Wonders of the Windy City: Intelligentsia Coffee

March 12, 2008 10:25:54 AM PDT
Chicago coffee companyCompany background From intellgentisacoffee.com

Doug Zell, Emily Mange and Geoff Watts founded Intelligentsia Coffee in October, 1995, what they consider to be a simple premise: buy, roast, and serve the finest coffees available. "Our fanatical attention to detail results in distinctive, award-winning coffees that will please the most discriminating palate," they say.

Intelligentsia purchases green coffee from either the world's most renowned importers or directly from the growers themselves. Purchases are based on the cup quality of the coffee. "Whenever possible, we seek growers and importers that are known to be both environmentally and socially responsible. It is almost always the case that these individuals produce and offer the best quality. Our coffee is roasted daily in our vintage German roasters. As a result, you will not find a fresher, more flavorful cup anywhere," they say.

In February of 1997, two years after opening their retail store on Broadway, Doug Zell and Emily Mange moved the 27,000-pound roaster from the store into a 4000 square foot warehouse in the nearby Bucktown neighborhood. They had outgrown the confines of their retail store and needed space for the wholesale business to grow.

Chicago had become a rising star in the culinary community. Young chefs placed an emphasis on quality, fresh ingredients, and Intelligentsia both contributed to and benefited from the city's awakening palate. A 23-kilo, then a 40-kilo soon joined the little roaster. After a year of operations in the Bucktown neighborhood they had roasted what seemed like an amazing 50,000 pounds of coffee!

In four busy years, the Bucktown space had become entirely too cramped: there wasn't enough space for green coffee, the parking for the delivery truck (and basketball court) had been overtaken by dry goods, and the production staff was literally rubbing elbows! In October of 2001, the Roasting Works staff packed up everything and moved a few miles South to a 25,000 square foot warehouse located at 1850 W. Fulton Street. Heading into the busiest time of year, dismantling antique coffee roasters, hooking up gas lines, power and water, all while still providing our customers with great service and fresh coffee, was difficult to say the least. The new Roasting Works is vast and sparkling, with plenty of space for the next step in Intelligentsia's evolution

Intelligentsia Coffee is available at local retailers and at the company store at 3123 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657; (773) 348-8058

Coffee Tasting or "Cupping"

Geoff Watts, director of coffee, receives countless green coffee samples from growers and importers which he roasts in our 1/4lb, three-barrel, gas powered Gothot sample roaster and taste tests, or cups, for quality. This little roaster effectively mimics the production roasts of our bigger machines, allowing a clear idea of how our coffee will taste to the public. Cupping is a standardized way of evaluating coffees, developed by the industry in the late 19th century. It has remained the primary way that roasters, retailers, growers and importers "taste test" their coffees, although it is much more than just taste they are looking for. There are three basic, quantifiable qualities that one evaluates when cupping: body, aroma, and acidity. Impressions of flavor are also recorded and discussed.

After the coffee is roasted and ground, cups are laid out for each bean on a rotating table, 12 grams of ground coffee are placed directly into the cups, which are topped with water just below boiling. Since a single bad bean can change the flavor profile of a cup, 3 separate samples of each coffee are cupped simultaneously; this also allows tasters to get a feel for the consistency of the beans. Some coffee grounds float to the top of the steaming cups, and after 3 minutes, the taster takes a spoon and gives the brew a gentle stir while getting his nose as close as possible and inhaling deeply. This is called "breaking the crust". After each cup, spoons are rinsed, notes are jotted down and the table is turned. Any remaining grounds are then skimmed off, and the tasting begins

Cuppers slurp coffee quickly from the edge of a spoon, allowing some air to combine with the brew, coating the entire mouth and giving an intense impression of the coffee's flavor. The tasters may also "chew" the coffee, evaluating the body or perceived weight of the liquid in the mouth. Indonesian beans typically have low acidity and very heavy body, where a wet-processed Central American will be lighter bodied and bright with higher acidity. Sometimes a cupper will linger for a while comparing the different samples of the same bean, or return to an interesting coffee, experiencing it at different stages as it cools down.

Intelligentsia cups coffees daily. Our production roasts are cupped against the original samples. That way we can be sure that if we're blown away by a sample, it is the same outstanding brew that will eventually reach our customers

About Geoff Watts

Geoff Watts is the green coffee buyer and roast master for Intelligentsia Coffee. His solicitous engagement with coffee began while a student at the University of Vienna in Austria, where his study of German literature and language often led to extended visits to many of the city's famous cafés. As fortune would have it, his academic pursuits (and in equal part a keen appreciation for lovely weather, oceans, and those sorts of things not readily available in the Midwest) landed him at UC Berkeley, where many of this country's most accomplished coffee men have set up shop, allowing ample opportunity to continue cultivating a coffee palate. It was there, under the tutelage of a most tremendous Ghanaian drummer, that music became a principal focus, providing a foundation which would become a steadying force in what most would agree is a fascinating but not altogether stable world.

Upon returning to Chicago in 1995, Geoff began playing with the African American Unity Ensemble, a West African percussion group with which he is still involved. In the fall of that year, following a brief yet highly pleasurable tenure as a dog-walker, Geoff helped open Intelligentsia with founders Doug Zell and Emily Mange. An innate tendency towards tinkering and experimentation was the driving force behind the pursuit of the most delicious cup of coffee possible, and what began as an investigation of coffee as a beverage, from roasting to preparation, naturally evolved into what is now a continuing exploration of coffee's development at the farm level.

Each year, extensive travels to farms throughout Central and South America, Africa, and Indonesia forming new relationships with farmers, exporters, and specialty coffee importers throughout the world continue to provide insight and understanding of what it is that makes coffee extraordinary.

About Sarah Kluth

Sarah Kluth has been an Intelligentsia employee since 2003, beginning originally as a Barista at the Broadway store. For the last 20 months, Sarah has represented Intelligentsia on a national level as a Wholesale Training Specialist, focusing on education and in-depth training of coffee preparation. Most recently, Sarah has been transitioning to Intelligentsia's Quality Control department which is responsible for assessing incoming coffee quality, purchased coffee quality and outgoing coffee quality. It is this newly acquired position that brought Sarah to Peru with Intelligentsia's Green Coffee Purchaser, Geoff Watts, exploring coffee country and meeting the fantastic people who grow specialty coffee as part of Intelligentsia's Direct Trade work


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