Competition or collaboration — what’s more essential to Philadelphia’s specialty coffee scene? Quiz anyone making their way in this hyper-focused niche of the business and they’ll point out the bookends have more in common than you’ve ever believed…
Simply attend a raucous Thursday Night Throwdown, or TNT, for proof that the Philly coffee crew thrives on a unique blend of these tamped-down tenets. Every month, baristas, roasters, cafe owners and even the customers who justify all the literal and figurative bean-counting crowd around an espresso machine to watch local latte jockeys try to best each other in a drink-making contest. Every entrant wants to win — for personal bragging rights and a cash prize, sure, but also to pump up the profile of his or her home cafe. It’s a best-barista-wins battle of the highest degree, but it’s also an unmatched arena for idea exchange, a chance for the likeminded to like each other’s minds.
It took years to get here, and the principals of the scene plotted divergent paths along the way. But every shop operator traces the development back to a single address: Spruce Street Espresso, which made up for its lack of square footage with incalculable energy and inspiration. “Spruce led the movement in Philadelphia,” says Ultimo Coffee’s Aaron Ultimo, who worked at the now-defunct shop before opening locations of his own. “We fed off the passion. People were taking that back to generate their own community. It was the first model for coffee culture.”
Ultimo’s opening in Newbold was followed by the debut of Bodhi Coffee — the first few caffeinated drips in what’d quickly become a steady stream. “Right around the same time we opened, you had Shot Tower, then Elixr,” says Tom Henneman of Bodhi Coffee. “It was like bang-bang-bang.”
Though this foursome — Ultimo, Bodhi, Shot Tower, Elixr — serve different areas and subscribe to different philosophies, they are linked by time and circumstance. Are they competitors? Sure, but not in the traditional sense. Instead of existing at odds, they engage as a network, the pulled-taut connections encouraging each shop to be better. “It’s not like we’re trying to pull customers from each other,” says Shot Tower’s Mat Derago. “We just want to be as good as them.”
“The more you get accustomed to drinking the type of coffee we serve, the more the public wants to seek it out,” adds Henneman. “And then we all benefit.”
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You’re probably doing something right if your peers in the Philadelphia coffee world refer to you as the Vito Corleone of your craft. That's the lighthearted but telling distinction Aaron Ultimo holds, and while there's no literal ring-kissing going on between Counter Culture shipments, shop owners are quick to nod tribute to the guy largely responsible for specialty coffee’s spread throughout the city…
After notching experience with some of the industry’s brightest, Ultimo came to Philly in 2008, intent on opening a place of his own in a town he remembered fondly from his college days. He got that opportunity in 2009, teaming up with developer/bar owner John Longacre to open Ultimo Coffee, the companion business for craft beer shop Brew, at 15th and Mifflin. In late 2012, he debuted a second, standalone cafe in Graduate Hospital, a stronghold tricked out with a painstakingly curated list of coffees and high-end gadgetry galore.
It’s a family-friendly place, in accordance with the G-Ho population, but it also draws its share of quirkier characters. The Tim Buckley lookalike in the corner, furiously scribbling on a legal pad to the shoulder-twitching beat of Haim’s “Forever.” The bookworm who doesn’t take his jacket off, nose buried in the latest Inspector Rebus novel. The dripster-fixated enthusiast who inches closer and closer behind the counter to chat about local roasters, not realizing he’s drifting like an unmoored skiff.
It’s not uncommon to find the cafe’s namesake at the wheel, tweaking the particulars of his infinitely customizable Strada ("Espresso is like surgery. Everything really counts”) or fiddling with an AeroPress to crank out a cup of Geisha. This shop’s got an airier feel than the Newbold original; personal touches abound, from the menu scroll listing beverage prices (yes, it’s actually a scroll) to the monklike concentration employed by a counter guy sweeping up errant grounds with a wood-handled paintbrush. It all has its purpose. “Coffee shops are the embodiment of the owner, whether the owner likes it or not,” says Ultimo. “For us, it becomes a defining feature.”
Ultimo Coffee, Newbold: 1900 S 15th St.
Ultimo Coffee, Grad Hospital: 2149 Catharine St.
This likely ranks relatively low on the what-a-shocker scale, but Tom Henneman is an early riser. Yes, it’s a distinction all but required for the perma-wired owner of a cafe, but his status is only partially fueled by all those raw-wood shelves filled with bags of Stumptown and PT’s beans. “You get to know people in a different state first thing in the morning,” says the chatty former real-estate developer, who opened Bodhi with partner Bobby Logue in 2010…
Notched into a small but smartly outlaid space a handful of cobblestone-padded steps away from the Headhouse Square Shambles, Bodhi is an everyday meeting place in upscale Society Hill, a sun-drenched hub where coldbrew-charged business students pore over spreadsheets next to croissant-nibbling old-timers leafing through rain-wrinkled copies of Coin World. Henneman and his staffers best connect with their clientele in the a.m., when the coffee queues hugging the black walnut counter melt into shapeless, sincere catch-up sessions. Neighbors clutch cortados and chat with their neighbors. Tourists ask for directions and espresso directives. Baristas broach non-coffee subjects and pull shots off the Synesso simultaneously.
By the afternoon, the energy ebbs but the spirit doesn’t. There’s a little more time for an unfamiliar onlooker perched at a custom drafting chair to ask about the particulars of pourover science, a few spare moments for Henneman to rap about what distinguishes Costa Rican Montes de Oro from Ethiopian Duromina. A scattering of workers buried in their laptop screens silently mingle with coffee drinkers who prefer verbal news with their brews, floating through the double doors empty-handed, doubling back armed with steaming leaf-stamped cups. When the sun decides to set on the Shambles, the shop doesn’t close so much as close its eyes. Bodhi means “awakening.” And even if you don’t order it, that’s precisely what it provides.
Bodhi Coffee, Headhouse Square: 410 S 2nd St.
The kid with the backpack isn't doing a very good job of keeping his eyes to himself. Chin cocked up, he softly scans Shot Tower’s details as he hovers by the counter. The patches of exposed plaster and brick above the highest-end espresso machine, which screams La Marzocco’s Strada brand out in sunflower yellow. The crowded but cozy communal table and its swivel-out seats, making it that much easier for solitary espresso sippers to swap smiles. The laptop leerers and plain ol’ daydreamers taking up every third-or-so seat along the perfect picture windows, peering out on a park that was a sad pile of soil before some green-thumbed neighbors had their say…
“Really well-done, man.”
The barista smiles and nods as he hands over backpack boy’s change and brew. “It’s a good place to be.”
It wasn’t always. For nearly 60 years, a period that happens to encompass co-owner Mat Derago’s entire life to this point, this corner building at Sixth and Christian sat vacant, hidden from the neighborhood behind weather-beaten boards. “That’s what everyone was asking,” says Derago of the most frequent question he and wife/partner Mariel Freeman got upon opening in 2010. “What was this? It was nothing.”
Derago and Freeman, who were both introduced to the game during stints at Lambertville, New Jersey’s Rojo’s Roastery, took that nothing and made something. He’s got a biology degree, which informs the scientific aspects of coffeemaking; he’s also got an eye for art and design, which explains the limited-edition ESPO prints you’re bound to catch on the walls. She’s a partner and instructor in the nearby DIG Yoga, and you can see the patience and attention to detail required in that craft funneled into every cup of Counter Culture filled here.
Convenient espresso pun notwithstanding, the shop’s named after the Sparks Shot Tower, originally erected nearby in 1808 and still standing today. They’ve got to make it a few more years to catch up, but it’s become a neighborhood beacon all the same. “I still come across people that say, ‘I don’t drink coffee,’” says Derago. “And I say, well, you’re missing out. Because you don’t have to come in here to drink coffee. You can come in here to be part of the community.”
Shot Tower Coffee, Bella Vista: 542 Christian St.
OK, so it has a googly-eyed teddy bear head. Its body is a great white shark corked inside a glass jar. It’s got legs that look they’re on loan from a green cartoon panther. The tail appears to be purloined from a neon purple squirrel. Oh, and it’s got a bunch of friends who are birds…
No, this isn’t an eyewitness wildlife description from a day hiker who’s consumed a massive dose of peyote. It’s the handiwork of prolific muralist NoseGo, chilling on the northern wall of Elixr Coffee in Center City. The unmistakable beast holds court just above a wraparound couch-appointed lounge that’s populated by coffee drinkers as unique and disparate as the artwork above them. A dude in a well-tailored suit who seems harried, but not so much that he’s rushing his ristretto. A young girl, head knotted in a rust-colored kerchief, wearing sunglasses inside as she pinches the handle of a mug. A gaggle of wide-eyed Penn kids, balancing iced green teas on an unreasonably tall stack of textbooks.
Evan Inatome might’ve ended up in Philly by chance — his brother-in-law, Winston Justice, was drafted by the Eagles — but everything about the construction of Elixr was deliberate. The home coffee geek turned pro — how many of your friends have a La Marzocco for home use? — tricked out his large, appealingly tucked-away shell with endless cords of reclaimed wood and zero-VOC paints. But people come for the coffee, an ever-changing roasting roster best explored via pourover, not the ethos. Right?
Ask Inatome and he’ll tell you there’s more than just liquid consumption going on along his picnic-like benches. The “coffice space” is its own sort of salon, its polish attracting creatives who aren’t afraid to get things done. “Some people tell me there are startups that happen in Elixr,” he says. “Businesses are born here.” But don’t be disappointed if you exit the Swiss-crossed door without the blueprints for the next killer app. Inatome’s expectations for you are much simpler. “It’s kind of like a potion … something that makes you feel a little bit better,” he says of his shop’s slick, deliberately misspelled moniker. “I wanted it to apply to the entire experience. Come have a coffee — and just feel good after.”
Elixr Coffee, Center City: 207 S Sydenham St.
Production: Jennifer Green
Direction: Lendl Tellington
Writing and Editing: Drew Lazor
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