to improve.
This is the second year of the survey, and if you happened to come across the first one, first published in March of 2018, you know it skewed towards the new and the interesting; the project began as an attempt to understand exactly what was happening in American coffee, and once the thing was written, I knew we'd need to do it all over again, and that the next time, things were going to get really serious.
And so, this year, there were real guidelines. In order to claim the top spot in your state, you had to be an actual coffee roaster—for at least two years, if there was enough local competition to make this possible. Having great coffee was important, but as in 2018, we have held to a more consumer-focused approach (this is not a trade publication), focusing on roasters who were able to deliver the whole package, or close to it—spectacular coffees, great retail operations, and passions for hospitality, community, and, better still, complete sustainability. The world might run on coffee, but coffee remains in constant peril, subject to the cruelty of market forces, and the ongoing threat of climate change. Unless we care more, and put more of our money where it belongs, in the hands of the growers, there will come a time when we may no longer have coffee to kick around, anymore; any roaster holding themselves accountable, anyone committed to greater transparency, instantly had our attention. Of course, anybody nailing all of the above, well, that's a home run, and you might be surprised how many of them did just that.
The research took a full twelve months to complete, and I would have loved even more time. In nearly all cases, site visits (and tastings) were conducted anonymously; at no point in the process did I solicit free samples, or accept any kind of influence over the process—it’s admirable how many of the top operations remain content to let their work speak for itself, but it’s also interesting to see which roasters are now relying on hired publicity guns to buy them their legitimacy. (No, thank you.) I will, however, admit to networking over the odd cupping session or cappuccino with people in the industry who I particularly admire, often people working capably in the background; all of them generously shared their wealth of knowledge, and helped make this list better than I imagined possible.
For each state, you will find, along with the winner, a handful of tasting notes that should offer a decent overview of what’s going on right now in each state; inclusions should not be considered automatic recommendations, and exclusions of certain cities or roasters shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an automatic vote against, either—in some states, keeping you fully up to speed would require a book. Hopefully, this 2019 survey accurately reflects the amount of time invested in research and in learning—last year's was great fun to pull together, but laid bare just how much more there was to know. Here’s to another exciting year of coffee, and learning about coffee. Thank you for reading.
A boundless passion for Haiti, and the country’s against-all-odds coffee industry was the inspiration Birmingham natives Nathan and Michael Pocus needed to get off of the sidelines and into the coffee game, for real—a Haitian nitro cold brew coffee was the first thing to snag them some well-deserved attention, but for roughly two years now, the brothers have been growing their offerings, sourcing from a range of locations, all the while ensuring that their first love—Haitian coffee—remains at the heart of the business. A casual café, the daytime alter-ego of a popular local bar, will soon be joined by a second, standalone spot in the Five Points South neighborhood.
Tasting notes With a goal of total sustainability, Birmingham’s non-profit Seeds Coffee operates two shops in the area—look in on their current Ethiopian offerings. In both the college town of Auburn and the state capital of Montgomery, Prevail Coffee has managed to become an essential part of the community—same goes for the ambitious new Mural City Coffee Company, which opened its doors in remote Dothan last fall. Meanwhile, young entrepreneur David Bizilia's donation-based Side Track Coffee in Opelika continues to thrive—customers have been paying what they wish for the best coffee in town since 2016.
When it comes to coffee, Alaska has typically preferred things dark, strong, and from the same handful of reliable sources. So why is it suddenly open season on the establishment, around here? For psychologist Austin Schwartz, who used to daydream about the idea of roasting his own coffee, the whoa, hey moment happened a few years ago, during a trip to Portland, where he realized that everything had changed, and he wanted to be a part of bringing that change back home. Uncle Leroy’s began in 2015 as one of those only-in-Alaska sort of deals, coffee being roasted in a frying pan, in the back of a converted vintage bus that Schwartz bought off a preacher, out in the Mat-Su Valley. Today, there’s a shop, and there’s an actual (small) roaster, and there are drag shows, and live music, and some very unusual drinks, and a long bar with plenty of seating, where you can watch the goings on behind the counter, and make new friends. Schwartz may take a while to catch up to the old timers in terms of experience, but that hardly matters: Anchorage has a new kind of place for coffee, one it didn’t even know it needed, but the city appears to be glad it’s here.
Tasting notes Drive-thru espresso culture is widespread in Alaska, but the sister-owned yellow hut on Old Seward Highway in Anchorage isn’t just another candy bar-flavored coffee pusher—Goldie’s Coffee happens to be the home of a roaster to watch. And while Earnest Rawlins spends a lot of his time servicing the many espresso machines that help to keep Anchorage awake during the day, he’s back (after a lengthy hiatus) roasting his own beans—for now, the surest bet for trying E’s World coffee is at Sweet Basil Café in Midtown. Not up for anything new? While SteamDot Coffee can hardly be considered old, at least not in regional terms, the first real push towards modern coffee happened here, a decade ago—today, there are four locations in Anchorage, but the O’Malley Centre mothership is the one you really want.
Sunday Funday at Leroy’s! Good times when roasters get together!