When I set out on my first drive to Lawrence, KS in nearly 10 years, a lot of memories began to flood back in. As a teenager I remember going to shows at The Bottleneck, eating slices of New York style pizza at Papa Keno's, record shopping at Love Garden, and drinking shots of espresso at Henry's on 8th Street. Taking that 45-minute drive from my home town of Kansas City to Lawrence, the college town the University of Kansas calls home, has always been a vital trip, a welcome change of scenery. So why had it been 10 years since I'd been back?
Determined to remedy the situation, I set out to visit two of the Lawrence coffee shops I'd been hearing a lot about, Alchemy and Decade. What I found were two smart and genuinely different takes on what the modern coffee shop is and what it means to its community.
My first stop was Alchemy, where I met shop owners Benjamin Farmer and Joni Alexander. The two have created a charming cafe and bakery that thrives on its strong connection to the surrounding neighborhood. Mr. Farmer's approach to the coffee shop is midwestern and family-driven at its core, borrowing philosophically from the classic general store setting as a community hub for familiarity and service.
His labor-driven roots are apparent in the overall mentality as well as in several facets of the space itself. The coffee bar and furniture are made from beautiful locally harvested black walnut and mulberry, and were constructed in-house. The same wood also makes a cameo on the customized wood-paneled 2-group La Marzocco Linea courtesy of Marty Roe at About The Coffee in Kansas City.
Ms. Alexander's love of baking and can-do attitude made her the perfect co-pilot to Alchemy's marketplace style service. She began baking off-site but they have recently unveiled their brand new in-house baking kitchen complete with open window vantage point opposite the coffee bar. Offerings range from various breads and crumbles to fresh seasonal fruit pies with one of the best pie-crusts I've ever tasted.
The coffee service consists of minimal menu boards that function as a way to nudge customers in a direction rather than label the drinks to be ordered. Mr. Farmer wanted ordering drinks at Alchemy to be akin to ordering drinks at a bar. Typically a customer knows the basic components they're looking for in a drink, but the bartender, or barista in this case, is there to fill in the blanks and custom tailor the service, allowing for a far more organic experience. The coffee options consist of offerings from various regional roasters and are made to order as espresso or with manual brewing processes. Mr. Farmer has also been conducting experiments using his four Kyoto cold brew drippers to come up with signature creations like his orange- and hop-infused cold brew. Cold brew can currently be found on nitro tap at Alchemy, with a bottling line launching in the very near future.
Next, I ventured over to the newly opened Decade, a spacious and contemplative space in East Lawrence, part of the local arts district. The contrast between the shops was apparent from the outset. Where Alchemy had been a bustling space ripe for interaction, Decade was calm and inward-focused. It's the kind of place you can successfully attend to your own affairs or meet as a group and know you'll get something accomplished; it feels like a workspace.
You can tell that a lot of thought and intention went into the creation of this cafe. The interior as well as tables and many other components were constructed by local renovators Struct/Restruct using reclaimed and raw wood as well as used aluminum lithography plates for counter faces and accents. The walls are subtly adorned with a monthly rotating art show. Shop owner, Louis Wigen-Toccalino, has also started growing a variety of succulents that will live in the shop as it grows and evolves.
All of the coffee offerings at Decade come from much acclaimed Bay Area roaster Four Barrel Coffee, and are predominantly brewed as either espresso (via the shop's Synesso) or Aeropress. Decade also has one of Mahlkonig's coveted EK43 coffee grinders, currently on several months worth of back order for new customers. This modern gear is progressive; it screams “contemporary coffee bar.” But I wound up more impressed by the cafe's approach to ceramics.
When it came to the serving vessels, well, I probably came off like a crazy person, as I couldn't stop ogling them. Each bowl and mug was made by local ceramist Mike Crouch and, according to Mr. Wigen-Toccalino, taking this route has single-handedly solved the age old issue of beverages' corresponding cup sizes. Rather than pouring his drinks into cups denoted by ounces, the proper drink goes with the proper cup. End of story.
Future events at Decade will include monthly dinners corresponding with art openings on the third Friday of each month. Each dinner will feature a different local chef and a variety of food styles. If as much quiet care goes into these meals as has gone into the rest of the cafe, they promise to be something special.
After consuming far too much coffee for one morning, it was time to head back down Interstate 70 and home to Kansas City. But my reunion with Lawrence will stick with me as a reminder to step outside of the day to day and experience what's around the corner. The pizza spot, the record shop, they're all still here, but Lawrence has Decade and Alchemy now too. These places will be home to a thousand new memories, and play host to the very same kinds of teenagers and college students I once was. Lawrence will always be a place of nostalgia for me, but now, happily, as I get further and further from those teenaged car trips, the city has a new allure. If nothing else…I can come here and drink some really great coffee.
Charlie Burt is a Sprudge.com contributor based in Kansas City. Read more Charlie Burt on Sprudge.