Having been up a considerable portion of the night because my daughter didn’t sleep well was probably the best excuse I could think of for dragging her, my wife, mother and father 45 minutes across the greater LA metropolitan area in search of a cup of coffee. They are an incredibly patient and cooperative bunch. I thanked them for indulging me and tried to convey to them the importance of this particular coffee pilgrimage. We were headed towards that Valhalla of LA coffee – Intelligentsia’s newest cafe in Silver Lake.
Anyone moderately familiar with micro-roasters and specialty coffee has certainly heard of Intelligentsia. Size alone gives them visibility. In 2005 and 2006, for example, Intelligentsia produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 million pounds of coffee, a number that has mostly likely only increased with their West Coast expansion. This level of production makes Intelligentsia look like a behemoth compared to other micro-roasters. In 2005, for example, Blue Bottle Coffee produced a mere 40,000 pounds of coffee (a number that has presumably also increased since then). But look at the big guys and you’ll understand why Intelligentsia isn’t a household name just yet. Starbucks, for example, purchased 300 million pounds of coffee in 2006! (Of course, to be accurate, you should reduce this 300 million pounds by about 10-15% due to the weigh loss that occurs during roasting.) Even Starbucks’ relatively small (10%) commitment to purchasing fair trade coffee outsizes Intelligentsia’s entire operation several times over!
But Intelligentsia doesn’t need to compensate for anything. What makes it such a tour de force in the coffee industry is its vision for how to run a coffee company and the fact that it leaves no stone unturned in the process. In addition to running five cafes (four in Chicago and one in LA), Intelligentsia: operates two roasting facilities; gives tours; runs tasting and coffee-making classes; supports hoards of track suit-clad competitors at barista competitions nationwide; runs a thriving mail order and wholesale business; has set the gold standard for forgiving, consistent, yet delicious espresso with its Black Cat espresso blend; and most notably, imports much of its own coffee. Specifically, Intelligentsia buys directly from small to medium sized farmers whenever possible (and does so for a significant number of their coffees). This arrangement gives Intelligentsia the opportunity to pay farmers more than they would get, even with fair trade certification. Direct trade is also about establishing a relationship. Intelligentsia has people visiting these farms year around, working with these farmers to improve the quality of their crops and ultimately the coffee. This incredible commitment to both high quality and social responsibility is part of what has made Intelligentsia such a media magnet.
Arrival at the Gates
My family arrived at Intelligentsia without a hitch. Street parking was relatively plentiful and the large red stucco building stood out like a beacon. Intelligentsia has clearly shed its Chicago roots, having fully embraced Southern California weather. If you want to sit indoors, your options are limited to a small set of stools along one side of the coffee bar. The rest of the seats are outside, either sheltered on the patio or out on the sidewalk.
The design, however, is both sleek and modern while embracing Latin American influences. The Nicaraguan blue and white patterned tile is offset by exposed hanging light bulbs and square, modern stools. The silver water urns, that you might otherwise find in a high-end tacqueria, mimic the bright chrome found on both Synesso espresso machines (a 2-group and a 3-group) and the two Clovers at the back of the large barista workspace. The walls are lined with: bags of coffee; Intelligentsia swag (ranging from mugs to calendars to a skateboard deck); and coffee-making paraphernalia such as Chemex brewers, the Eva Solo CafeSolo, and a Rancilio Silvia(!) in addition to the usual Press Pots.
To the coffee already…
Over the couple of hours we were there, I consumed the following:
- An espresso served with a small glass of palate cleansing, sparkling water (very nice touch). The Black Cat was bright and beautiful, yet well-balanced with orange zest, cinnamon, dark chocolate and roasted nuts.
- The Bolivian Anjilanaka was subtle and delicate, with light acidity and a medium body. I tasted melon with just a touch of lime and smoky pu-erh tea.
- The Decaf Librarian’s blend. This one is rumored to be changing soon, which sounds good to me. While better than many decaf blends, I expected more, especially brewed (and paying for it being brewed) on the Clover. It had a fairly muted taste with too much lingering tobacco in the aftertaste.
- The Rwanda Zirikana. After getting a bit over-caffeinated, I had this coffee brewed four ways as part of a home-brewing class (see below). I didn’t take good notes, but seem to remember it being almost typical of a bright Central American coffee with a dark roast, and not liking it as much as the Bolivian.
Bells and Whistles
Intelligentsia (especially the LA store) also focuses on consumer education. They offer regular cuppings and introductory classes on coffee appreciation. Now that their lab and roasting facility is fully operational, they are planning to start an array of espresso making and other coffee preparation-related classes. Through sheer coincidence, we arrived just as Kyle Glanville (one of the founding crew of Intelligentsia LA, 2nd place at the 2008 WRBC and otherwise swell and knowledgeable coffee guy) was starting into a home brewing class with coffee brewed four ways: Press Pot, Technovirm, CafeSolo and Chemex. The cashier told me I could join in and I eagerly did. What a great opportunity to improve my day-to-day coffee making technique while learning about coffee the Intelligentsia way. For instance – running water through your automatic coffee maker before brewing the coffee works as a close approximation to the temperature control of a Technovirm.
The Dark Cloud in Silver Lake Lining
I do have two complaints. First off, Intelligentsia only sells their coffee by the pound. Fortunately, I don’t live nearby. With mail order coffee, you usually want to order at least a pound since they charge you for the shipping anyway. However, if I lived closer, I’d be pretty incensed. I’m the only coffee drinker at home. I simply can’t drink that much coffee in the two week time frame after which coffee has typically lost its luster.
Second, the Black Cat I purchased off the shelf – both regular and decaf – was already 6 days past the roast date. Many of the other coffees had also been there a similar length of time. While not an egregious violation, even a couple of extra days (6 instead of just 3-4) can make it difficult for a consumer to use coffee while it’s still fresh, especially when you also have to buy a pound. I hope this is something they plan to fix now that the roaster is fully online.
The Bottom Line
You can’t go too wrong with Intelligentsia. Sure they have their limitations, but remarkably few given the growing pains a company their size should have already undergone. Intelligentsia does maintain a certain polished and perfected appearance, a symptom of the thoughtful and deliberate attention they give to every detail of their operation. This quality may not settle right with the surliest, most jealous or cynical coffee drinkers of the world. Certainly if any micro-roaster is poised for national expansion and success, Intelligentsia is it. What I see and respect, however, is the strong moral compass that has guided Intelligentsia to where it is today, and their continuous effort to improve the situation of both coffee drinkers and coffee farmers. Thanks Intelligentsia and keep up the good work.