Brew Ha Ha!’s downtown Philadelphia location is the only Pennsylvania outpost of this 12-store chain that has otherwise chosen to colonize Delaware and parts of Maryland, despite its owner living in Swarthmore. That’s too bad, since as chains go, this one has a true commitment to good coffee. I certainly know that by the end of our visit my friend D, who also lives in Swarthmore, was upset to find out that there wasn’t a branch closer to his hometown.
D and I rolled into Brew Ha Ha! in the late afternoon after a harrowing run with downtown traffic in Philadelphia’s narrow streets. Fortunately, it’s a welcoming location with lots of natural light, high ceilings and a lot of original early 20th century (perhaps older) architectural tid-bits remaining amongst the otherwise modern interior. They have an attractive curved bar and lots of seating, although it was nevertheless challenging to find a seat.
It’s clear that Brew Ha Ha! is trying to do something to elevate coffee drinking to its rightful place. In addition to a rotating drip and the usual espresso drinks – all with coffee roasted by Caffe Pronto in Annapolis – they offer both a French press of the day and a flight of French pressed coffees. I started towards the French press, but changed my mind based on the recommendation of Greg, the training director, who happened to be there that day. It turns out they had just finished brewing up some Ethiopian Yergacheffe, Greg’s favorite.
The Yergacheffe was a darker roast than the Yergacheffe’s I’ve had more recently, from places such as Ritual, which err very much on the lighter end of the roasting spectrum. Fortunately, Greg had warned me that this was the case as we chatted extensively about coffee when I came in. While this does seem to be more of a trade-off of freshness to aesthetic purity and it’s true the coffee lacked many of the more typical bright citrus and floral notes often characteristic of Yergacheffe’s, it did possess a more subtle fruit and berry quality that came out only in the aftertaste. Not necessarily my favorite, but still delicious and perhaps a good lesson in the wide range of roasting. D and I agreed that this was the best cup of brewed (or French Pressed) coffee we tasted on our tour (despite the fact that, as it notes on Brew Ha Ha!’s website, their coffee could be roasted up to as much as 6 weeks prior – a tad old by most standards).
The macchiatto I ordered was a little less satisfying with far more than a “stain” of milk – pushing towards a gibraltar or cortado – but it was, after all, that barista’s first day on the job. Greg very nicely offered to remake my drink. I should have taken him up on the offer, but I suppose I was too tired at that point in the afternoon to care. From what I could taste, my “macchiatto” had good but not amazing flavor. It stood up well to the milk, but I’d like to withhold judgment on it for depth and complexity, though, until I can get back there again.
There’s no doubt that Brew Ha Ha! is a great spot for coffee and an excellent café. It’s a wonder that that other bigger chains nearby can still pull people in. It’s also probably one of the best spots for good coffee if you live right in the city, and clearly gives a place like Chestnut Hill a close run for it’s money, especially given that they don’t roast their own. They also clearly have a forward-thinking philosophy with an emphasis on coffee, unlike some of the places I visited and have yet to write about. Brew Ha Ha!’s big challenge, like most places in the greater Philly area, seems to be gauging the market and learning when its clientele are ready for that next (r)evolutionary step forward.