If the best part of waking up is the home-brewed Folgers in your cup, you may not have noticed the coffee revolution going on in Milwaukee.
A movement demanding a better cup of coffee is growing. One could argue that it started twenty some years ago with the advent of Alterra, but these days any number of local roasters are serving up some of the highest quality brews you can find anywhere. And they’re opening local retail shops and factory stores where patrons can get some of the finest coffee available.
But, what does that mean for restaurant coffee? Do we still expect a decent cup of coffee when we head out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? And are restaurants keeping up with a trend that demands a higher quality cup of joe?
I talked with a variety of coffee lovers here in Milwaukee to find out what they think of the restaurant coffee here in the city. I also chatted with folks from some of the best roasters in town to find out what makes great restaurant coffee, and what they do to assist restaurants in putting out the best product possible.
CONSUMERS WEIGH IN
When it comes to the habits of most Milwaukee consumers, most say they opt for regular coffee during the daylight hours, but often switch to decaffeinated brews during the evening.
"Some days coffee is breakfast," admits Julie Granger, VP of communications at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. "I often get a large enough coffee so that it last through the first couple of hours of my morning."
Coffee also continues to play an important role in the leisure time activities for many coffee drinkers.
"One of my favorite summer Saturday morning activities is to hit up Rocket Baby Bakery and sit outside with a large Anodyne coffee and a good book," says Andrea Oppermann, sales and events coordinator at Hal Leonard Music Publishing.
"In addition to a positive atmosphere and completely delicious bakery products, it’s one, if not the only, place you can get a coffee at 6am on a Saturday in Tosa. I also enjoy their, albeit limited, outdoor seating on a summer Saturday morning."
Maybe even more telling, despite the prevalence of Starbucks, consumers nearly always express a preference for locally roasted varieties.
"I think it's vital to our community to support local," Amy Gerassimoff explains. "We're very lucky to have an abundance of local food producers. With so many great options available it's a shame when places don't offer locally sourced items. I'm at the point where if it's not local, I won't bother to order it."
Jen Ede, publisher at Edible Milwaukee, agrees. "It matters to me that restaurants carry local foods in general. The fact that Milwaukee has evolved from being a beer, sausage, and cheese town to a place known for its cocktail and coffee culture is awesome and good for us, both on the local and national level. Including a locally roasted coffee is also a nice touch on the restaurant's side - it shows that they care about sourcing down to every last detail."
And, although more restaurants are starting to publicize what type of coffee they’re using, consumers wish it was happening more often.
"Generally speaking I wish more places would seek to support the smaller coffee companies," says Gerassimoff. "Also, if you're serving good local coffee, it would be fantastic if it was listed on the menu, so we don't have to guess."
Ultimately, when it comes to the quality of coffee, most agree that it’s vital for restaurants that serve breakfast or brunch to pay particular attention to what they’re serving.
Granger agrees. "Basically any place that offers pancakes on the menu should have a good cup o’ joe or why bother?"
Among the establishments receiving the worst scores for their morning coffee were "most hotel restaurants," George Webb’s, and Café Hollander in Wauwatosa, whose coffee was cited as "only hot enough about 50 percent of the time."
On the other hand, restaurants like Blue’s Egg get points for offering "to go" cups of Alterra’s Brazilian Blend. "It’s always hot and ready to go," says Opperman. "And it’s only $1 on Wednesdays!"
Morning coffee may win out when it comes to demand, yet the after-dinner cup of coffee appears to be one of the most important when it comes to quality and flavor.
"After dinner coffee needs to be a treat. Not mediocre," Gerassimoff underscores. "I can't tell you how many times I've gone out for coffee after a meal at a restaurant. It would be awesome to not have to do that."
THE PROFESSIONAL ANGLE
So what’s behind a great cup of restaurant coffee? I consulted with a few industry experts to find out.
"I'd argue that there is no real ‘secret’," says Joseph Gilsdorf, partner and COO at Valentine Coffee Roasters, "though there are a few hurdles and pitfalls unique to restaurants. Fundamentally, great coffee in a restaurant derives from adherence to the same set of basic principles as great coffee in a cafe or in the home: Use the freshest, highest-quality product possible; grind immediately before brewing; brew with care; serve promptly."
George Bregar, director of coffee at Alterra, says there are two areas where restaurants have been historically challenged in making great coffee. The first is the coffee-to-water ratio.
"There is still some hangover out there from the days of trying to cut costs by using the least amount of coffee possible to still produce a ‘decent’ cup," he says. "This has led to an overabundance of weak-yet-over-extracted coffee. In other words, there are too few grounds in the brew basket which causes the brew to be weak, so the coffee is ground more finely to try to make up for it."
Bregar admits that there’s nothing magic about brewing coffee, and that it’s mostly about mathematics. But, when a restaurant doesn’t pay attention to the ratios, as well as the grind settings, they set themselves up for disaster.
Bregar also says that "hold time" is another deal breaker for restaurants. At Alterra, batches are dumped after 60 minutes if the coffee hasn’t been sold. And while that turn-around might not seem practical for some restaurants, Bregar says holding the same coffee throughout dinner service is going to ensure a bad customer experience.
Steve Kessler of Anodyne Coffee agrees. "Brewing coffee in small batches so it's not sitting in air-pots for hours really helps."
Every single professional I spoke with agreed that the best coffee experiences start with a great product, but that they are also contingent upon high quality training for restaurant personnel.
"There are a lot of national, lower grade coffee providers out there that will give you free brewing equipment if you buy their coffee," says Steve Hawthorne, manager at Rocket Baby Bakery and Coffee Quality Institute licensed quality grader. "While that option looks better to your checkbook, it’s not going to provide a quality of product to match the quality of the food."
In addition, when it comes to training, consensus rules that more is better.
"I would compare selling coffee without training to giving a 12-year-old the keys to your car and saying, ‘have fun!’" Hawthorne explains. "Our supplier, Anodyne, has been great about providing as much training as we need. In order to ensure that their coffee tastes as amazing at a customer’s establishment as it does in their own, roasters should always provide training on how to brew the perfect cup. This would cover everything from proper grinding and ratios, cleaning procedures, and basic abilities to taste what is good and not so good coffee."
Gilsdorf says it’s important to offer training to all management and staff so that they understand the product and the proprietor's decision to pour it. Understanding the equipment is also key.
"In most cases we provide the equipment in addition to the coffee, so we have an interest in protecting not just the coffee quality but also the very expensive machines that are used," he explains. "Anyone who has worked a day in a restaurant knows how challenging [read: abusive] an environment it can be. There are occasional refresher tastings and training sessions as staff turns over and/or new coffees are introduced. Brewer maintenance is also reviewed frequently."
Kessler says the company helps out their restaurant customers in any way they can. "We have been very fortunate to have several of our restaurants really embrace coffee in a culinary way," he says. "We have some doing French Press, Chemex and even some doing pour-overs. Some even have espresso service as well. Every restaurant is different and that's why we try to cater the training around what they want to accomplish."
Alterra offers complimentary training for their wholesale customers on an ongoing basis. The company currently employs two full-time trainers who offer training five days a week on a variety of topics, including coffee brewing, espresso preparation, milk art and speed and efficiency.
"We always encourage our wholesale customers to take advantage of this service, because it always yields great benefits where the quality of the coffee is concerned," Bregar explains.
"And not to do too much horn-tooting, but our trainers have had great success both regionally and nationally in barista competitions, are currently serving as the chair and as chapter representative of the Barista Guild of America respectively, and are recognized by the Specialty Coffee Association of America as Subject Matter Experts."
Stone Creek Coffee also invites its wholesale partners to the factory store for what they call Bean Class, a hands-on experience that teaches them about the process of coffee, from seed to cup.
According to Kristin Paltzer, wholesale and e-commerce director at Stone Creek Coffee, partners with an espresso program receive even more one-on-one training.
"We work on menu development and have a dedicated barista trainer that spends around four hours initially, teaching them how to work the bar, pull shots of espresso, steam milk, etc. From there, we offer ongoing training and refresher sessions as needed. Basically, any opportunities we offer to our employees, we also offer to our wholesale partners. If you are going to invest in specialty coffee, we want to help you do it right."
Kessler admits that there are always situations where the local roaster wishes the coffee program in a restaurant was handled better, but he underscores the fact that it’s those types of situations which make training even more important.
Hawthorne agrees. "In my previous roles, I’ve visited customers and not been able to recognize my own coffee," he says. "This highlighted an important issue to me…training is not a one and done thing. It has to be ongoing to ensure great quality."
Gilsdorf says he tastes the coffee every time he visits one of his wholesale customers to make sure the restaurant is representing the brand well.
"If it's anything short of delicious, we start poking around and identify the problem," he says. "Usually the cause is obvious and an easy fix, though this will mean it's also probably time for a training refresher."
He says they also try to head off problems from the very beginning.
"When we meet with a potential new customer, it's really a two-way interview. If the commitment to treating our coffee properly isn't present on their end, we will decline the sale. Fundamentally, we try to root the potential for this problem out at the source."
When it all comes down to it, consensus seems to indicate that consumers are getting pickier about their coffee. And this seems to be a queue for restaurants to "up their game."
"I dine with plenty of people for whom the quality of the coffee is very important, and they are disappointed when they can’t have a coffee that matches up to the quality of the food," Bregar explains.
"As everyone knows, we have a lot of great restaurants here in Milwaukee and the list is growing, so the point --which I hear all the time--that a great cup of coffee or espresso is ‘an opportunity for a restaurant to leave a great final impression’ applies now more than ever."
Based on responses gathered via social media, here are some of your favorite restaurant spots to get great coffee in Milwaukee. Did we miss one? Tell us in the Talkback section!
Best Coffee: Bartolotta Restaurants (Valentine), Beans & Barley (Anodyne), Bel Air Cantina (Valentine), Blue’s Egg (Alterra), Braise (Anodyne), Café Benelux (Alterra), Cafe Lulu (Stone Creek), Comet Café (Anodyne), HiHat (Valentine), HoneyPie (Anodyne), Il Mito (Superior), INdustri Cafe (Valentine), Meritage (Valentine), The Noble (Valentine), Rocket Baby Bakery (Anodyne), Sanford (a custom house blend from 3 beans procured from Superior/Farmer Brothers), Via (Valentine)
For Exotic Coffee: Alem Ethiopian Village, Casablanca, Ramallah Grille
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.