Coffee Touring: The Best Coffee in Riga

02.18

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Just last month, Riga, the capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic states, was officially unveiled as the European Capital of Culture for 2014 (along with Umeå, Sweden). What that means exactly for the residents depends on who you ask, most seem unsure about the specifics, but they are excited nonetheless to have a spotlight on their city following all the cultural events planned throughout the year. After returning from a week long trip, I learned first hand that the designation is much deserved. From the city’s budding specialty coffee scene to the amazing architecture down every street, Riga is well worth a visit.

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Riga has a history that dates back longer than my North American mind can wrap itself around, and the architecture alone reflects it. Just walking through the streets you’re treated to a diversity of buildings that I’ve yet to see in one place elsewhere in Europe. Riga has changed hands many times over the centuries, and it has absorbed heavy influences from Germany, the Soviet Union and at one point in the early 1700′s it was the largest city in the Swedish empire.

In the nearly 25 years since gaining its freedom from the USSR, Riga has grown into a city as cosmopolitan and unique as any other in central Europe. The incredibly preserved Art Nouvaeu district (the largest collection in the world) and the old wooden homes from the 19th century are now being joined by contemporary designs like the newly finished National Library and the Citadele and DnB Nord bank buildings. Along with this architectural and cultural modernization, specialty coffee has begun to take hold as well.

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MIIT Coffee & Bikes 
Lāčplēša iela 10, Rīga
Tel: +371 26775490
@miit_tiim

Miit Coffee & Bikes in the heart of the Central District is only a couple blocks from the large Esplenade park. The bright and spacious shop was just around the corner from my hotel and received daily visits during my stay in Riga. There’s a lot of love for bikes and the fixed gear culture, with historic images of track racing on the walls and a framed photo of Eddie Merckx behind the bar. Miit opened 3 years ago and uses coffee roasted by Andrito Coffee Roasting, founded in 2010 by the former Latvian Barista Champion Andris Petkēvičs.

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The café serves a menu full of vegetarian and vegan food, including a delicious spread of pancakes for weekend brunch. The long bar made from stacks of wooden slats plays host to a La Cimbali espresso machine or you can order any coffee available as an Aeropress, V60, French Press or Chemex. During one of my visits, a barista mentioned that it’s not common for customers to order the manual brew methods on their own because they usually don’t know what they are, but after recommendations, some regulars will eventually try them and really enjoy it. Even if they don’t serve manual brew coffee very often, she said they’re proud to offer it.

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When Miit isn’t making coffee or pancakes, they stay busy with other projects like Miit Works, which sells track bike frames and parts. Cycling seemed to be a reoccurring theme throughout my visit, with fixed gear bikes having a presence in some way at every shop I visited. If that wasn’t enough, when the sun goes down, the coffee bar turns into an evening bar with DJs and crowds that rival those found during the day. There’s also WiFi available for those who need to map out their next move and friendly staff who can help you find your way.

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Žanna Cafe
Tomsona iela 2, Rīga
Tel: +371 27002226

The newest coffee shop to visit in Riga is Žanna, which opened just three months ago and already feels like a neighborhood institution. This cozy shop sits on the corner of a quiet residential street off the much busier Valdemars iela. Žanna’s corner location lets light in from both sides, allowing you to enjoy the fresh baked goods alongside your coffee in a warm space that contrasts with the cold Soviet-era exterior.

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Žanna is using coffee roasted in neighboring Estonia by Gourmet Coffee, and just like Miit, they offer brewing on a variety of methods. The centerpiece of the room is a bright red La Marzocco FB/80 that draws your attention from whichever corner you may be sitting in. I had a well made espresso before relaxing with a Chemex of Ethiopian Arichan and a sample of a Colombian brewed with a V60—both very well made by a barista who admitted to have only been making coffee for 3 months.

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As with Miit, Žanna is open later and has a bar stocked with everything needed to transition from caffeine to a nightcap. This café fills up with locals in a place that’s much more removed from the central part of town, but it’s still easy to visit by a short walk along one of Riga’s main roads. If you want to leave the guide book behind and explore something other than the tourist districts, take a walk to Žanna.

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Innocent Café
Blaumaņa ielā 34-1a, Rīga
Tel: +371 29349507
@innocentcafe

A place like Innocent Café normally wouldn’t make it on my list of places to visit, but it was recommended by Ingemars who is now the head barista at Žanna Cafe. While he admitted that he managed Innocent for several years and that they were an Illy cafe, he said it was an important place because it inspired the current trend of specialty coffee shops and the baristas who work at them.

Innocent is the Latvian distributor of Illy coffee, and during my visit I lost count of how many Illy logos there were to remind me. The café was branded like none I’d ever seen before. There were shelves lined with Illy cups, Illy logos on the walls, paintings on the walls of the Illy logos on the walls and sofas upholstered in Illy red leather. It was a bit of an Illy overload.

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On the front counter was a white La Marzocco GB5 adorned with subculture stickers that contrasted irreverently with the sheen of Illy’s corporate mark left on every available surface. The café was quite large, with the middle room being devoted to the sale of home machines and coffee products. The back section was dimly lit and reserved more for the laptop crowd, while the front was bustling with customers who all seemed to know each other quite well. From greeting each others kids to saddling up beside neighbors when open tables were readily available.

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The coffee was as I expected, but a much better option than most of the places I passed on my way here. I had a well pulled and balanced shot of espresso followed by my first Illy cappuccino with milk that wasn’t bone dry. It felt as if Innocent had formed some kind of hybrid between what I’ve always expected from an Illy café and a modern specialty coffee shop. With a bike on the wall and booze on the shelves, it seemed to fill the requirements of the other specialty coffee shops in town and was filled with happy, coffee loving customers.

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While Riga’s specialty coffee scene may still be small, it has ample potential for a city the size of Riga. One thing I noticed every shop in Riga had in common was the vibrancy of a culture on the move. While navigating to each destination, I’d pass local boutiques alongside Bulgari showrooms and centuries old wooden homes beside storefronts displaying the work of Eames and Kartell. Not to mention the free wifi everywhere, even in Taxis and liquor stores.

There are so many rich layers of history in Latvia and so much potential in its modern day growth, it’s inevitable that the current generation will add even more unique layers to this city in the years to come. Places like Miit, Žanna and Innocent have created the kind of atmosphere in Riga where this future can take shape.

posted by on 02.18.2014, under Coffee Touring

Coffee Touring: A Weekend With Koppi

02.14

On the train ride between Gothenburg and Copenhagen, there’s a small  but lovely town on the coast of Sweden called Helsingborg. Aside from being home to Ikea’s corporate headquarters and a Nicorette manufacturing plant, it’s home to Koppi Kaffe & Roasteri—one of Sweden’s finest. Last month I posted this great video of Koppi in action and knew that I could no longer put off visiting. There is very little I love more than being around great people doing what they love and doing it so well.

At Koppi’s helm are Anne Lunell and partner Charles Nystrand who have a taste for both great coffee and design that’s reflected in their gorgeous downtown café and roastery. Natural light floods in on two sides making the space feel warm and vibrant even in the heart of Swedish winter. There’s a La Marzocco on the bar, a daily brew in the airpot and a slow bar where you can try coffee from an AeroPress, Chemex, or V60.

I had the pleasure of first meeting Anne and Charles last summer at Coffee Common in Edinburgh and catch up with them occasionally when they pass through Gothenburg. They continue to be one of my favorite Nordic roasters and consistently offer delicious and surprising coffees. For being such a small company they work extremely hard to build direct relationships with farmers and travel to origin as often as possible.

Anne has been on the Swedish national team at the Nordic Barista Cup four times and she won the Swedish Barista Championship in 2006 —finishing 4th at the World Barista Championship that year. Charles, who was crowned Swedish Barista Champion in 2005, is in charge of Koppi’s roasting and has the best facial hair between the two.

While quite small, they’re coffee is still finding its way beyond the shores of Sweden, with wholesale accounts in Copenhagen and possibly the UK in the near future. They also recently launched a webshop that will ship internationally for free with an order of 6 bags or more. So if you don’t have the pleasure of living in or visiting Sweden anytime soon, gather some friends and order some of the finest coffee Sverige has to offer.

Coincidentally, Koppi is the cover story in this month’s Barista Magazine, where you can read much more about their journey in Sarah Allen’s great interview with Anne. Check it out to further inspire a future trip to Sweden.

Koppi Kaffe & Roasteri
Norra Storgatan 16. Helsingborg, Sweden

posted by on 02.14.2012, under Coffee Touring, Recommended Roasters

Exploring NYC’s Best Coffee with The Scoop

05.18

After leaving the SCAA Expo in Houston, I headed to NYC to spend a week with friends and explore more of NYC’s continually growing coffee scene. There have been so many new additions since living there three years ago, it can be hard to know where to begin once you’ve tried the more well-known staples like Gimme, Grumpy, and Ninth Street.

Thankfully, New York Times food and coffee writer, Oliver Strand has curated an excellent list as a part of the New York Time’s free iPhone app The Scoop. Of the 74 coffee shops and cafés listed (which are updated monthly), I’ve now been to 30 of them—21 during my most recent trip.

The app is extremely comprehensive and covers a range of shops, from tiny coffee bars to high-end restaurants with table side coffee service. The integrated map guides you to your destination and includes brief summaries written by Oliver himself. Of the places I tried, I only had bad drinks at a few of them and would recommend all but two.

When I visit a shop and want to get a solid perspective of what they offer, I usually order an espresso, a macchiato, and if they brew-by-the-cup—a drip coffee. If I’m approaching my caffeine limit or short on time, I may settle for just one drink. I also factor in the ambiance & design, cleanliness, customer service and general experience when deciding wether I really like a place or not. It’s rare to find a shop that captures everything so well that you call it perfect, but some get pretty damn close.

I discovered a lot of great new places on this trip that I most likely never would have found if it weren’t for The Scoop. Some became new additions to my, “must visit” list and others are just good relative to their neighborhood. One thing that surprised me the most during my recent trip was the influx of Counter Culture Coffee. Maybe they’ve always been there and I hadn’t noticed, but I would guess that 50% of the shops I visited were brewing CCC. Not that this is bad, they offer great coffee, it just seemed to be a very noticeable increase of market saturation.

Some of the highlights from this trip:

Best espresso: Single Origin Ecco Tanzania Edelweiss Estate at Kaffé 1668
Best macchiato: Stumptown Hair Bender at Variety
Best drip: Woodneck of Heart Roasters, Colombia Alfredo Rojas at RBCNYC
Best new café: Dora in the Lower Eastside
Best view: Joe at Columbia University
Best hidden gem: Bakeri in Williamsburg
Best ambiance: Bluebird in the East Village, Sweetleaf in Long Island City, Third Rail in Greenwich Village and Dora in the Lower East Side

None of these are conclusive and each visit to NYC would most likely lead to new results, but if you use them as a starting point, combined with Oliver’s list, you will be on your way to exploring some of the best the NYC coffee scene has to offer. Let me know of any great places I’ve missed. I’ll be sure to check them out on my next visit.

Download the free New York Time’s Scoop App

All photos taken with another great free iPhone app called Instagram.

 

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posted by on 05.18.2011, under Coffee Touring