Ah, Bahhhstin—that’s the best way I can try to spell out their distinctive accent. A complete 180 turn from the sunny skies, sprawled out cityscape, and spiderwebs of freeways in my home base of Los Angeles, Boston wooed me with its cobblestone streets and mix of personalities—particularly in its growing coffee scene. I took a couple of days to survey some of the best cups in town.
George Howell Coffee
Specialty coffee pioneer George Howell has been in the business for years. He is the mind behind deep-freezing raw coffee beans for storage as well as a major investor in the refractometer. Howell’s newest cafe in the Godfrey Hotel is a sparkling burst of tasteful color schemes and marble countertops, interwoven with sleek wood and industrial cement walls. The menu itself is pretty minimalist—beverage options include your standard latte drinks or choice of single origin versus an espresso blend, all of which get pulled from a Kees van der Westen Spirit. For brewed coffee, you can choose between their own roasts brewed deliciously on FETCO, or a pour-over from a Modbar. They have a few tea and sandwich options, and the staff is currently experimenting with meticulously handcrafted sodas.
The gang at George Howell Coffee is bursting with knowledge, kindness, and some damn good brewing skills. Within the first 10 minutes of entering the cafe, I was set up with the single-origin espresso (Brazil Daterra) and a pour-over (Kenya Mamuto AA), both of which blew my mind. The espresso’s light, tangy sweetness balanced with the brew’s deep blueberry flavors effortlessly. With additional events like public “BYO cuppings,” George Howell’s Godfrey Hotel cafe is easily a must-see-must-drink-must-indulge coffee experience for Boston.
Gracenote Coffee, whose name derives from a comparison of musical notes to coffee notes, is a bustling little nook and roaster in Chinatown. With a simple, quiet exterior, I was surprised by the bustling interior, with a line nearly out the door for most of my stay. Patrick Barter’s small corner shop, now coming up on its one-year anniversary, is adorned with hanging potted plants, deep mahogany shelves, and white brick walls—all working hard to make this crowded joint still feel like home. The crew keeps it relevant with a Modbar setup and a Mahlkönig EK 43 grinder while also retaining simplicity in the menu: choose from milk drinks, two espressos, or a drip coffee. A rotating feature drink is on offer as well: on this visit it was a cardamom latte, a perfect cold weather sipping beverage. After getting pushed into a corner by the post-work crowd filling the room, I managed to down a syrupy single-origin Ethiopia at a slim wood panel standing table lining the window. The only downside here is probably the hours of operation—weekday closings of 4:30 p.m. and weekends at 3 p.m. make for quite the scramble to get your caffeine fix.
Flat Black Coffee
Flat Black Coffee’s seemingly Australian theme is not to be confused with its actual prideful origins in Boston. The roasting company is currently the largest independently owned roaster, retailer, and wholesaler of specialty coffee in the area. Out of its six locations, I decided to venture into the Franklin Street location in the Financial District. Unlike Boston’s more boutique cafes, this spot has a massive menu of selections ranging from all manner of espresso drinks like flat whites and its namesake flat blacks to manual brewing options like pour-overs from Hario V60s and French press. The shop has a lot going on: my eyes were bouncing as I peeped at the shelves of tea jars, the six different drip coffee pots, and the large array of Torani syrups. (What a job it must be to close this place every night!) A spacious, mustard-yellow interior and quirky floral paper ball chandeliers make for a relaxing contrast to the high-fashion shops I had encountered earlier. See? Coffee doesn’t have to be serious all the time! I settled for a simple cortado, which proved to be a solid choice amongst the flurry of menu items. Flat Black definitely makes coffee for the general audience instead of the specialty coffee community, but it’s certainly worth a stop in for a quick fix if you can avoid the slam of the morning work rush.
After walking through five miles of academia in Cambridge the following day, it was long past time for a much-needed caffeine boost. Barismo Coffee’s flagship location—originally called Dwelltime—hides on a neighborhood street a mile outside of Harvard University in a historic auction house.
Barismo pays attention to detail. The quality is what matters most, and the gang is always looking to experiment with the “next big thing” in specialty coffee. General manager and co-founder Jamie van Schyndel was kind enough to walk me through their cold brew flight of a flat, nitro, and aromatic version of Guatemalans and Costa Rican coffees, the last one was infused with gin and hops. I was also introduced to their version of a draft latte, a drink originally popularized by La Colombe. This one, however, used the strength of cold brew to create the beverage, rather than using espresso. Aside from these choices, you may decide between a menu of “craft selections” or milk drinks, and another menu of “draft selections” that get served out of kooky wood-handled kegs. The in-house bakery allows for an equally extensive menu of baked goods and weekend brunch, and the red brick and wood-floored interior creates a pretty desirable study spot for the Harvard elite—and coffee-goers in general, of course. The roaster recently opened another Cambridge cafe in nearby Kendall Square, where Voltage Coffee + Art once resided.
Before my final urban hiking venture, this time through the Freedom Trail, I concluded my coffee tour at Render Coffee, located off of Columbus Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s South End. This cozy shop keeps it simple—there are no marble countertops, no brewing equipment that would cost an arm and a leg to have at home. There is, however, gorgeous, open atrium-style seating in the back of the shop for guests to peer out of while the rain pelts the glass. Serving Tandem Coffee Roasters from Portland, Maine, and the previously mentioned Gracenote, Render brings a little slice of Pacific Northwest aesthetics to the East Coast while maintaining their home roots too. The cafe offers a little bit of something for everyone, from the sweet-tooth coffee drinker’s vanilla latte to more refined single-origin pour-over offerings. Hungry? If you’re not hankering for one of their savory meat-heavy sandwiches you should probably indulge in their decked-out breakfast bagels and settle in for a little while.
No guide to Boston’s coffee scene would be complete without mention of Pavement Coffeehouse(s), a small chain of now six coffee bars across the Boston area, including their latest near Fenway Park. Launched in 2010 by Larry Margulies, Pavement’s been a powerful influence on the growth of the Boston coffee scene, serving arguably the city’s best cup of Counter Culture Coffee plus homemade bagels that locals are obsessed with.