Despite the challenges of its past (see: river catching on fire), the city of Cleveland and the surrounding Northeast Ohio region has experienced remarkable growth and development over the past 20 years. A Rust Belt city, Cleveland grew through successive waves of immigrants but suffered when heavy industry like steel milling and railroads began to outsource jobs. It shares this story with many other Midwestern cities and towns.
However, concentrated effort on the part of city officials, neighborhood development professionals, and engaged citizens has infused new life into several distinct areas resulting in a remarkably robust small business ecosystem. Neighborhoods within the city limits like Ohio City, Tremont, and Gordon Square are fast-growing hubs for local craft, restaurants, and other attractions, while long standing adjacent suburbs remain choices for new families and retirees. And, with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and die-hard sports culture, there is plenty to experience in what detractors call “The Mistake on the Lake.”
The coffee sector, in particular, has benefitted from this favorable climate for entrepreneurship. Cleveland boasts an incredible roster of cafes, with an overwhelming majority preparing their own in-house roasts. Though there are some big names with several locations of which most have heard or visited, even the small, single location operations shine in their homemade blends and delicately-chosen single origins. At any of these cafes, patrons will get a taste for the fantastic civic pride that animates Clevelanders served up alongside their choice of top-tier coffee.
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Perhaps the most well-known of Cleveland’s third wave offerings, Phoenix Coffee has been roasting since 1990 in several locations throughout the Northeast Ohio region. A honoree winner in the 13th annual Sprudgie Awards for Sustainable Cafe, the company has been pushing boundaries in operations and workplace culture, alongside roasting and brewing excellent coffee.
Christopher Feran, who has published blog posts on coffee microbe cultures and using UV light to grade green coffee, serves as co-general manager alongside Shane Hinde. However, in late 2020, the company transitioned to being a worker-owned enterprise beginning with 14 worker-owners and growing since then. It is currently the only worker-owned coffee company in the state of Ohio.
The Ohio City cafe is just blocks from the historic West Side Market in one of Cleveland’s fastest growing neighborhoods. The shop offers their house medium roast Firebird, a blend of Brazilian and Guatemalan origins, as well as a rotating selection of single origin coffees that are sourced and roasted in-house. Besides coffee, the shop offers a rotating selection of signature drinks such as their coconut water latte and agua de jamaica. For eats, check out their house made gluten free pastries or a bagel from the local Cleveland Bagel Company, whose bakery is only about a mile away from Phoenix. The shop itself is a calming mix of industrial and homey, with a record player in the corner and big glass windows that let in plenty of natural light. When the weather’s nice, patrons can sit on their back patio as well. Each of their five cafe locations mimics this aesthetic in different settings, so you know you’re in a Phoenix no matter which one you go to.
Vying with Phoenix for prominence among the Cleveland speciality roaster scene is Rising Star, in business since 2012. With seven locations in bustling Cleveland-area neighborhoods like Hingetown and Tremont, the coffee company has grown rapidly in its eight-year lifespan.
Rising Star coffees are roasted in the Hildebrandt Building, a retrofitted industrial meatpacking factory located in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Alongside their roastery, the building houses studio space for artists as well as production facilities for other small food vendors. Visitors can stop by and check out the roasting process themselves, and then hop over to either their Tremont or Hingetown locations, both within a two-mile radius.
The Hingetown location is built into a decommissioned firehouse, so the space welcomes you with huge vaulting ceilings and plenty of seating indoors with a mid-century modern aesthetic. In good weather, the staff opens the firehouse door to the street outside. The interior features soothing greenery, a large mural, and light wood accents.
Rising Star roasts all coffee in house and offers a selection of both African and Latin American single origins as well as their three blends, Illuminator, Apocalypto, and Peacemaker. They also offer a selection of house-made pastries and signature drinks.
Drawing its eclectic name from Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Duck Rabbit Coffee’s cafe recently reopened on Lorain Avenue in Ohio City. (That makes for the third cafe on this list located in this neighborhood if you’re counting; you could go to all of them in one day!). After moving locations during the pandemic, the shop is finally up and running again and serving up excellent house coffees and espresso beverages. In fact, Duck Rabbit is one of few coffee shops in Cleveland that will pair your espresso with a sparkling water palette-cleanser. Their uniquely sourced espresso roasts are best enjoyed neat, even though the baristas can be trusted to prepare an outstanding milk-based drink.
The new location offers visitors outstanding interior design in a unique space. The shop itself is very narrow and extends far back (where they do their in-house roasting), so patrons get a great view of the baristas at work. The light wood decor accentuates their vintage white tile floor and walls giving the cafe an art museum aesthetic.
Don’t let Troubadour’s austere cafe or website deceive you: they are the real deal. The roaster’s micro-lot offerings put them on the nerdier side of this list, and for good reason. Troubadour offers no “flavors, syrups, smoothies, frappes, meal-type foods, or most typical coffee shop drinks” according to their website, which allows them to hone in on brewing the best drip coffees possible. The cafe is located in Fairview Park, one of Cleveland’s western suburbs close to the Rocky River Reservation.
Troubadour sources their beans from several small farms—most of which the owner has personally visited. Their Nicaragua Finca Bavaria and El Salvador Loma La Gloria Natural, as well as their Ethiopia Guji Solomo origins are especially strong offerings. Furthermore, the shop’s approach to micro-lot coffee sourcing is worth learning more about—check out the cafe or visit their website to learn more.
In the bustling East Side arts district Waterloo you’ll find Six Shooter, a small coffee shop on the eponymous main drag. Founded in 2014 on a one-pound roaster in owner Peter Brown’s basement, their brick-and-mortar location opened in March of 2016.
Six Shooter offers an excellent standard fare of espresso beverages, but the real money is in their specialty drinks and cold brews, which are on tap in the shop. A program of cold brew seasonal offerings boast creative and unorthodox combinations like honey citrus and rum raisin.
The company maintains a strong wholesale game, and has partnered with other Cleveland-area businesses for unique products. One worth mentioning is the “Single Origin Stout” offered by downtown brewery Masthead Brewing, which infuses Six Shooter’s Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee into a dark beer.
The shop’s aesthetic embraces the Six Shooter moniker, with orange accents, cacti and other flora, and a beautiful wood floor and counter. Visitors would do well to grab a coffee and walk along Waterloo road to peek into arts studios and other local businesses.
The newest cafe on this list is certainty Ready Set, who officially opened their doors in Spring 2021. Ready Set is one of Cleveland’s few post-pandemic new shops; though they were roasting and shipping beans on scale in 2020, their plans to finish retrofitting a historic building and become operational were delayed by the pandemic. The cafe, located in the Gordon Square neighborhood of Cleveland’s Near West Side, welcomes visitors to its white-tiled floor, bright blue counter, and large spaces for working or meeting with groups.
The shop’s brewing brains is Chris Allen, who began roasting coffee in his garage in Fairview Park in Spring of 2019 on a San Franciscan Coffee Roaster. Now, coffee roasting is done at the same location as the cafe, where the team produces an impressive array of single origin coffees in-house. Their Ethiopia Yirgacheffe is outstanding and expresses perfectly the tea-like and citrus notes that make Ethiopian origins so iconic. Besides their straight coffees, Ready Set offers unique specialty drinks such as the Cloudburst, a nitro latte with agave-sweetened frothed oat milk, or the Salted Maple Latte that uses maple-infused oat milk. Patrons can grab a drink and get to work at Ready Set, or just kick back and enjoy the minimal, light-filled space for an hour or so.
Located in the bustling Tremont neighborhood, Loop Coffee is a community institution, featuring local art for sale and an extensive record collection. This laid-back two-story building has plenty of room for their in-house roasting. This is one of few Cleveland roasters where you can purchase beans in either a half-pound or pound measure, if you’re looking to sample more than one of their signature blends or rotating selection of single origin coffees.
Music fans should definitely make LOOP a must-stop while in Cleveland: after ordering your drink at the counter, cafe patrons can head upstairs to browse the thousands of records that the shop also sells. The entire perimeter of the upper floor is tables of wood boxes with records, so if you’re looking for something in particular you can find it. Check out the first floor for books, local magazines, and a community events board with layers of flyers. Once you’re done looking for that one Prince album, order another coffee for the road and walk a couple blocks south to Lincoln Park, or north to see one of the iconic Cleveland signs and an excellent panoramic view of downtown.
Samuel Hoag is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland. This is Samuel Hoag’s first feature for Sprudge.