This summer Sprudge Assistant Editor Alex Bernson took a 40-hour trip to Chicago to see a few of the highlights of the city’s coffee scene. He wrote up the first part of his visit here, looking at Caffé Streets and Gaslight Coffee Roasters. Below you’ll find his impressions on two other big-name shops he visited: The Wormhole Coffee and Bow Truss. And don’t miss his feature on Intelligentsia’s new Logan Square cafe, also from this field trip.
The Wormhole Coffee
The Wormhole Coffee was founded in June of 2010, which in coffee-years makes it somewhat of an old stalwart in the Chicago specialty coffee scene, and also in Wicker Park, one of the city’s most active centers of young, creative types and established, wealthy home owners. You probably have heard of Wormhole–it’s a very popular place that always get mentioned when journalists go Chicago coffee-crawling. And yes, it does indeed have a Delorean in it.
The whole theme is very 80’s retro, as attested to by these cute overhead menus, though the overall visual design of the place hits more of a cozy-cluttered psuedo-domestic note that feels invitingly homey.
Wormhole is another good example of Chicago’s lively menu signage, complete with cute depictions of each brew-method. The main roaster on offer at Wormhole is HalfWit Coffee Roasters, a new project from Wormhole owner Travis Schaffner in conjunction with Gaslight Roasters (they share a roaster, production space and some staff). Wormhole also features a rotating guest roaster, which was Wisconsin heroes Kickapoo Coffee during my visit.
While there I had a shot of HalfWit’s Triforce blend. It tasted like a classic Central American + African blend, with a heavy caramel body and a nutty finish, though the acidity was muted.
I also had their summer signature drink, the “Thyme Warp“, a “pear-citrus soda with an herbal splash of thyme and rosemary” that really hit the spot. Just the right amount of pucker and sweetness, with a long, smooth herbal finish. It sounds funny, to be rhapsodizing about summer drinks when it’s 8 degrees F in Chicago today. But I assure you, Chi-town gets hot in the summer time.
The Wormhole went through a re-design last spring, and the result is another example of a functional, well-done behind the bar layout designed to make the barista’s life as pleasant as possible. The bar has a row of stools arrayed from end to end in front of the prep areas, which is great for letting the customers engage with the staff. The way that the drink delivery area is positioned–hemmed in by the the register/line on one side, and the stools all the way to the edge on the other–puts customers far away from the machine.
In fact, much of flow of the place turns around the corner of that bar. Squeeze past the first stool on the corner and you are into the comfy, enveloping, vaguely cave-like seating area, with couches and armchairs and everything else you might want for a seriously extended camp-out session. Normal traffic doesn’t penetrate past the corner at all–it stays milling about in the front space, which is what I had to do as I drank my espresso, since every single seating option was completely full with campers. I know that The Wormhole places a lot of value on its regulars, so dividing the space by running the stools all the way up to the corner may have been a conscious decision to create as cozy an environment as possible for them. Still, it would still have been nice to have somewhere other than the condiment island to stand at for a few moments as I drank my shot.
I was once again struck by just how bountiful and awesome the café sidewalk seating is in Chicago. The Wormhole’s sidewalk pod seems like a pretty ideal place to grab a coffee and and settle in for some serious people-watching in the heart of Wicker Park.
Bow Truss Lakeview
Bow Truss is a rather new entrant into Chicago’s burgeoning coffee scene–they opened their doors in June of 2012–but they’re already making their mark on the city with their gorgeous main roasting and café space in the Lakeview neighborhood, and their popular second River North location. Bow Truss has an interesting background for a coffee company: it’s a “sister company” to Doejo, a creative agency founded by Bow Truss co-founder and serial entrepreneur Phil Tadros, Doejo’s penchant for slick design and community collaboration seems to be at the heart of the Bow Truss approach.
The company takes its name from the beautiful bow truss ceilings in their airy main space. The soaring ceilings make an excellent counterpoint to the eclectic collection of furniture filling the retail space.
Bow Truss has the feeling of a lived in, dynamic communal space, with an explosion of flyers and posters greeting you as you enter past the retro Pac-Man cabinet.
The detailing of the space shows a super-refined take on the worn wood and light-industrial motif that has become so popular in café design recently.
Many of the pieces in the space come from the personal collection of Mr. Tadros, who is an avid collector of all sorts of heritage Americana.
The coffee at Bow Truss is being roasted in back on a brand-new Probat by Midwest coffee veteran Dennis Jackson. They’ve got a clean, focused menu of coffee and tea, with a few exciting extras, including Affogatos, coldbrew coffee on a nitro tap, and a line of coffee popsicles (again, it was summer when I visited, and hot as the proverbial pot).
Bow Truss seems focused on strong, heavy flavors. I had the Burundi Kayanna from their Hario v60 pour-over bar, which was dominated by dark plum and burnt sugar notes, and a shot of their Foundation espresso, which had more of a bright red-fruit piquancy and caramel on the finish.
Apparently Bow Truss didn’t start out with seating at their bar–it was their customers who pulled up the stools so they could better hang out with the baristas. Bow Truss feels like the kind of place you can do that–from the amazing custom speakers from Artpentry bumping records from Chicago’s famed Reckless Records shop, to the collaborations with different pastry vendors that pop-up on their front table every weekend, Bow Truss manages to cultivate a relaxed, inviting vibe that should serve them well as the new company continues to develop.