Seattle Coffee Works: This ain’t no Starbucks!

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about NPR’s coffee series, J and I were in Seattle recently. Although we (unintentionally) walked by the oldest Starbucks store, we didn’t venture in. Instead, we visited the nearby Seattle Coffee Works. As co-owner Sebastian Simsch describes,

“We love Starbucks. It’s good for us. It says that this is a gourmet coffee aisle,” he said, sweeping his arm to show Pike Street. “If you want corporate, go to them. If you want gourmet coffee, come here.”

Chemex brew at Seattle Coffee Works. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Chemex brew at Seattle Coffee Works. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Seattle Coffee Works is a coffeehouse really worth seeking out if you’re ever in town. (If you don’t believe me, heed the 4.5 stars and 287 reviews on Yelp.) As testified to by their Coffee Manifesto (see photo below), these folks love quality coffee and are happy to share that love with anyone interested. On our first visit, I had one of the two coffees readily available (stored in thermal carafes) since I had an impending work commitment and therefore not much time. J was just along for the ride on this trip, which meant he had plenty of time and therefore ordered a Chemex coffee. (If you’re unfamiliar with Chemex brewing, check out this charming demonstration video.) The barista informed J that it would probably be 30 minutes before his coffee was ready—it was the morning rush, and Chemex takes time—but he was game. I ate my bagel, drank my strawberry-banana-soy smoothie, and sipped my dark roast. Eventually J headed to the “slow bar” when one of the staff members could slip away from handling other customers. J loves African coffees, so he didn’t hesitate when he was offered Kenya AA as an option for his brew. The knowledgeable worker chatted with J about the Chemex process and offered tips for doing it optimally if we were ever inclined to try it at home. All the while, a great deal of care was taken to brew a very special cup of joe. As just one example, they warm the Chemex carafe with hot water before brewing the coffee, just like a bartender might chill your martini glass with icy water before pouring your cocktail. The resulting coffee was complex, flavorful, and smoooooth.

After such a luxurious, “I’ve died and gone to coffee heaven” experience, we had to come back again the next morning. I had a later start to my work obligations that day, and we arrived during a lull in what can be steady morning business, so this time we both ordered Chemex preparations. Luckily, the crew was just wrapping up a cupping (i.e., tasting) when we ordered, so I got to hang out at the “slow bar” while the energetic and engaging Sebastian himself made our coffee. J, of course, had his favorite Kenya AA again. (Thanks to Sebastian, I now know that “double A” refers to the size of the bean—AA is the biggest, compared smaller sizes like peaberry. Why did I never learn this before?) Sebastian was extraordinarily informative and personable. Since the cupping had finished but not yet been cleared away, he encouraged me to dive in and sip the three best rated samples of the day and let me know what he thought while he brewed J’s Kenya AA.

Rather than getting another Kenya AA, I decided (with some encouragement from Sebastian) to try the Bali Organic Kintamani [PDF], which was brewed while I headed back to our table to enjoy the delicious vegan donuts I’d selected from their baked-goods case. Imported by Royal Coffee, the Bali Kintamani comes with a story, which Sebastian shared with us table-side when he delivered my coffee. That story is also recounted on SCW’s blog:

Royal Coffee imports a few container loads of coffee every day (that’s about 1,000 bags or 130,000 pounds of raw coffee every day!)

The Bali Kintamani Natural represents the best of what only importers of that size can do. Max Fulmer of Royal Coffee went to Indonesia in the summer of 2009, visiting several of the Indonesian islands. As he visited Bali, which has yet to succeed to position itself as a brand-name coffee-growing region, he saw an opportunity to use the “natural” process in the water-poor highlands of Kintamani to both improve the quality and consistency of the resulting coffee. Max did what only a coffee-minded importer can do, he proposed a no-risk experiment to the farmers at a specific Subak Abian [a sort of cooperative]: Try the natural-process method for one season. We’ll buy a container (40,000 pounds) of your coffee regardless of the outcome of the experiment.

The experiment worked. The resulting cup is one of the juiciest, most fruit-forward cups we’ve tasted around here.

For more on coffee growing and processing in the Kintamani Highlands, check out the second article in the August 2009 Royal Coffee newsletter. And for more on Sebastian and another alternative brewing technology (cold brewing), check out this article from Seattle Met.

If you like great coffee, or are curious to learn more, I strongly encourage you to visit Seattle Coffee Works. For the most leisurely experience, head there after the morning rush, but even then you’ll find knowledgeable staff who can help perk up your day. The shop is located on Pike near Pike Place Market; or check out their second location, Ballard Coffee Works, which opened last year.

SCW coffee manifesto

The Coffee Manifesto of Seattle Coffee Works. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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