It may come as no surprise that Sacramento, California is consistently ranked as one of the top cities for coffee lovers in the U.S. If you’re in the “grid” of midtown/downtown, you can toss a demitasse spoon from the patio of one coffee shop into a cup of nitro cold-brew in another across the street. It boasts heavy hitters like Temple Coffee, Old Soul, Chocolate Fish, Naked Coffee, Insight, and that one coffee shop—The Mill—that makes its own macadamia nut milk (which is oddly delicious). The list is practically endless, topped with an annual latte art competition that draws a crowd that would make even the most confident barista sweat. And don’t even get me started on the Caffeine Crawl that rolls through town every year or so.
Yeah, Sacramento is on top of the coffee game.
But this guide isn’t about Sacramento.
It’s about the smaller, quieter cities that surround her. If you listen closely and do a little digging beyond the city grid, you’ll find something you might not expect: a tight-knit and thriving coffee community tapping its feet to its own local culture, history, and the musical stylings of Johnny Cash.
If you Google Folsom, California, you’ll learn—rather quickly—that the town is known for its stunning bridges, the 32-mile American River Bike Trail that connects the town to Sacramento, and its prison. Even though only about 2,000 of its 77,000 residents are currently behind bars at Folsom State Prison, Folsom has really “cashed” in on the fact that a certain folk-country music god put them on the map when he sang the blues there in 1968. [Ed note: We are very sorry for this pun, but not nearly enough to excise it.] Upon first glance, Folsom appears to be not much more than an insulated suburb graced by a robust outlet mall, a small but lively historical district (along Sutter Street), and, according to Yelp, apparently the best bakery in California, an establishment named BJ Cinnamon.
Beneath all that, however, lies the soundtrack of bicycle spokes, running shoes slapping against pavement, water rushing underneath the Rainbow Bridge, and coffee cups clinking against saucers at one of the few coffee shops peppered strategically around the bike trail. And my, do they have a song to sing.
On any given weekend morning, it is not uncommon to see a gaggle of sprinters in the Coffee Republic parking lot, ignoring the “two hour parking for customers only” signs as they walk across the street to hit the bike trail. The thing is: they come back. And they wait in line. And they wait—oftentimes lining up out the door. The inside seating area is warm and inviting, as is the outdoor patio. This place encourages groups and conversations. They know the needs of their customers well: the pack mentality that motivates runners and cyclists to carb up and get caffeinated has kept Coffee Republic in business for over 25 years.
They prepare all their pastries, breads, and menu items in-house (find a single shop more replete with carbs, we dare you) and the coffee is sourced from local roaster Terranova. Come to Coffee Republic for the caffeine, the bagel and egg sandwich, and most importantly, the camaraderie. Just be prepared to feel lazy if you’re not wearing running gear.
Cooper’s Coffee House
In addition to being conveniently located next to the American River Bike Trail, Cooper’s Coffee House is also dangerously close to a place called The Waffle Experience, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Cooper’s is a self-described “mom ‘n’ pop” shop that opened in a prime location formerly occupied by the It’s A Grind chain. They source their coffee from Dillanos in Washington, and feature an array of pastries sourced from Bella Bru Cafe based in the Sacramento area. Cooper’s also offers breakfast burritos, bagels and a delightful creation called a Granola Oatjack bar. The bar is packed with oats, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and honey, and pairs well with their toddy-style cold brew. Be sure to order early, because during summer months locals can’t get enough of their cold brew and iced Numi teas. “People come in and get upset when we run out, we have to constantly make more!” says Arianna, one of Cooper’s cheerful baristas.
During the school year, Cooper’s is a hotbed for local students and business folk to order iced lattes alike and sit in one of the most inviting seating areas I’ve witnessed—because who doesn’t want to sit in a wingback chair pretending to work on spreadsheets?
Opened last year, Argos Caffe has already carved itself a niche in the heart of Folsom (right off the bike trail—see a trend here?), and also the first shop locally to roast in-house. Jorge Gocobachi, the roaster and co-owner, roasts in the shop every other day. To engage the local community, Argos has hosted “roasting parties” to launch new blends and demonstrate the roasting process. They regularly partner with local eateries and artisans to showcase even more local flavor when possible.
“Our name, Argos, is modeled after the Argonauts,” says Lori, the manager of Argos, explaining that the name was inspired by the band of heroes in Greek mythology that accompanied Jason to Colchis in his quest to seek the Golden Fleece. “The idea was that we were the first roaster bringing craft coffee to Folsom,” she says. “And now there’s more hidden gems.” Loris says the town is growing more comfortable with the shift from casual coffee to specialty.
Featuring local organic milk, pastries from Grateful Bread and vegan treats from Sugar Plumb Bakery (both in the Sacramento region), Argos is dialed into quality versus quantity. “We also make all of our syrups in-house, and we’re using quality ingredients—organic lavender, organic lemonade.” Lori says they’ve just rolled out a toast menu. Try the nine-grain with cream cheese, sea salt, and pepper or the cinnamon swirl with almond butter and honey—though Lori says that their biggest seller is avocado toast (we are in California after all).
While you’re waiting for your toast, sip on a honey lavender latte and find out more about the upcoming fall menu, which (spoiler alert) will feature a drink called the “Blind Date,” a latte comprised of house-made date milk, almond milk, coconut milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Pulling into the nondescript shopping center located near the famed Folsom Outlets, a nondescript A-frame sign simply proclaims: “Good coffee” with an arrow directing you left. Eventually a main, equally nondescript sign that reads “Coffee” becomes visible above a simple storefront window. What’s waiting inside, however, is far from simple: it is what Dale Cooper might describe as damn fine joe.
You may remember Kingdom Coffee as one of the build-outs of summer, where William Rentfrow and his business partner Ty Manukyan were ambitiously opening a shop/roasting site in a former vape parlor. And they made it happen: this is a place you can read the morning paper and sip on a high-quality coffee slushie.
Rentfrow explains the drink by laughing, saying he had the idea while sipping on a Jamocha shake at Arby’s. “I grew up drinking Jamocha shakes,” Rentfrow says. “I can’t help it—it’s my Arby’s ritual, so I had this idea. Why not serve something like that in our shop? Why are so few people in the craft coffee world doing these kinds of fun, silly drinks?”
And thus the slushie was born. Spinning around quietly in a Vollrath machine on the countertop, these slushies are made with coffee, almond milk, and a dash of simple syrup. It tastes smooth, not overly sweet—but still like a drink Willy Wonka would make if he decided to create something dapper to sip on while reading the latest Haruki Murakami.
“We don’t care if we’re the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had in your life, but we want to make sure you get a good cup of coffee,” Rentfrow says, adding that he’s inspired by shops that thrive in their communities because of consistency, like G&B and Go Get ‘Em Tiger in LA. “People get all up in arms, shocked, that we don’t do by-the-cup or pour-overs—but we make really good batch brew.”
They are also ready to see the coffee culture grow in Folsom. “We came to Folsom because there’s not much here yet,” says Rentfrow. “We want to do more than just ‘grow’ the coffee culture. I would love to have people see that Folsom supported and helped a little place like this thrive, and that they’d be inspired to bring their ideas here, too—I’d love to see more coffee, food options, and more things that drive creativity in the community.”
Their menu is simple and intentional, featuring the usual espresso-based lineup (minus the macchiato, which Rentfrow says alleviates confusion from the local ‘bucks crowd—instead he recommends the cortado), simple syrup for sweet drinks, and a mocha made with locally sourced Cru chocolate.
Of all the unique personalities within the coffee shops of Folsom, one thing sets Nicholson’s MusiCafe apart: their coffee is served “with a side of music” and if you’re there on the right day, a free ukulele lesson.
The Nicholson family has been selling guitars to Folsom musicians since 1985, and the coffee shop opened next door nearly five years ago. While his parents run the guitar shop, Erich Nicholson is the brains behind the coffee shop. He saw an opportunity to combine a musical space with specialty coffee. Really, he wants to see the small shops thrive and thinks Folsom is on its way. “I wanted to introduce more craft coffee in Folsom—we were really lacking that here, and I’m ready to see that scene ‘click in.'”
Featuring Equator Coffee, pastries from BJ Cinnamon down the street, and a full breakfast and lunch menu, Nicholson’s is more than just a place to get a pour-over—it’s a place to perform.
Music is clearly at the heart of this shop: as soon as you walk in the door your eyes are drawn to the large acoustic guitar pattern on the tile floors, a display of guitar straps for sale to your left, and a warm, inviting stage to the right. And there, resting in a stand next to a chair on stage is a real acoustic guitar, waiting silently as though the man in black himself will walk through the door at any minute and pick it up for a song.
“Our crowds are eclectic,” says Angela Rolston, the general manager. With their open mic nights, concerts, songwriting events and workshops, their community comes out in droves—from hot-chocolate-sipping youngsters to beer-sipping college kids to latte-sipping grandpa’s, Nicholson’s has created a unique culture of passionate people that appreciate good music and good coffee. Angela says their busiest time—unlike most other coffee shops—is at night. Guitar-strumming night owls, you’ve found your tribe.
When Johnny Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” in the early 1950s, he combined two styles of folk music: the train song and the prison song, blending together a unique sound that would define his music for the rest of his career. Is this what coffee culture means in Folsom—joining together unique passions paired with a damn fine cup of joe? I’d like to think so. Somewhere, Johnny is “drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ a big cigar.” [And yes, you can visit the Folsom State Prison. They have a museum.]
Mollie Hawkins (@molliebat) is a freelance journalist based in Sacramento, California, writing for Marie Claire, Salon, AOL, HelloGiggles and others. This is Mollie Hawkins’ first feature for Sprudge Media Network.