Take coffee, for example. For a city of around 500,000 people, there are a dizzying array of cozy-but-chic cafes and a handful (maybe even two hands by now) of top-quality coffee roasters. For crying out loud, we even eschewed Starbucks in the concourses for an indie roaster at Mitchell International Airport (hello, Valentine Coffee Roasters). Nearly everyone is walking around with a disposable coffee cup or a coffee thermos, almost like a security blanket. Neighborhoods like Bay View and the East Side are studded with so many options for a cup of coffee that residents can brag about walking to six cafes within 10 or 15 minutes. And we haven’t even talked about Milwaukee’s offbeat places to grab coffee — such as Velobahn Coffee and Cycle — proof that we love jolts of caffeine within easy reach.
So why didn’t Milwaukee come out on top on this recent ranking by WalletHub of the best coffee cities in America? The methodology meant comparing 14 indicators (from the share of households who own coffeemakers to the price of a cappuccino) in America’s 100 largest cities. Curious which ones rose to the top like cappuccino foam? Seattle was #1, followed by New York City, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Los Angeles and Chicago. Madison slipped into the rankings at #55 while Milwaukee was a sluggish #65.
Portland, Seattle and New York City often rank high on “best coffee town” lists, which takes into consideration not only café ambiance but also ingenuity of baristas and the number of local roasters. But those destinations are the obvious choices. Could it be that the authors of this ranking overlooked our fair city?
We talked to two local coffee companies to get their candid views on how Milwaukee ranks — and deserves to be on the list. This includes the fact that the city’s coffee interest didn’t just sprout up overnight. “Milwaukee’s coffee scene is unique due in part to the age of the city’s local coffee-roasting companies,” says Drew Pond, Stone Creek Coffee’s director of retail and operations. “Stone Creek and Colectivo were both started in 1993. Anodyne came along in 1999. Then many small roasters began to enter the scene, starting with Valentine in 2009.”
What makes Milwaukee superior in its coffee roasts is the sheer variety, says Pond. “Many specialty coffee roasters across the U.S. have narrowed their focus to single-origin, light-roasted coffees then tend to appeal to a smaller customer base,” he says, “but Milwaukee-area roasters tend to provide a wide array of bean offerings, including single-origins and blends across roast levels.”
You’re also not likely to get attitude with your coffee. “The level of pretense in Milwaukee coffee in my experience is dramatically lower than in some of the more coastal cities,” says Pond.
Olivia Stemwell, head barista trainer and quality-control manager at Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co., used to work at a coffee roaster on the West coast (Blue Bottle Coffee Company in San Francisco), which means she can easily rate Milwaukee with a “heavyweight” coffee destination.
“What Milwaukee coffee players do well is their individual interpretations of their craft,” says Stemwell. “Each shop centers their customer experience around a unique approach to coffee that prioritizes things like speed of service, menu diversity, hospitality, or connecting people with the broader narrative of coffee. At Anodyne, we strive to provide people with a humble, approachable experience that showcases truly exceptional coffee. Sometimes I’m not sure coffee drinkers in our community are even aware of how high quality our offerings are.”
Low rents—compared to other cities — means owners of cafes can truly carve out a communal space that taps into their unique business. “Our cafe footprint can generally be larger and more interesting,” says Pond. “If you do a ‘caffeine crawl’ across Milwaukee you will see some truly amazing spaces that capture the essence of the people and brands that call those spaces home.”
Looking for a Great Local Coffee Company to Support?
Cafes in Bay View and Walker’s Point, anodynecoffee.com
Thirteen cafes in the Milwaukee area, stonecreekcoffee.com
Tasting room/café on North Martin Luther King Drive and in Crossroads Collective, pilcrowcoffee.com
Cafes in Washington Heights, Oak Creek and Mitchell International Airport, valentinecoffeeco.com
Thirteen cafes in the Milwaukee area, colectivocoffee.com