When you think of the city of Seattle, what comes to mind? The Space Needle? Frasier? Getting soaking wet 300 days a year? Grungy flannel-clad bands of the early ’90s? Or maybe you, like I, think of coffee. My bet is that most Starbucks customers (which is to say, like, 98% of the First World) has at least a back-of-the-mind knowledge that Starbucks began in Seattle–as well as the other successful coffee chain Seattle’s Best. (I know, that one came as a surprise, right?)
This past week I had the fantastic opportunity to join my husband on a business trip to Seattle. He had a tech conference to attend during the first two days of the week, so I was left to my own devices in an unfamiliar place, which I actually really enjoy. As an enthusiastic coffee drinker in a city with approximately 8 million coffee shops per square mile, a run-in with coffee was pretty much inevitable. But I definitely did not foresee the extremely exhaustive experience I ended up having!
My original plan was to register for one of the many food tours of the city. Years ago my husband and I went on a food tour of New York City, which made a huge impression on me (and my thighs–dear Lord, that was a LOT of food). But when I began checking in to food tour prices, I discovered they were higher than I was prepared to pay. Another tour with a slightly more budget-friendly price was Seattle By Foot‘s “Coffee Crawl.” I made the snap decision to register online late Sunday night for the next morning’s tour.
The tour was scheduled to begin at something called The Hammering Man, not far from Pike Place Market. I had a few moments of genuine concern when I scoured all four corners of the intersection and didn’t see a coffee shop called The Hammering Man. And then I looked up:
Behind The Hammering Man’s colossal foot stood a trim 50-ish guy with a pageboy cap and a sleek messenger bag. If anybody was giving a Seattle coffee tour, it had to be this guy. He introduced himself as Ed and said I was the only person to register for that morning’s tour–woohoo, a private tour for the price of a group tour! Yes, please!
Our first stop was the highly urban, metal-and-chrome Caffe Lladro. “Lladro” means thief in Spanish, and as Ed explained, there’s a reason behind this name. The shop’s founder was working for another coffee shop when he decided to strike out on his own in 1994. He opened Caffe Lladro directly across the street from his former employer, taking several recipes and company secrets with him. Twenty years later Caffe Lladro has 14 locations, while the other coffee shop has given way to a Starbucks. Ouch.
As for the actual coffee, my visit to Caffe Lladro included a sample of a Kenyan single-bean light roast brewed in a Chemex coffee maker, which looks like a laboratory beaker with a trendy belt.
Not being a fan of light roast coffee, this one was not my favorite, but I did appreciate that it was organic, fair trade, and shade grown. In terms of coffee ethics, it doesn’t get much more virtuous than that.
Our next stop was Caffe D’Arte, a family-owned coffee shop on 2nd Avenue and Pine. This shop has the distinction of being one of the only roasters to roast its beans over an alderwood fire. When Ed handed me a sample and asked me to smell it, I immediately caught a whiff of campfire smoke. Definitely a unique tasting experience! The barista then came over and poured this gorgeous work of latte art before my very eyes.
Up next on the tour was Ghost Alley Espresso. Founded by the daughter of longtime Pike Place Market vendors, this place has history coming out its ears. It sits nestled under the Market on the way to the Post Alley, home of the infamous Gum Wall, where thousands of people have stuck their used gum to create a disgustingly colorful attraction.
The entire interior of Ghost Alley Espresso only has about 100 square feet of space, with a single table for seating and creepy decor befitting its name. The founder apparently has a special place in her heart for the supernatural happenings around the market. Her book on the ghosts of the market is for sale on the shop’s narrow shelves. On our stop here, I sampled the Salted Nut Latte, which was a perfect balance of nutty and sweet. Highly recommended!
After Ghost Alley, Ed and I hunkered down for the longish walk in the blustering wind to Intrigue Chocolate Company. Here we met Aaron, the ebullient truffle chef behind this tiny chocolate-dedicated kitchen that doesn’t even have a storefront. I’ll tell you what: it drives me nuts when people throw around the term “artisan” like it’s a credential you can download off the internet, but Aaron is what I would call a true artisan–a worker skilled in a trade done by hand. He gave me samples of several of his uniquely flavored truffles: pineapple habanero, stout beer, ginger and rose, mint, and prune. This is as close to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as it gets in the real world. So interesting to taste the richness of chocolate mingled with unexpected flavors like pineapple and ginger. Along with the truffles, I sampled a cold-brewed iced coffee concentrate Ed said has three times the caffeine of hot brewed coffee. Yeah, I was definitely getting wired by this point.
The last stop on the tour was the elegant, Italianate Caffe Umbria in Pioneer Square. Aesthetically, this shop was by far my favorite, with its mosaic tile vases, marble countertops, and wrought iron light fixtures. (I like to pretend I’m in Europe whenever possible.) The drink sample here was as tasteful as the shop itself: a classic espresso shot topped with sweet whipped cream.
And with that, the tour had come to a close. Looking back on my four days in Seattle, I have to say this tour was probably the best thing I did. It’s not every day you get to traipse around a new city with a personal coffee chauffeur, and I thoroughly enjoyed the drinks, the company, and the information. With a galloping heart and twitching eyelid, I said goodbye to my excellent guide Ed and headed out to explore more of the city. And believe it or not, I did not have any more coffee for the entire rest of the day.