Coffee has been starting our engines and keeping us awake — and at least sometimes delighting our palates — for a very long time. The coffee plant is said to come originally from Ethiopia, where it was cultivated and turned into a beverage as early as the ninth century A.D. The first coffee houses in America appeared in Boston before 1700.
Fast forward roughly 250 years to the bohemian coffee house era of the 1950s and ‘60s, when beatniks and wannabes hung out for hours in dimly lit rooms, gabbing, drinking espresso, and listening to jazz and folk music. Fast forward again to 1971, when three coffee-loving academics opened a coffee store across from the city’s Pike Place Market, naming it Starbucks after a character in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
In 1987, a one-time Starbucks employee, Howard Schultz, bought the company and repositioned Starbucks stores as Italian-inspired “third place” environments — alternatives to both work and home, where people could relax, converse, and connect over beverages and light food. The rest is highly caffeinated history. Starbucks grew fast, going public in 1992. It is by far the largest coffee chain in the world today, with more than 27,000 outlets around the globe. Thousands of independent coffee shops have followed its lead around the world, and today’s coffee drinkers have countless choices when they want a cup of joe.
In search of America’s best independent coffee shops, 24/7 Wall St. averaged user ratings from Yelp and Google for coffee houses in the country’s thousand most populous cities. We filtered out bakeries, cafés, and other places focused on food even if their coffee is good. We also eliminated drive-thrus and coffee carts.
35. The Artistic Bean
> Location: Townsend, TN
Specializing in Mexican, Central, and South American beans, this coffee shop roasts its own coffee on-site.
34. Young Blood Coffee Co.
> Location: Fargo, ND
In bright, minimalist surroundings, this West Coast-inspired coffee shop brews from a variety of beans, including those sourced from Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Peru. The shop gets high marks from reviewers for baking its own bread — the toast variations are popular — and for playing music on vinyl.
33. Amateur Coffee Coffee Parlour
> Location: Omaha, NE
No cream in your coffee here. Amateur is 100% vegan, using oat milk in all coffee and non-coffee drinks. The coffee menu offers filter-brewed java plus espresso and espresso variations and serves Artemis teas and gluten-free waffles.
32. The Arrow Coffeehouse
> Location: Damascus, OR
This suburban outpost of a Portland coffee shop is popular for its flavored coffee drinks, made with locally roasted coffee, and for an array of pastries baked at the Portland facility.
31. Realfine Coffee
> Location: Seattle, WA
With two locations in this famously coffee-loving metropolis, Realfine features beans roasted by Seattle’s popular Herkimer Coffee. Reviewers call it friendly and comfortable.
30. Third Gen Coffee
> Location: The Woodlands, TX
Marlon Reyes, who opened Third Gen last year with his wife, Rachel Lanigan, is a third-generation coffee farmer from Honduras, and Honduran beans, roasted in the U.S., are the focus here.
29. Quince Essential Coffee House
> Location: Denver, CO
Quince Essential sources beans from two notable coffee roasters, Kaladi and Jubilee. The shop also offers a selection of baked goods, plus burritos and empanadas.
28. The Press Espresso
> Location: Temecula, CA
Former photographers Yasmine and Deshundrix Wooten opened this coffee shop in this southwestern Riverside County wine town in 2016. The shop uses beans from a range of small farms around the world, with Ethiopian beans being a favorite. Coffee flights, single-origin pour-overs, nitro cold brew coffee, and specialty drinks are offered, along with such snacks as locally made vegan “Pop Tarts.”
27. The Nook Coffee House
> Location: East Greenwich, RI
In this community southwest of Providence, ranked as Rhode Island’s wealthiest town, The Nook, according to its website, is dedicated to “good coffee, a sense of community, and a dash of cozy on the side.” Beans, primarily from Central and South America, are sourced from New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
26. Yellow Brick Coffee
> Location: Tucson, AZ
Specializing in single-origin coffees, freshly custom-roasted, Yellow Brick describes itself as “a coffee house, roastery, and laboratory to promote coffee education.” African beans are a specialty.
25. Perc Coffee Roasters
> Location: Savannah, GZ
Perc sources beans from Central and South America and Africa and roasts them in-house, adjusting roasting techniques according to coffee variety. Three espresso options and cold brew coffee on tap are among the menu options.
24. Local Joe
> Location: Honolulu, HI
This Chinatown coffee shop, which features Hawaiian-grown coffee, roasts beans daily on-site. Specialty offerings include Vietnamese cold brew with sweet and condensed milk and Cubano latte with cinnamon, raw sugar, and an extra shot of espresso.
23. Local Coffee
> Location: Montclair, NJ
Irving Farm Coffee Roasters provides the raw materials for this coffee shop, and the water used is triple-filtered. One specialty is a cold brew coffee steeped for 14 hours.
22. Georgia Street Grind
> Location: Indianapolis, IN
Coffees here, purchased exclusively from local roasters, include single-origin choices as well as a signature Grindhouse blend.
21. Koffeewagon Roasters
> Location: Hasbrouck Heights, NJ
In this New Jersey community next to Teterboro Airport, Koffeewagon — which is a brick-and-mortar shop and not a wagon at all — serves a selection of pour-over, cold brew, and espresso coffees. A variety of beans is available (the selection changes periodically) but might include choices from Colombia, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, and Rwanda, among other places. Beans are roasted in-house.
20. Espresso Fino
> Location: Albuquerque, NM
This espresso bar serves only certified organic fair trade coffee. Beans are roasted in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and while espresso and espresso drinks are the specialty, drip coffee and a selection of teas are also available.
19. The Lab Coffee
> Location: Tampa, FL
Sourcing beans from three local roasters — The Hemp & Coffee Exchange and Zeal Coffee Roasters in Tampa and The Blind Tiger in neighboring Ybor City — The Lab offers a selection of coffees that is constantly changing, and encourages customers to work with baristas to create custom coffee drinks.
18. Saltwater Coffee
> Location: New York, NY
Saltwater, which styles itself an outpost of Australian coffee culture, was founded last year by two transplants from Sydney. In Australia, the founders say, coffee is “a way of life and is uniquely intertwined with leisure rather than a fuel for work.” Their beans are imported from Australia, where they are also roasted by a Sydney boutique roaster, The Little Marionette.
17. Story Coffee Co.
> Location: Colorado Springs, CO
Story Coffee occupies a “tiny house,” a miniature dwelling less than 400 square feet in size. The shop roasts its own beans for a variety of coffee drinks. The shop also donates 5% of every dollar spent (not 5% of the profits) to The Marian House, a Catholic charity that feeds the hungry and helps struggling families.
16. Presso Coffee Bar
> Location: Portland, OR
Presso roasts its beans every two or three days. The menu is classic, offering drip coffee, espresso, and espresso variations, with a choice of syrups and milks. Matcha, chai, hot chocolate, specialty iced tea, and kombucha fill out the drink menu.
15. Brewing Buddha Café and Arthouse
> Location: Miami, FL
Among the choices here are espresso, pour-over coffee, Cuban coffee (de rigueur in Miami), and an array of imaginative lattes, including wild rose, lavender, sweet plantain, and campfire s’mores.
14. A.T. Oasis Coffee & Tea Shop
> Location: Phoenix, AZ
The beans at this unusual coffee shop are sourced entirely from Ethiopia — the country where the first wild coffee plants grew. Proprietor Aisha Tedros, who comes from Eritrea, just north of Ethiopia, serves conventional espresso, drip, and cold brew coffee as well as a special ginger coffee, and also offers a traditional coffee ceremony in which the freshly roasted beans are ground to order, brewed in a clay pot, then strained into small cups.
13. S3 Coffee Bar
> Location: San Diego, CA
Espresso, nitro cold brew, mocha made with Mexican chocolate, and an assortment of lattes (from the Whole Latte Love Bar) are among the choices here. Rainbow lattes with multicolor swirls in the foamed milk are served on weekends.
12. Rosetta Coffee Brewing Company
> Location: Laguna Niguel, CA
The proprietors of this Orange County coffee shop note that they don’t serve syrupy beverages “Because we do not need to disguise the quality of our coffee.” A choice of three single-origin coffees is always available, as are a choice of teas and the “world’s best espresso.”
11. Half Pint Café
> Location: Portland, OR
Half Pint is the coffee shop outlet for Mudd Works Roastery, in business since 1959. Coffees from Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Java, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere are on offer, as well as custom blends with names like Ole Muddy, Orgasmic Organic, and Sexy Mexy.
10. Tilt Coffee Bar
> Location: Los Angeles, CA
A free-standing, glass-walled kiosk in downtown L.A., Tilt’s walls indeed are tilted. The shop features filter-brewed Ethiopian, Guatemalan, and Kenyan coffees as well as the usual espresso and its variations, a single-origin cold brew, and half a dozen teas.
9. Wide Eyes Open Palms
> Location: Long Beach, CA
The menu here lists espresso, “small batch brew” pour-overs, signature lattes like molasses agave and cardamom spice. The shop also offers a cold brew mocktail called The Shmancy, made with Angostura Bitters, Luxardo Cherry, and orange zest. Food choices include a few egg dishes, a “hippie tartine” (kale salad with toasted sesame, champagne vinaigrette, and house-made hummus toast), and more.
8. Rapport Coffee Roasters by Café Smith
> Location: San Clemente, CA
Sourcing coffee from Costa Rica, Honduras, Brazil, and Ethiopia, Rapport brews both single-origin and blended coffees. The shop roasts its own beans every Sunday.
7. Kind Bean
> Location: Chandler, AZ
This self-styled “neighborhood coffee & sweet shop” was founded by a local husband and wife who were partners in a chocolate business before turning to coffee. A Guatemalan roast is always available, and specials are available periodically. Conventional and herbal teas are available, and there are two nitro cold brews on tap, an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and a blend of Central American coffees.
6. Café Makario
> Location: Everett, WA
Coffees here might come from Peru, Costa Rica, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Specialty drinks include tiramisù coffee, apple latte, and Golden Fusion latte, which includes turmeric, herbal adlay powder, nuts, and honey.
5. Bird & Branch
> Location: New York, NY
Using beans sustainably sourced and roasted by Saint Frank Coffee in San Francisco, this Hell’s Kitchen coffee shop serves a selection of filter coffees and — unusually — two varietal choices of espresso, currently one from Burundi and another from Bolivia. Featured non-coffee drinks might include iced passion fruit black tea and almond macadamia nut latte. Bird & Branch is also about to launch a job training program for people with barriers to employment.
4. Bitty & Beau’s Coffee
> Location: Charleston, SC
This Charleston offshoot of the original Bitty & Beau’s in Wilmington, North Carolina, offers a classic coffee shop menu of items, including latte, cappuccino, Americano, chai, and tea (plus iced versions), as well as frappes and smoothies. The emphasis isn’t on exotically sourced beans but on the Bitty & Beau’s policy of staffing its shops with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
> Location: Portland, OR
This tiny — six seats, a single small counter — freestanding contemporary-rustic coffee shop serves single-origin Mexican coffees brewed by six different methods, including espresso and via a custom-designed “copper flower” pour-over apparatus. The proprietors roast their own beans at their Smalltime Roasters company.
2. Pilot Pete’s Coffee & Treats
> Location: Elmhurst, IL
Espresso, cold brew, straight coffee, and the usual coffee drinks — made with beans roasted no more than 14 days before the beverages are served — are joined by a list of specialty drinks, including bulletproof coffee made with organic grass-fed unsalted butter and virgin organic coconut oil. Pilot Pete’s is active in community affairs and raises money for charitable programs, such as sending soccer gear to Zambia.
1. Alpha Coffee
> Location: Cottonwood Heights, UT
Founded by 21-year combat veteran Carl Churchill and his wife, Lori, Alpha offers a straightforward menu of coffee and specialty drinks, sending a portion of every batch of coffee roasted to deployed troops and offering veterans a 10% discount on all coffee and cocoa products. The shop’s mission statement is “Awesome coffee. Be a warrior. Have fun. Give back.”
Detailed Findings & Methodology
The coffee industry talks in terms of “waves.” First wave coffee was based on mass production and convenience, involving such innovations as vacuum packaging, instant coffee, and automatic coffee makers. Starbucks represents second wave coffee, focusing on quality beans and roasting techniques and marketing coffee consumption as a social experience. Other second wave chains in the U.S. include Dunkin Donuts and Canadian-based Tim Hortons (though both specialize in more than coffee), The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Caribou, and Peet’s.
Third wave coffee takes things to the next level, approaching coffee as an artisanal product, to be appreciated for the variety of flavors and strengths provided by beans from different coffee-growing countries around the world. Third wave coffee shop chains include the so-called Big Three: Counter Culture Coffee, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters. These stores typically source the highest quality beans, sometimes from a single estate and increasingly sustainably grown, then roast them in-house or at a trusted facility and turn the results into coffee through various methods, including pour-over, French press, cold brewing, and steam pressure expression (with an espresso machine).
Following Starbucks’ lead, many coffee shops now offer coffee-based beverages with one or more added flavorings, such as think Frappuccino, and almost all of them serve pastries, cookies, sandwiches, and/or other casual sweet or savory food.
The Wall Street Journal reports that there are now almost 33,000 coffee shops in the U.S. That includes both chain units and independents. Research conducted by the international public relations firm Mintel predicts that annual U.S. coffee shop sales will reach $28.7 billion by 2021, up from $23.4 billion last year — but also that the number of new independent coffee shops opening each year is slowing down. Only slightly more than 100 new ones opened in 2017, for instance, according to Daily Coffee News, a specialty coffee trade publication.
That’s too bad because the independents produce some of the best coffee in America and do a lot to educate people about coffee’s complexity, helping to build appreciation for the beverage itself and for the people who produce and process it. Independent coffee shop proprietors tend to be passionate about coffee and have strong opinions on how to source and brew it. Some of them travel the world to seek out quality beans from small farmers, and many of them invest in state-of-the-art roasting and brewing equipment, sometimes made to their own specifications. It’s hard to imagine life without Starbucks these days, but the independents can bring a whole different level of enjoyment to the coffee experience.
To determine America’s best independent coffee shops, 24/7 Wall St. created a weighted average of user ratings from Yelp and Google. We gathered all the coffee shops included in Yelp’s “Coffee & Tea” category in the thousand largest cities in America by population. To be considered, each coffee shop had to have received ratings on both Yelp and Google and have at least 100 total ratings. Shops were then ranked by their average user rating, weighted by the number of ratings given.
Because the focus of this article is coffee shops, we filtered out bakeries and cafés with extensive food menus as well as establishments that are primarily devoted to sandwiches, ice cream, doughnuts, or juice — even if they serve good coffee. Considering a shop as a place you can enter and sit or stand in to enjoy your coffee, we also eliminated drive-thrus and coffee carts as well as coffee roasters without retail shops, several of which found their way onto our shortlist. Most of these coffee shops are one-of-a-kind operations, but a handful have more than one location; we’ve limited our choices to those that have no more than five.
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