I didn’t have a lot of hope for finding good coffee when I visited Louisville a few weeks back. I was there for a wedding and something of a family reunion so my coffee shop sleuthing hours were limited to the early weekend mornings. That excluded one downtown location, and the rest of my good coffee candidate list came up a bit shorter than I would have liked. Not that any of this was a surprise, mind you. I have a deeply cynical attitude about obtaining quality food in Midwestern states. My attitude may be unfounded, especially these days, but is deeply embedded in my years of growing up in a small, Midwestern town where exotic cuisine was (and probably still is) equated with Taco Bell.
Enter Sunergos Coffee, a location that came to me through a helpful tweet that I can sadly no longer find. Not that I had high hopes for Sunergos either, given their beguiling name and the lack of information available about their coffee on their website, which happens to be under construction. I’ve found in past reconnaissance work that “website under construction” is often an unintended euphemism for closed. Nevertheless, I headed towards Sunergos’ supposed location, just east of I-95, right next to a warehouse district and not too far from the University of Louisville. I noticed the slightest touch of Bohemia – an art gallery in a former barber shop, I think it was – that spruced up an otherwise working class neighborhood. Then I found it. Sunergos sits right next to an old school bakery (which happens to have some pretty delicious donuts).
Inside, I was struck by the glowing blue, 2 group Astoria Rapallo espresso machine, which I don’t think is necessarily the greatest machine but which does look nice. It also fits with the vintage look of the shop . Next to the machine sat a pretty spectacular antique grinder, which the baristas still use. I was so far enjoying the aesthetic but still wondered about the coffee.
Then I noticed the more promising details. A roaster was housed in the back of the cafe behind a glass wall, which promised fresh-roasted coffee. The menu included micro-lot coffee options (decent green) brewed via either Chemex or Hario V60 (premium brewing options), three choices of regularly Fetco-brewed coffee (lots of brewed coffee options), and a single origin espresso in addition to their blend (multiple espresso options). Furthermore, the collection of cups resting on the espresso machine and hanging from the unusual, made-of-sticks “mug tree” included souvenir mugs from some of the country’s best roasters. At that point, I found myself liking Sunergos if for no other reason than that they understood the concept of good coffee.
On my first visit, I opted for the Costa Rica San Janillo. On my second visit, I chose the Nicaragua La Manita. I had both coffees made via the V60 since I wanted something brewed to order and the Chemex was too much coffee for one person. The Costa Rica was a nice, bright coffee with a buttery mouthfeel and notes of chocolate and kaffir lime (3+). I liked it quite a bit, but remember liking the Nicaragua slightly more (4-?). I remember the latter being more complex and a bit lighter and sweeter. Perhaps better made. It turns out, however, that drinking it while getting lost on the way to the airport isn’t the best environment in which to evaluate coffee.
I tried both Sunergos’ espresso blend and the Harrar single origin espresso. The Harrar exhibited some classic blueberry notes and a nice syrupy mouthfeel but lacked depth and body and otherwise served as a good example of how single origin espressos can be interesting without being particularly good (3-). I liked the blend, however, which, at the hands of my barista, produced a long, slightly thin shot with not a lot of crema, but a very layered espresso. My list of tasting notes included toasted bread, pear, apple, grape and tobacco on the finish (3+).
But I feel compelled to spend a few minutes commenting on Sunergos’ insides, which struck me, when I first entered the shop, as a typical college town coffeehouse. The furniture is mismatch vintage and the lighting was an antiques fixtures showroom. But the designers weren’t simply trying to save a few bucks or make their environment something akin to a frat house by stocking it with second hand furniture. The furniture is too nice and too deliberately placed.
My next thought was that Sunergos was reveling in the sort of irony carefully crafted by hipsters pilfering far away places and past decades for styles they can reclaim as their own. But that’s when I realized how location matters. Certainly there is a sense of irony to be found in Sungergos’ decorating scheme, but it isn’t the callous and unconnected sort brandished by someone who might open a similarly designed cafe in the Bay Area. Instead, it is the deeply sad sort. The contents of Sunergos could have been collected from the houses around it. The decoration scheme here pays homage too without mocking its firmly midwestern, working class surroundings.
(Update: A second Sunergos location recently opened up at 306 West Woodlawn in Belmont Beechmont.)