By the time I finally made it back to Philadelphia in January, it had been nearly two years since I had tasted what this city had to offer in the way of coffee. When I visited previously, I had some good coffee and plenty of bad, but things have changed considerably since then. By all accounts, the change is for the better.
Just after my visit in early 2008, Spruce Street Espresso opened its doors in downtown Philly, which seemed to be Philadelphia’s watershed moment. After that, other Counter Culture accounts started popping up like Lovers and Madmen and Spruce-Street Espresso spin-off, Ultimo Coffee. Around that time (or slightly before) 1 Shot Coffee started serving Intelligentsia and The Beauty Shop Cafe expanded the reach of Philadelphia roaster Chestnut Hill. More recently, Hub Bub rolled into town, bringing with it the promise of additional Stumptown accounts now that the New York roasting facility has been operating for several months.
Coffee crawling was certainly on the agenda for my visit, but as my best friend and I soon discovered, Philadelphia cafes didn’t seem willing to bend their holiday schedules to our need for quality coffee. Some cafes (Beauty Shop and Hub Bub) were good about communicating their shortened or non-existent holiday hours. Others (Lovers and Madmen) provided little information other than a tiny sign on the front door. A voice mail message or web-page update is simply good customer service and not all that hard to do. Fortunately for us, Spruce Street Espresso was open. I was excited to visit because it’s a regular spot for my friend and his family, they serve Counter Culture Coffee (a rarity in my part of the country) and they have helped seriously move the Philadelphia coffee agenda forward.
The cafe isn’t a lot to look at, literally. Inside seating consists of a handful of tables and a tiny bar. A bit of outside seating is available when the windchill factor isn’t negative. The space is tiny, cute, and slightly cluttered. It’s not trendsetting in design, but it is a pleasant spot to site and have some coffee. If you need a relief from claustrophobia, check out the spacious bathroom which is easily half as big as the indoor seating area.
The coffee service is simple, offers variety and is high quality. Staff pull shots of Counter Culture’s Toscano blend on a three group La Marzocco GB/5 and the standard filter coffee option is a rotating (usually) single origin coffee brewed via French Press and stored in a thermal carafe. You can also pick from a menu of beans that staff will grind and brew to order via their Melita cone drip stand. While it does stray from simplicity, I’d be cold-hearted not to mention Spruce Street’s babyccino. The lower single-digit aged member of our party was extremely excited about this cocoa-sprinkled, steamed milk combination.
My shot of Toscano was gentle and nice. It had a slightly mottled dark-brown crema and seemed to be a bit brighter than I remember the Toscano being in the past. I don’t drink enough Toscano to know if this was due to the specific shot or a change in the blend, but I liked the difference either way. I noted blood orange for the acidity which was nicely balanced with slightly sweet, dark chocolate and deep molasses. (4-)
The cup of Kenya Nyeri, which I ordered via pour-over, was of the more mellow, deep, red-fruited variety of Kenyas. I’d describe it as somewhere between a fruity red wine and a hibiscus tea, slightly sweet with some clove and a heavy mouthfeel. It was a good coffee, but something was off. I noted some slight floral-soapiness that I couldn’t pinpoint to the coffee or the cup. I have to mark it down, but I’m willing to bet that it was a fluke given the skilled pour over technique I observed and the consistently good things I’ve heard and read about their service. (3+)
All in all, Spruce Street delivers variety and quality. Whether it’s the best this city has to offer is still an open question, but if Spruce Street is any indication of the changes, then Philadelphia coffee is finally coming into its own.