Sebastian Simsch has a theory about what has fuelled Seattle’s thirst for coffee. ‘It started less with a passion than with a need to compensate for grey weather,’ he says. ‘Coffee is a little sunshine in a cup, and once Seattleites got drinking, they decided they might as well drink really good coffee.’
Seattle Coffee Works, which Simsch founded in 2006, sources beans directly from farmers and roasts them onsite at its cafe by Pike Place Market – opposite the first Starbucks. In this serious coffee city you don’t dash in and call out ‘two lattes, please’. First you choose your preferred single-origin coffee, then your brewing method (say, Aeropress or siphon) – and then you sit back as a barista prepares your drink with scientific precision.
This trend of treating coffee as a nuanced craft beverage has been dubbed the ‘third wave’, and it’s recently washed over Seattle, introducing lighter, fruitier flavours.
‘Seattle has a deep-rooted relationship with darker roasts,’ says Jason Chase of Slate Coffee Roasters, citing local European-style cafes dating back to the ’60s. ‘Coffee drinkers are coming round to celebrating a much wider spectrum.’
Seattle’s full-blown passion for coffee continues to attract newcomers. Last year, the city ranked number one in the US for coffee shop visits per capita, based on Google location data. Here are five of the best.
Vivace’s Sidewalk Bar has been a fixture of Capitol Hill for about 30 years. Co-founder David Schomer is widely credited with popularising latte art (a rosetta leaf is the most challenging design) in the city, and produces one of its finest cappuccinos. It’s based on a silky foam and northern Italian espresso and prepared with a Japanese steam tip.
Milstead & Co
Andrew Milstead exemplifies the new guard of multiroasters – sourcing a rotating selection of 20 coffees that are freshly brewed on an Aeropress or V60 pour-over coffee dripper. One favourite is a single-estate Honduran from Seattle’s Kuma Coffee Roasters that he says tastes of quince, cane sugar and marzipan. Even if you’re not the type to wax poetic, you’ll appreciate Milstead’s light-filled space in artsy Fremont.
A tyre pump bolted to the pavement is one indication you’ve arrived at Peloton, an exposed-brick cafe that combines two Seattle passions. Here in the Central District, locals can wait out a bike tune-up over a berry-flavoured Ethiopian roast. There’s craft beer, too, along with nourishing breakfasty stuff, sandwiches and salads. Credit goes to co-owner/chef Mckenzie Hart, previously of locavore restaurant Sitka & Spruce.
Seattle Coffee Works
During their nine months’ training, baristas here are schooled in espresso extraction, drink creation and hospitality. ‘We’re the friendly coffee geeks,’ says founder Simsch. They educate drinkers while manually brewing direct-source coffee as part of the Slow Bar tasting experience at the downtown cafe. There are three more, each named for their respective neighbourhoods (Capitol Hill, Cascade, Ballard), plus a flagship slated to open in the summer.
Caffè Vita debuted in Lower Queen Anne in 1995, right by the now legendary (and relocated) Laundry Room recording studio. Musicians began coming by to caffeinate, including members of grunge heroes Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Vita now supplies coffee to music festivals and restaurants while operating 10-plus locations, including a counter at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Still independently owned by Seattle-born Michael McConnell, Vita roasts all its own (sustainable) coffee and hosts free monthly brewing classes.