by Mike Horwath, staff writer and graphic designer
What can I even say about Intelligentsia? One thing I can say for sure is that they consistently serve some of the best coffee the world has to offer. Intelligentsia has brewing coffee down to a science and the aesthetics down to an artform. If you are unfamiliar with Intelligentsia, commonly referred to as Intelli, here’s a short background. They opened in San Francisco in 1995 only to shortly relocate to Chicago. Since then Intelli has done Chicago proud. Most years, Intelligentsia sends at least a few baristas to the National Barista Competition, which is not for the faint of heart. They also serve some of the highest quality coffee that has had the pleasure to pass my palate.
With their flagship location just besides Millennium Park and a few others scattered from Lakeview to Logan Square, Intelligentsia always offers a mind-blowing experience to the coffee lover. Allow me to paint a picture of my visit. I’m walking down Randolph Street, a passing ambulance blaring as it passes. I open the door and enter Intelligentsia and the city melts away behind me. I entered a dark but modern cafe and the sounds of a busy barista, modern but soft techno, and customers chit-chatting.
I ordered a latte, an espresso, and purchased a bag of coffee. My bill was around $16. Apparently purchasing the bag of coffee gave me a discount on my drinks. My latte came out first. There was a beautifully poured tulip shaped latte art on top. The foam was creamy and rich, but not dry. The liquid was a perfect blend between espresso and milk. It didn’t really taste like either component separately, but created it’s own distinct flavor. It was kind of a buttery, caramel. I would give this latte a rating of A+ and would say that it is most likely the best latte I’ve ever had. If not best, it is certainly a contender.
I was about halfway through my latte when the barista calmly called out, “Mike, your espresso is ready.” At the serving window was both an espresso cup with my beverage and a small cup of sparkling water to cleanse the palate. I took my first sluuuurp of espresso (which is how you should drink espresso) and flavors burst in my mouth. It was simultaneously bitter, tart, and sweet all in on sip. It had bright notes of blueberry and strawberry which slowly dissipated into rich tones of milk and dark chocolate. Again, I would rate this drink at an A+. For this espresso, I can say that it rated in the top 5 shots of espresso I have had the pleasure of tasting.
I left the shop relaxed, from the atmosphere, energized from the caffeine, and looking forward to brewing some of the bag of coffee I had bought the next morning. Well, guess what. It is the next morning. I’m sitting here typing, drinking a cup of Intelligentsia’s Agua Preta direct trade coffee from Brazil. It was literally roasted two days ago. The label claims notes of maple sweetness with red grapes, and dried apricots. Maybe it’s placebo effect, but I could swear I taste all of those flavors. This coffee is not extremely light or extremely dark, but rather a mellow medium roast. It definitely makes sense with the maple undertones. Where I lose the flavor a little is the grape. I’m thinking maybe I can taste it on the tip of my tongue at first sip, but I don’t know. I definitely get notes of apricot on the sides of the tongue as I swallow. I would rate this coffee at a solid A. It misses the plus for me because I would like it to be one notch lighter. I think all of the flavors would stand out more distinctly. However, that is a matter of opinion and it is still an extremely good coffee. Not to mention, the bag was around $13. This is an impressively low price for a coffee of such quality.
It is unfortunate that there is no grade above an A+, because my rating for the shop overall deserves it. I really didn’t want to leave. I could have spent all day there. I felt like Charlie in a chocolate factory. My inner coffee geek went crazy. I wanted all the products on their shelves, to try all of the pastries, and taste all the drinks. All I can really say is if you have been to Intelligentsia, you know what I’m talking about and should go back and get some. If you have not been, I urge you to go. It is in our back yard and for the last seventeen years has been rated as some of the best coffee in the world. Go get some!