If there was a race for best coffee cities in America that no one really talks about, Milwaukee would be up in the front of the pack. Sure, Los Angeles, Portland, and New York City have great coffee scenes worthy of the press they receive, but there’s some homegrown excellence in the MKE, which really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise in a town counting both Brew City and Cream City amongst its nicknames. And thanks to Colin and Emily Whitcomb of Canary Coffee Bar, there’s another cafe to add to the city’s already stacked line-up.
For many, the name Colin Whitcomb will ring familiar. Formerly with Madcap Coffee, Colin is a member of the Barista Guild‘s Executive Council and can frequently be heard giving live commentary of the US Barista Championships for the SCA. He’s even done a little live tweeting over on Sprudge Live. But even as a recognizable figure in the national coffee conversation, Colin, along with his wife Emily, are focusing their efforts locally.
With Canary, the Whitcombs are hoping to appeal to as broad a coffee audience as possible instead of dogmatically beating the light-roast drum. Their hope is by bringing more folks into the fold, a brighter, more sustainable future for coffee will lay ahead. Sustainability through approachability, it’s a worthy goal and it’s what Canary Coffee Bar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is all about.
As told to Sprudge by Colin Whitcomb.
For those who aren’t familiar, will you tell us about your company?
We are a coffee bar owned by Colin and Emily Whitcomb, located in downtown Milwaukee.
Can you tell us a bit about the new space?
We are renting a space in what was originally the Hotel Wisconsin, open in 1913. The Hotel Wisconsin was a fixture in Milwaukee for decades before languishing into a residential-hotel. In 2003 is was converted to apartments. Our space has been empty since that time—west of the river in downtown Milwaukee has only recently attracted new businesses. We opted for a cosy (for MKE) 1,250 sq/ft. Half the floors have original terrazzo tile, the ceilings are 18ft high, but unfortunately there isn’t as much to retain of the original space as one might hope—the original wood paneling on the walls is long gone. We will have blue velvet stools at the counter, wood and resin cafe tables, black leather bucket chairs, and some fun hoop chandeliers. Our hope is to create a space that zigs when they zag, so to speak, looking to capture an aesthetic is that urban, yet comfortable. Nearby are offices mostly, but we have a park across the street, and are next to the old Grand Ave Mall, which is now becoming a food hall.
What’s your approach to coffee?
To make a welcoming environment first. Barista skills and coffee knowledge will be tools that we can use to help people connect to our product, but not our raison d’être. Our offerings will include coffee flavors that span the range of what coffee can display: dark, aromatic, fruity, balanced, etc. I’m completely exhausted with telling people which coffees I like, let alone which coffee they should get off a menu of light-roasted coffees when they expressed another preference. Instead, we’ll try to celebrate many coffee styles. I’m totally freaked about the future of coffee. I hope that a larger menu of coffees will allow us to convey the message that all coffee has value.
Any machines, coffees, special equipment lined up?
La Marzocco Linea PB, Mahlkönig EK43 and PEAKs, Curtis brewer and two Gold Cups, Optipure water filtration—good tools to get the job done. Madcap Coffee and Snowdrift are two roasters we will work closely with. Our hope is to work with Ant and Rita at Snowdrift to select some coffees that they will roast for us (that’s their model, not something we asked for).
How is your project considering sustainability?
Sustainability has many aspects. We will of course be looking to compost, and our roasting partners have commitments to sustainability in their operations. We’re also interested in the sustainability of coffee, and as naive as it may sound, we hope that by charging more and paying more for coffee we can contribute to a more equitable coffee supply chain. Finally, we have goals to try and make someone’s time as a barista as sustainable as possible. However, we can’t do any of that without a sustainable business first, so we will be looking to wow as many customers as possible, with the idea that without profitability we are unable to contribute to wider sustainability goals.
What’s your hopeful target opening date/month?
Are you working with craftspeople, architects, and/or creatives that you’d like to mention?
Andrew and Marysol Whitcomb are our design team.
It’s super scary to put Canary, as we call it, and all these ideas out there. However, we hope to have a place in the specialty coffee world, and we’re excited to be part of a generation of coffee shops that are looking ever forward. I sincerely appreciate the interest.
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Photos by April Larson.