5 Underrated Coffee Cities

Stripped-down design, baristas peering under naked portafilters, boisterous latte art throwdowns. An enthusiastic group of regular customers who like to stick around and chat espresso, and a strong home-brewing population whose greatest debate is: Buono or Bonavita?

Sound familiar? Of course. Portland, New York, Chicago. Kansas City, LA, Austin, right?

Nope.

We’re talking about Santa Cruz, CA and Springfield, MO. Bozeman, MT and Sioux Falls, SD. These days, great coffee can be found in an amazing variety of places in the USA, places that many coffee fans wouldn’t normally think twice about. To help rectify that, we’ve put together a brief list of some of the country’s up-and-coming coffee cities. There’s no “Top 5” aura about this list–any number of places could have made this list (have you seen this place in Waco, TX?), but these five cities are certainly home to exciting coffee scenes, and emblematic of the quiet coffee quality revolution going on all across America.

Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma City is smack-dab in the heart of the proverbial American Heartland, and thus, somewhat off the radar of many coffee fans. But the OKC specialty coffee scene is thriving. To find out more, I sat down with my boss at The Lab, Mr. Jason Burton, a noted Okie booster who ran one of The Lab’s Caffeine Crawls in Oklahoma City in February. “Oklahoma is a fucking underrated coffee state,” he tells me, pointing out that there are no fewer than three roasters in Oklahoma City: Coffee Slingers, Elemental, and Mariposa. Of the three, Coffee Slingers and Elemental are well-established and, he says, “if they were in the Northwest, or even Kansas City, they’d be much more nationally known.” Mariposa is OKC’s newest microroaster and was founded by the charismatic husband-wife team of Daniel and Amiye Kao. They bring a strong brand identity, a commitment to charity and community development, and a thoroughly cute coffee-truck to OKC’s burgeoning scene.

One of the hallmarks of coffee culture in emerging markets like Oklahoma City is the intimacy among consumers and coffee professionals. “There’s a strong fan base between coffee drinkers and the people behind the scenes,” says Burton, “And it’s pretty cool to see.”

Coffee Slingers

Coffee Slingers

Pulling in Edmond, to the north, and Norman, to the south, OKC has a roster of extremely diverse shops. Whether it’s two outstanding bakeries that also offer high-quality coffee (Crimson & Whipped Cream carries Elemental coffee, and Syrup carries Stumptown) or Elemental, Mariposa, and Gray Owl offering a wide variety of brew methods, each location has a different innate culture and aesthetic. “And then you’ve got Coffee Slingers,” adds Burton, “which is very strong on internally criticizing their own brewing methods and offering quality coffee to consumers. They offer an outstanding French press.”

San Diego, CA

Sunshine, a perfect climate, proximity to the border, and, of course, great beer from breweries like Stone Brewing Company, AleSmith Brewing Company, and Saint Archer Brewing Company. There’s much to recommend San Diego, and while some Angelenos might scoff, the coffee scene to the south of them is growing up fast. Jess Henry, founder of the San Diego Coffee Network and writer of the coffee blog San Diego Joe, says, “San Diego is a sleeping giant when it comes to local specialty coffee. With over 10 truly local roasters (and growing), 430 coffee houses, and the newly established San Diego Coffee Network, it’s only a matter of time.” She may be on to something: the most recent of the SDCN’s latte-art throwdowns pulled in baristas from as far away as Seattle.

Steve Cachero of FortyOneTwenty Inc., http://www.fortyonetwenty.com

Throwdown at Coffee & Tea Collective (Steve Cachero of FortyOneTwenty Inc.)

Ms. Henry jokes that “our hipsters don’t scurry into the shadows when the sun hits their skin. They grab a board and hit the waves. The availability of craft beer and craft coffee makes for fuller, healthier looking facial hair and a glowing complexion to boot.” San Diego’s laid-back vibe accommodates a lot of different takes on cafes and roasters—from the beachy La Jolla-based Bird Rock Coffee Roasters to the straight-up third-wave minimalism of Coffee & Tea Collective to the Italiania of Caffe Calabria.

San Diego was also one of the birthplaces of consciously sourced coffee—Karen Cebreros, a San Diego native, is a pioneer for consciously sourced speciality coffee in the United States, and a founding member of the International Women’s Coffee Association (IWCA). She’s currently working on a program that gives micro-loans to women at origin to empower them to grow their own coffee.

Columbus, OH

It’s a little shocking that Columbus has managed to stay under the coffee radar. Pioneering green-coffee importer and home-roasting supplier Sweet Maria’s started in the area, giving immediate access to some outstanding coffees for the young roasters that sprang up in the area. “What drew me to Columbus,” says Tim Stiffler-Dean, owner of Guddina Coffee, “was The North Market Coffee Roast. Initially 15 roasters from around the city came to show off their best brewing techniques, and it’s exploded—2500 people came to the last one. There are home roasting competitions, coffees from the same farm roasted by different roasters, and demonstrations on different extraction techniques.”

The coffee community of Columbus (and Dayton, an hour west) is deeply interconnected, says Tim. “Everyone knows everyone—it’s one big cool community of coffee people, all challenging each other, and in the end it makes everything so much better.” This community of rivals hasn’t seemed to hurt business–the Short North segment of Columbus has half a dozen specialty coffee shops and roasters within a mile and a half of each other. Stand outs include Boston Stoker, Cafe Brioso, and One Line Coffee, who’ve seen their national profile rise by fielding competitors at the United States Barista Championship.

Sacramento, CA

“Sacramento’s coffee scene? Well, we’re personable, friendly. I guess you could say that’s our own absent-minded, slightly-lacking-coolness way. We’re highly focused on local business here, and the quality focus is growing as well.” That’s Lucky Rodrigues, owner of Insight Coffee, who says that business in California’s capital is tough, since there’s a lot of expensive red tape, which has contributed to a community of Sacramento locals opening shops instead of outsiders coming in.

Mr. Rodrigues’ story is characteristic of this tightly-woven city: he’s been in coffee in Sacramento since he was 15, working with Sean Kohmescher and Jason Griest, now owners of Temple Coffee Roasters and Old Soul Co., and for Chris Prendarvis at The Naked Lounge. Over the years, all three split off and started their own companies, but the connection still exists and fuels the local coffee scene. Another roaster of note is the heavily New Zealand influenced (and Kiwi-owned) Chocolate Fish Coffee. Chocolate Fish has a heavy surf vibe, but don’t let that fool you: their baristas have been representing Sacramento in barista competitions on a national level, alongside the competition veterans from Temple.

Rodrigues points out that, being an hour from the Bay Area, there is a lot of flow between the cities—“we’re bringing the global challenge to Sac City.” In a city full of diversity and small-town wibes, the coffee community in Sacramento is a standout.

Houston, TX

“With a better-than-average economy and a better-than-average job market, people from all over the world flock here,” says Josh Burdett, a trader with InterAmerican Coffee importers, which has an office in Houston. “Houston is a giant melting pot of people and cultures, but one of the main things that all these people share is coffee,” As one of seven approved delivery points for the ICE coffee exchange, the global commodity market for coffee, Houston receives millions of pounds of exchange-grade coffee, as well as serves as a warehousing hotspot for specialty-grade coffee importers across the country.

Deji Osinulu Photography, www.dejiosinulu.com

Southside Espresso (Deji Osinulu Photography)

Despite weather that isn’t at all conducive to enjoying hot beverages the specialty coffee industry is thriving in the sprawling metropolis of Houston. Shops like Blacksmith and Catalina Coffee set the coffee bar high (and have garnered national attention), while unique establishments like Double Trouble and Eatsie Boys pair great coffee with craft cocktails and high-end breakfast. Houston’s tight-knit food and cocktail scene is woven into the fabric of the city’s speciality coffee bars, and there’s a vibrant spirit of collaboration here that pervades the community. Sprawling, diverse, and full of cool stuff if you know where to look, Houston’s profile as a coffee hub may not stay under the radar for long.

This is Emily McIntyre’s first piece for Sprudge. You can find more of her work at her official website and Soft Explosions. Follow Emily on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.


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