The search for the perfect cup of coffee in Chattanooga
Coffee: the elixir of life. It’s been claimed that Americans drink some 400 million cups of coffee per day (that works out to 146 billion cups per year), making the United States the leading consumer of coffee in the world. Yep, we drink a lot of coffee. But we all need to ask ourselves one simple question: are we drinking good coffee? And if not, why not?
With that simple question in mind, I headed out on the streets of Chattanooga to find some good coffee. And trust me, if you want to pick a city for a coffee search, this is one of the best in the country (yes, even Seattle). For the simple reason that our fair city is blessed with a wide variety of coffeehouses that really take the bean and its brew very seriously.
Over the course of several days—and many cups—I experienced a far wider variety of coffee drinks than I was aware even existed.
My journey began on a chilly morning on the north end of the Walnut Street Bridge at the Ice Cream Show. Okay, let’s just get this out of the way at the very beginning: yes, I deliberately visited an ice cream shop for coffee. Because, quite simply, they have really good coffee.
“Our coffee is the smoothest in the world,” explains owner Lynda Curtis. And after sampling their Aztec Mocha, I was certainly not going to disagree.
Combine Mexican hot chocolate with a double-shot of espresso, lace with fresh milk and top with fresh whipped cream, and the resulting concoction is like ambrosia for the taste buds. The notes of cinnamon and almond combined with the smooth, nutty flavor of the espresso made this a perfect start to a cold day.
“Our Aztec Mocha is one of our most popular coffee drinks,” explains Adam Anderson. “It’s very unique for Chattanooga. Our espresso bean is a national award winner, in fact.”
As to what makes their coffee so good, Adam has a simple—and passionate—answer. “We strive above all else for consistency,” he said. “We use pure water, weigh each shot of espresso, and tamp it to just the right consistency for a perfect brew. If you come in and have a cup of coffee I made, it will be the exact same cup of coffee that someone else made for you.”
My next stop was down East Main Street at Velo Coffee Roasters. The first thing you notice when you walk in is the wonderful aroma of roasting coffee beans, which may very well be one of the best aromas in the world.
Owner Andrew Gage was busy roasting up a fresh batch of beans for their wholesale business. Not wanting to distract him (it’s a precise process), I ordered one of their specialties, the NiteRider Nitro. A cold coffee drink, the NiteRider is very similar in look and mouth feel to a good stout beer but with a light coffee profile, slightly sweet with just a touch of fruity notes to leave an interesting taste in your mouth.
Once Andrew was finished, however, he introduced me to what may be my new favorite coffee drink of all time: the Bunny Hop. No, really, that’s what it’s called. And for a very good reason.
“The Bunny Hop is a single-origin coffee that’s brewed with Centennial Hops, locally sourced honey from Walden’s Ridge and then lightly carbonated,” Andrew explained as I happily downed a glass. The combination of the hops, the coffee and the honey were basically throwing a party in my mouth, a party that they (and I) never wanted to end.
But what about just a regular cup of coffee, you may be asking. It’s a thought that was in my mind as I drove over to the relatively new location of The Camp House on MLK across from the Bessie Smith Hall.
And a “regular” cup of coffee is exactly what I got, though I hesitate to label the Apollo anything resembling the word “regular”. One of their drip coffees, the Apollo is brewed with a 100 percent organic Ethiopian bean that is very lightly roasted to maintain all the subtle flavors.
The result was a light bodied coffee with subtle floral notes and a light lemon citrus taste that was very pleasing. It had a much drier aftertaste than the regular office coffee I am used to, which was quite nice, and which may have finally ended my long-term relationship with the office coffee pot.
“We serve Counter Culture, which is a roaster out of Durham, North Carolina,” explained Michael Rice. “They are one of the older ‘third wave’ coffee roasters in the country, they started in ’95, and we’re the only ones in Chattanooga that serve them. What makes Counter Culture so good is mostly their intentionality to detail, sustainability to the farmers, and that the majority of their coffees are 100 percent organic. They work to make sure all the farmers are getting fair wages and that every coffee they bring on is to the highest standards of anything you can get in the world.”
The next stop on my Chattanooga Coffee Expedition was over on Frazier Avenue at the new Revelator Coffee Company right at the intersection of Frazier and Market at the end of the bridge. Revelator has the look and feel of a classic coffee shop with a large open center area for the baristas and plenty of space to sit at one of the many tables or, as I did, in a stool right at the counter. The beverage choices are simple: coffee, espresso, hot chocolate or tea. I ordered a six-ounce espresso and watched as Adam Bunger worked his coffee magic on the Slayer machine.
“The Slayer is made in Seattle,” noted Bunger. “What sets it apart is that while a lot of machines will only have two boilers, the Slayer has four to run the steam wands and the group heads. It really lets us crank out a high volume of drinks without any change in the consistency of the product.”
When I was handed the finished cup, it was almost too pretty to drink. With the touch of an accomplished artist, Adam had laced a perfect tree swirl with the steamed milk (a very high-end milk, at that, from Knoxville’s Cruze Dairy Farm).
But drink it I did, and as pretty as it was, it tasted even better. Very bright, with subtle grapefruit and floral notes, it was so balanced it didn’t need any sweetening. And for someone like me, who has been accused of adding a little coffee to my cup of cream and sugar, this was a bit of a revelation (yes, the pun was inevitable).
My final stop—and I do wish I had had time to visit all of the many coffeehouses in town—was back on East Main in the Southside at Mean Mug.
One of the most “coffeehouses” of the coffeehouses I visited, it was packed with people typing away on their MacBooks or reading copies of The Pulse (something that always makes me happy, for obvious reasons). And then I was presented with a dilemma: what to order.
Owner Matt Lewis tried to be helpful when I asked what his most popular coffee was. “We sell more house blend than anything else but I would say our Kyoto style cold brew is equally loved in the warmer months.” he explained. “The Kyoto cold brew is a slow drip method that we think creates the best possible cold coffee.”
However, taking into account that is still winter and rather cold, even as enticing as the Kyoto sounded, I went with his first suggestion, sampling a cup of the house blend drip coffee, a nice medium roasted Coast Rican.
The coffee was an interesting combination of flavors, being a bit heavier than other coffees I had sampled on my journey, while at the same time having a bit less of a “kick” due to the longer roasting process. While it may be common knowledge among the coffee cognoscenti, many people aren’t aware that the longer a bean is roasted, the less caffeine remains.
In talking with Matt, I also learned why the coffee tasted a bit familiar: they get their beans from one of the places I had already visited. “Our coffee is roasted right here on Main Street by Velo Coffee Roasters,” he explained. “The coffee itself is single origin and carefully sourced based on a variety of factors including farming practices and sustainability in addition to overall quality and taste.”
What really struck me through my grand adventure was just how many shops and coffeehouses there are in Chattanooga, and how passionate everyone takes their products. There was almost no way I could stop and sample every drink at every place without going into a caffeinated frenzy, and there were many destinations I simply didn’t have time to visit.
We really do live in one of the best coffee cities in the country. No matter your personal taste, I am confident that you can find at least one coffee drink (if not several) that will be your personal favorite. In fact, while my goal for this story was to find the “perfect cup of coffee”, I am happy to say such a definition is simply impossible: there are far too many great choices to choose from, all different, all excellent, and all worthy of the title.
As author Cassandra Clare once wrote, “As long as there was coffee in the world, how bad could things be?”
In Chattanooga, things are good. Very good. Drink up.