Summer is the time for road trips. We recently drove the length of Wisconsin, listening to the state’s own Bon Iver as a soundtrack to its rolling prairies, sprawling farmland, Great Lakes surfing, and Northwoods forests. We were there for a beautiful vacation, which of course also meant a great deal of coffee drinking.
In the culinary realm, the state’s offerings tend to veer toward the traditional: grilled brats and butter burgers (yes, there is such a thing), bar-friendly deep fried cheese curds, supper-club brandy old-fashioned cocktails, and the Friday night fish fry. For coffee, most cafés tend toward syrup-sweet offerings. More than once, we were asked if we wanted whipped cream on our cappuccinos. But times, they are a-changing in America, with all sorts of coffee happening in the heartland, and on our journey from the southern cities to the Northwoods, we were able to find some cafes, both old and new, doing good things. Here are a few of them, compiled for your own road-tripping pleasure.
This journey began in Cedarburg—a suburb thirty minutes north of Milwaukee. Its quaint main street is Washington Avenue, where there are three small roasters within a stone’s throw of each other.
Cedarburg Coffee Roastery
The Cedarburg Coffee Roastery seemed like a natural first stop. Front and center in the shop’s space is a Diedrich roaster. The sign out front noted that the business has been roasting since 1999, and the creaky wood floors gave the café an atmosphere of being in place much longer. The espresso was aptly named Northern Italian Blend, as it presented itself in that distinct style. They also offer a wide variety of single origins, from a “Panama Boquete Anselmito Estate” to an “Papua New Guinea Kimel AA” and a Hawaiian Kona (at $35 a pound).
A few steps down the street is Fiddleheads. This coffee company also roasts their own; however, they don’t roast at the Cedarburg location. The café was lively and cheery, and the La Marzocco Linea on the bar was flanked by tall potted grass. (A common theme in Wisconsin coffee shops is the interior greenery—perhaps to add some life to the long winters.)
This was home to some of best espresso we would taste on the trip–bright, fruity, with a hint of lemon meringue.
Our final stop in Cedarburg was Java House, which we were told was the town’s original specialty coffee business. Our barista was a smiling woman wearing a headscarf, who pulled our shots on a Linea bearing that commonly seen sign that unattended children would be given espresso and a puppy. The Java House does feel like the cozy living room of an old house, but we couldn’t stay long since the road was calling.
On our way out of town, we drove through the village of Grafton, where we found the northernmost outpost of Colectivo Coffee. Our journey didn’t take us into Milwaukee or Madison, where Colectivo has established itself as one of Wisconsin’s best purveyors of specialty coffee. However, we did admire the handcrafted and reclaimed furniture in the Grafton location. Even though the store inhabits the corner of an ordinary row of shops, the interior suggests that the location was given careful attention from the Colectivo crew.
(Note, again, the hanging vegetation.)
Our next destination was Sheboygan, the surfing capital of the state on the shore of Lake Michigan. Sheboygan is also home to the coolest bathrooms you may ever see. We detoured from our coffee journey to the Kohler Arts Center (yes, the same company that makes fixtures for the bathroom) for a rest stop, and we were not disappointed. The city has an eclectic vibe, and its two best coffee shops have adopted that aesthetic.
The Weather Center Café
Walking along the boardwalk beside Sheboygan’s harbor, one can choose a fishing excursion on the right or make a left turn into The Weather Center Café, a café that resembles a weather-beaten pub on the English seaside. (In fact, such a pub is next door.) The café offers Colectivo coffees, and they serve the Toro espresso blend, made on a well-used two-group La Marzocco Linea under a “Pray for Surf” sign.
As we downed our shots, we admired the maritime maps, charts, and other nautical fare about the café. The espresso wasn’t quite as good as we had at the Grafton Colectivo, but the charm won us over.
Better luck with coffee was had at Paradigm Coffee, which also serves Colectivo. Paradigm is in town, and the shop’s edifice is timeworn and run down—as some of Sheboygan can be. Inside, we found one of our favorite interiors of the trip. Running down the middle of the shop and above the bar are more than a dozen old-school bicycles.
The bar runs the length of the right side of the shop, and on the left and center is a stage where Paradigm brings in talented acts (Erin McKeown with Mary Bue were scheduled to perform). Above the register are blank chalkboards where a menu might ordinarily be, and here instead the board read, “Yep-Still-Serving-All-The-Things.” This led us to inquire about the daily offerings, and the barista mentioned that they carry milk from local sources amongst other delicacies.
Green Bay (and surrounding area)
Green Bay is the third largest city in Wisconsin (behind Madison and Milwaukee), and like many cities of its size (with a population just over 100,000) establishments are encouraging their patrons to expand their palates with new tastes and farm-to-table fare. It can’t quite claim to be a foodie city like similar-sized Portland, Maine or hip like Boulder or even Milwaukee to its south, but it can claim to have the beginnings of a good coffee scene.
Kavarna is the café we were looking for on our road trip—a shop that combines an appealing experience in both coffee and place. Kavarna exclusively serves Anodyne Coffee, which we found to be excellent as espresso and hit or miss on drip. Still, this was the café we made time to return to more than once. The bar and ordering station forms a long “L,” and just beyond the 3-group Linea is an ornate mosaic tile bar-top.Beyond the bar is a large seating area with a diverse collection of art throughout.
We reached Kavarna owner Alex Galt, who was busy with the opening of a new downtown café, and he guided us to his promising new shop Hot Broth and Coffee. The space was still in the process of being finished, including a large community table that was a newly varnished 12-foot slab of walnut. We also made our way to another Galt-owned shop called Locktender’s House on the riverwalk in nearby De Pere. It is in fact a small “picnic café” on the first floor of an old locktender’s house. The lock is still operated by a single locktender, and it is opened and closed by hand. The atmosphere here was laid-back, jazz standards played on vinyl and kids lounging with ice cream cones.
Also in nearby De Pere is Luna Café, which roasts its own coffees on a Probat roaster. We were drawn to their cupping and roasting room in the back, which has odd coffee artifacts and tools on display. We came across Luna coffee in a number of locations, including another promising new small café and bakery, Bread Bank in nearby Suamico (Vickery Village), which donates a portion of its proceeds to the Seven Loaves Project—an organization that provides people in Rwanda with the skills and resources to bake.
Our final stop in the Green Bay area was The Creamery in De Pere. Here we were delighted to find Intelligentsia served and brewed on a Hario V60, offered alongside a wide array of enticing goods baked in house. We spoke with Patrick, the owner and a former electrician, about his coffee program, and he stressed that even though he is new to the coffee trade, he was interested in offering Intelligentsia and soon Counter Culture because the philosophy of each company meshed well with his farm-to-table menu.
Our final destination on the Wisconsin tour was Eagle River in the Northwoods area of the state. The small town claims to be the snowmobile capital of the world. With a population of just over 1,000, we didn’t expect to find coffee in town, so we picked ourselves up a stash of MadCap in nearby Michigan.
Upon arriving in Eagle River though, we were quite surprised to find a full pourover program at tiny local Eagle River Roasters. The Madcap Summer Solstice blend we were brewing at the cabin was pretty hard to resist if we do say so ourselves, but never-the-less, it’s good to know that even deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, you can find a pour-over coffee if you’re in need.
Kevin Johnson is a writer and former barista living in Maine. This is his first piece for Sprudge.com