For years there have been rumors that Intelligentsia was going to open a cafe in Texas. Not just a bigger wholesale presence or a training lab, but an actual Intelligentsia-branded coffee shop. Somewhere. At some point. A location was scouted in Houston, a Director of Something or Other stopped in to a shop in Dallas, a founder just up and moved to Austin. These are the stories that have been spread in hushed tones through the in-the-know barista cabal over the past half-decade. Were they really coming?
It seemed those were just stories, though, whose veracity waned with each passing year and every new city Intelli expanded into that wasn’t within the Lone Star State; “Oh, Boston—Buh—with a B.” But that all changed in late August, when Intelligentsia opened its first Texas coffee bar in Austin, and it’s a sign of more things to come.
Located in the recently constructed Third + Shoal building—the home of Facebook’s new ATX headquarters—Intelligentsia’s 30-seat, 1,250-square-foot space is part of Austin’s New Downtown, an upcropping of newly-built condos and retail spaces running along the north side of Lady Bird Lake. The area is still very young without much of an identity, and Intelligentsia President and CEO James McLaughlin tells me this is part of what attracted the company to the location. Instead of going to an already established area—like the up-and-already-come East Side for instance—opening in the fairly blank canvas that is the New Downtown area allows Intelligentsia to help dictate how and what that neighborhood identity coalesces into.
“And we’re also partial to bike paths and rivers,” McLaughlin says, referring to the neighboring 10-mile Town Lake biking and running trail around Lady Bird (it’s technically called the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail, but no one has ever called it that).
The first thing you can’t help but notice upon entering Intelligentsia Austin is a 23-foot-tall tiled mosaic behind the bar. Created by local artist Erin Curtis, “We Are All Living on a Star” implements nearly 5,000 pieces of brick from Elgin Butler in nearby Manor, Texas (pronounced May-ner), one of the oldest brick-makers in the state. The work is reminiscent of another of Curtis’s work in the neighborhood, “Recreational Geometry,” tiled obelisks that can be found around Third Street.
The coffee bar itself keeps the Chicago-born cafe rooted firmly in Texas lore. Inspired by swimming holes found throughout the Texas Hill Country surrounding Austin, its U-shaped bar was conceived by architect Scott Magic as a “Weathered Rock,” and is made of the same Texas Gray Lueders limestone found at Barton Springs, Hamilton Pool, and other popular swimming spots.
Atop the Weathered Rock, a La Marzocco KB90 and three Mazzer Major grinders—one for a rotating single origin, one for Intelli’s stalwart Black Cat blend, and one for decaf—comprise the espresso station along the east-facing section of the bar. A half-turn away, on the western side, a Poursteady and Mahlkönig EK43S handle the daily-changing pour-over menu, while the FETCO at the bar’s nucleus handles all batch brew options.
Other quick-drink options come via eight taps at the front of the bar, which serve everything from still and nitro cold coffee to sparkling Kilogram teas to even a nitro matcha oat milk latte. And unique to the Austin location is “The Roadrunner,” a refreshing mix of sparkling cold coffee, grapefruit soda, and agave nectar.
To run this newest outpost, Intelligentsia has drawn from an incredible pool of talent, both locally and nationally. Along with Austin Coffee Collective organizer and frequent barista competitor Katie Hatch on the bar, 2019 US Barista Championship Finalist Emily Orendorff joined the Intelli crew as Austin Retail Educator to help steer the ship. For Orendorff—herself a new Texan after making the move from Boulder, Colorado—the quickness with which the city has taken to the out-of-town coffee bar is due as much to the recent influx of transplants as it is to Austin’s already strong coffee community.
“The reception to the cafe has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Orendorff. “We are pretty centralized downtown with lots of tech companies expanding into Austin, and specifically this area, so people are excited to have us,” she says. “We get a lot of foot traffic from the farmers market on weekends, from UT, business folks from all the offices around us and a lot of people off the creek path as well. Austin has one of the best, close-knit coffee communities I've ever seen, and they are so supportive of each other, and have shown us the same courtesy, which I've been really grateful for.”
McLaughlin shares similar sentiments, adding that Austin as a city has fully embraced the many exciting and progressive culinary endeavors currently taking place. This bodes well for high-end coffee bars. And in true Intelligentsia fashion, the coffee brand isn’t content with having just a single cafe in any city they are looking to develop a presence in. Like they did in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City, Intelligentsia is going all-in with Austin and is “looking almost daily for a new location,” McLaughlin states.
And so after years of speculation, the rumors finally become reality. Intelligentsia has come to Texas, making Austin its southernmost home. They are just the latest in a recent string of coffee companies making a move into the Texas capital; San Antonio’s Merit Coffee, Ft. Worth’s Craftwork Coffee, The Meteor out of Bentonville, and Tempe’s Cartel Coffee Lab have all staked a claim in the Austin coffee scene in the past few years.
But this move by Intelligentsia certainly feels different—more reminiscent of their move into LA than these other companies coming to Austin. The introduction of Intelligentsia into the fold isn’t simply the addition of another reputable coffee bar but feels like the codifying of what many already know: that the Austin coffee scene is exciting right now and inarguably one of the best in the country. It’s no longer just a destination city for coffee lovers, it’s a destination for internationally known coffee brands.
Disclosure: Intelligentsia is an advertising partner with the Sprudge Media Network.