When standing in front of the Nuova Simonelle espresso machine at Colorado Coffee Merchants, I could only think of one thing. Growing up, my grandfather told me regularly, “Never start drinking coffee,” as he sipped his second or third Sanka of the day. “You’ll just get addicted.”
I took this to heart until my mid-20s when chain coffeehouses began popping up on every corner and work colleagues began scheduling out-of-office meetings, first at said locations, then at cozy locally owned shops as the years passed and the community grew. It might have been the warm and nutty scent of beans roasting that intrigued me. Perhaps it was the opportunity for a mid-morning pick-me-up, or maybe a little bit of fancy drink envy. But I finally went against my Grandpa’s advice and took my first sip. (Sorry, Grandpa, even school kids are drinking the stuff these days.)
Fifteen-some years later, I now consider myself “coffee curious.” My beans come from a local roaster, usually someone I’ve met in person. It’s easy to do with more than 15 roasters producing in the Pikes Peak region, all of them happy to talk about their work. Basic drip at home has shifted to both French press and pour over—thanks to a friend who walked me through the steps for both. My taste buds are more interested now in cappuccinos than vanilla-hazelnut lattes, due to friendly baristas who have inched me slowly out of sweet territories.
It’s all in good timing. The craft Colorado Springs coffee scene is thriving, bringing more options for finer brews and deeper knowledge of and appreciation for the beans in our cups. Yet, I still feel like a novice in many ways. So I ask for some education from Colorado Coffee Merchants owner Eric Umenhofer in a quest to understand exactly how the beans I’ve become addicted to turn into my morning espresso. He agrees.
I’m going behind the bar.
Like many customers, I’ve watched the process from the ordering line more times than I can count. At most locally owned joints, it looks like a dance. It is, but it’s just as much science as it is art.
Roasted beans go through a grinder, which is regularly adjusted to ensure consistency. Umenhofer explains that beans are ground on an individual-drink basis to keep them as fresh as possible. Grinds go into what’s called a portafilter, the handle for the brewing basket.
If you’ve ever wondered what your barista is doing when she hits a modified Chubby Checker twist behind the counter, she’s getting leverage to compress your grounds with 30 pounds of pressure. From here the portafilter goes into a machine group head, and with a push of a button, hot water flows through the grounds for a specific amount of time—typically 25 to 30 seconds—to result in your espresso shots.
At this point, if milk is part of your beverage, your barista will use a steam wand to heat it up. It’s tricky business, I learn, trying to take milk from a watery liquid to what Umenhofer describes as his ideal of “white paint.” But getting the temperature and consistency right is key, not only for a softly sweet taste, but also to give the barista the best product for decorating your drink with a foam flower, heart or other artistic flourish, a signature element of most local coffeehouses.
I’m pleased with my milk paint, less so with what I’ll call “blob art” on top of my first latte. I won’t be entering competitions any time soon—or ever—but I certainly have a new appreciation for the skills necessary.
And I like to think my grandfather might shift his opinions if he were still alive. I know his chatty side would love the culture that’s grown up around coffee. Maybe he’d even share a cup of local joe with me. Just as beer, wine and spirits have experienced their own renaissances from mass production to smaller-batch handcrafting, the expansion of the coffee scene, both locally and around the world, shows clearly that coffee has journeyed miles from Grandpa’s instant, freeze-dried, decaf crack of old.
The Local Scene
Specialty roasts and espresso drinks come in as many varieties as the coffeehouses that serve them. Want your drip with a side of hip? We’ve got that. We’ve also got easy chairs and shelves of books and tasty treats for your every mood. Try these options; then ask your favorite barista where she goes after hours. Note: This list is in no way all-inclusive. The Springs coffee scene has gotten way too big for that.
Fifty Fifty Coffee House
Minimalist style. Homey neighborhood groove. And a focused, heavily gluten-free and/or vegan food menu. Fifty Fifty features SwitchBack Coffee Roasters beans thanks to same ownership. Try the affogato here, an espresso shot poured over Josh and John’s vanilla ice cream.
330 N. Institute St., 719-581-9478, switchbackroasters.com/fifty-fifty-coffee-house
Peak Place Coffeehouse
Peak Place is a solid northeast-end go-to for everything from business meetings to live-music-infused happy hours. Order their Cup of Goodwill (proceeds support Goodwill Industries), or join a weekly cupping or palate class to up your coffee cred.
2360 Montebello Square Dr., 719-445-1050, peakplacecoffeehouse.com
Principal’s Office at Ivywild School
Ivywild’s school influence weaves through everything on site, from Detention Hour specials to drink names to bathroom murals—which is why we recommend a cuppa brewed through a siphon. It’s like a full-on chemistry experiment with a burner, bubbling water and brew.
1604 S. Cascade Ave., 719-368-6112, poativywild.com
R&R Coffee Cafe
In the heart of rustic Black Forest, R&R offers some of the best cold brew drinks around from beans roasted on-site under the Golden Pine label. Think coffee floats, Cholaca liquid cacao drink paired with cold brew coffee on nitro and my favorite, cold brew blended with house-made root beer.
11424 Black Forest Road, 719-494-8300, rnrcoffeecafe.com
Almost every time you visit the off-the-beaten-path Urban Steam, a different line-up of pour-over coffees is available. Super small-batch on-site roasting lets drinkers try lots of new flavors, including a blueberry-forward Indian Liberica called Anokhi. Sip it alongside a sweet or savory waffle.
1025 S. Sierra Madre St., 719-473-7832, urbansteamcoffee.com
Wild Goose Meeting House
Go for New Coffee Monday when the Goose switches out its guest roaster for the week. (SwitchBack beans are always on tap.) Check ahead though, as it’s not every Monday. Stay to read one of hundreds of books available for perusal, or hang around for almost-nightly live music with a side of craft beer or wine.
401 N. Tejon St., 719-445-0170, wildgoosemeetinghouse.com