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The Intelligentsia Opening That Almost Wasn’t

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Intelli-Venice Ain’t Got the Power

In case you’ve missed the buzz (1,2), last Friday was the Grand Opening Party for Intelligentsia‘s newest cafe on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. The irony, of course, is that the cafe is not yet open. Doug Zell, himself, recently posted about how Intelligentsia is still waiting for a final inspection from the city. Some folks I spoke to made it sound like the preparation for last Friday’s party resembled a rural electrification project as the cafe’s crew hastily cobbled together enough power to make this party happen.

The latest official word on the cafe’s actual opening date appears to be nothing more precise than “soon.” From what I’ve gathered in speaking with folks over this past weekend, this loosely translated to “any day now with a strong possibility of this weekend with no guarantees.” (And further wrinkles may ensue as evidenced by this recent tweet.) Of course, the belated opening and further belated start to the roasting operation of Four Barrel Coffee taught this blogger that incredible patience is required when awaiting the opening of a cafe; these things rarely go as planned. That lesson, however, doesn’t stop me from despising the city of LA for ruining my memorial day weekend vacation plans!

A Sweaty, Crowed Room Just Doesn’t Cut It For Coffee

The good news is that I was able to make the party – at least, if you actually accept my poor quality cell phone pictures as genuine evidence of my attendance. What I encountered were long lines to get in and huge mobs of sweaty people barely moving around inside. I can only hope the cafe will less crowded, better lit, quieter and not nearly so hot when it does eventually open. People were approaching the line with questions about what club folks were waiting to get into and I heard snippets of conversation which included such phrases as “Aren’t those the cool guys from KCRW?” and “Isn’t he a friend of Emile Hirsch?” It was all “very LA” and mostly just made me feel both old and like a tourist.

Even I have to admit though that the party was pretty spectacular and even more amazing was that with the exception of the grilled charcuterie, the tips to the hard-working baristas, and the time spent in line, the entire event was free: entrance, wine, beer, espresso, cappuccinos, brewed coffee, and amazing DJs like Peanut Butter Wolf. Like it or not, this highly organized and amazing event only further establishes Intelligentsia as a marketing genius and an operation highly organized enough to pull off such an event, even if the grandiosity of this party also provides further evidence that Intelligentsia may have surpassed its indie status marking it as something of a coffee roaster singularity.

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The Lay of Intelli-Venice Land

Most interesting to me was simply seeing what the place looked like. For some reason, despite the multiple concept drawings and photos, I’d imagined espresso machine “pods” dotted about a large room. Instead, the bar more closely resembles a large rectangular island in the middle of a not particularly large room. The baristas move about inside this space manning one of several stations. Located roughly at each of the four corners is a 2-group Synesso. The modded, 4-group La Marzocco that, ironically, first pulled shots for Starbucks occupies a space in the middle. The back-most wall of barista island serves as the brewed coffee (and tea) bar where – similar to Silverlake’s LAMILL, you’ll be able to enjoy coffee brewed in a multitude of ways including (halogen-powered) siphon, Clover, Eva Solo and Chemex.

In case you’ve missed the other plans (1,2), there is basically no seating for the cafe. The idea is that folks will wander from station to station, trying out different coffees, often ordering flights. The one area of actual seating is the stadium style seats (reminiscent of Camper/Foodball), positioned right behind the brewed coffee bar at the back of the cafe. There will supposedly be no tables and certainly no internet.

And the Coffee?

I did manage to wrangle some siphon coffee that I know was Ethiopian and which I can only assume was the Kurimi given Intelligentsia’s current offerings. I thought it was decently good, but then again, it’s rare for me to really love a siphon coffee. A better measure of this cafe’s potential – and a shining star at that – was the absolutely mind blowing shot of Rwanda Muraba that I sipped quietly in the corner (the La Marzocco is not yet running and may not be for a short time). And just to clarify, the Rwanda is the espresso that helped Mike Phillips snag 3rd at the World Barista Championship. The Rwanda was an explosively fruity, yet somehow balanced, buttery wonder. Now I’m not that amazed that Intelligentsia is turning out this kind of quality espresso, but I was impressed that the baristas were able to do so while working in conditions comparable to a nightclub – a scenario that even their intense training most certainly did not cover.

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To Wrap It Up…

I really will be looking forward to getting back to Venice. That said, I’m by no means chomping at the bit. This cafe is bound to be great given Intelligentsia’s high standards and will undoubtedbly be one of the best cups of coffee in that city, but I wonder if radically new cafe concepts haven’t already jumped the shark. (For that matter, I wonder if that phrase has already jumped the shark.) Perhaps there’s nothing truly revolutionary left to do with cafe design or, at least, nothing left that’s going to blow my mind. Fortunately, for Intelligenstia, I believe that plenty of folks are still going to find this space a thrilling, if not somewhat confusing, encounter with coffee. More importantly, though, as with all the other Intelligentsia cafes, it’s what’s beneath the hood that matters. Itelligentsia’s intense training and extremely high quality coffee will almost certainly guarantee an amazing coffee experience, brewed whatever way.

(Update: See the comments below for the latest information)

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