Here begins an occasional series of reviews of coffee shops around the Metro. In this first number: Coffee Bene and the J & S Bean Factory in St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland, and Spyhouse in Northeast Minneapolis.
For many people I have met hereabouts, the coffee shop one chooses to hang out in makes a sort of personal statement. A newcomer in the Twin Cities may have an experience like that of the Englishman shopping for the pub that will become his “local.”
People want different things fron their time in a coffee shop. Among these sometimes conflicting desires are: excellent beans and roasting; artistry in the cup; good quality pastries; friendly baristas; ecological awareness; a pleasant environment; peace and quiet; fast Wi-Fi; comfortable seating and working space; and sympatico regulars.
The coffee house is one institution filling the need for third places in American culture — neither home nor office. Depending on the neighborhood, the people questing for their “great good place” may be students, workers in tech startups, professors, salespeople, readers, aspiring novelists, retirees, or a mix of those. Unless the coffee shop is located on a thoroughfare or in a neighborhood of transients such as shoppers, the coffee entrepreneur may design his or her establishment with the audience of potential regulars in mind.
For these reviews, Katharyn and I visited each coffee shop at least once, bought a beverage and a snack, and availed ourselves of the Wi-Fi for an hour or so.
53 Cleveland Ave. S at Grand Ave., St. Paul (website)
Parking is limited on the street around this coffee shop. On Cleveland in front of the entrance are three or four spots in a 15-minute zone. (There is more parking around back, west on Grand Ave.) The shop is reasonably well illuminated, with ample lighting and a picture window. The overall look is polished. The wooden tables and chairs (some high-top and some regular) all match and are sturdy and comfortable. There are four leather club chairs, each served by a good reading light. Two rocking chairs next to a fireplace (open on two sides) complete the seating. Walls painted a light “burnt rose” color give the space a 1990s feel.
Vibe — Katharyn and Keith agree on professional.
Crowd — Professors from St. Thomas; retirees; more students around lunchtime.
Wi-Fi — 16 Mbps downstream and 1.6 Mbps up during our visit, with about 5 others sharing the signal. Latency 25 msec. Provisioned by Comcast Business. You get a sticker from the barista with a temporary password. Between the hours of 10:00 am and 1:00 pm, it's good for 1 hour’s service; other times it’s 2 hours.
Coffee — Five roasts, several of them organic (can’t discern details from the website). We have had a 12-oz. bag of their Velver Hammer blend at home. It was not bad.
Staff — Students, very friendly. These are not career professional baristas, so they don’t artistically decorate the lattés. In fact my latté and Katharyn’s White Milly Chocha were both served in go-cups even though we were staying in.
Food — A small selection of baked goods; Katharyn calls these “primo.” She had a sticky breakfast roll and I ordered an apple turnover. Both very fresh.
Music & noise — A modern blend from Sirius, tending more pop than hip. The volume is set high, so if you don’t like the sound, bring your own headphones. The background noise level was fairly quiet on our recent visit, with more people reading or working on electronics than conversing. On a previous visit we found the front of the shop noisy.
J & S Bean Factory
1518 Randolph Ave. at Saratoga St., St. Paul (website)
The Bean is a popular hangout for the professorial class. The ceiling and most walls are tin — we’re not talking 1910s decorative tin here, we’re talking corregated. Other walls are painted bright yellow with red accents. Local art hangs on the walls, and much of the rest of the decor might have been executed by staff in idle moments, and not particularly professionally. Seating is benches along the walls and an eclectic mixture of yard-sale chairs for the tables. The interior is bright due to two front windows and a space that is not very deep.
Vibe — Katharyn: Grunge; Keith: Berkeley 1972.
Crowd — almost all academics from the look of them.
Wi-Fi — 14.2 Mbps downstream and 3.0 Mbps up, with half a dozen others sharing the signal. Latency 23 msec. Both 2.4 and 5.8 GHz signals are open with no password and no time limit. Provisioned by Comcast Residential.
Coffee — This is a serious roaster, with 27 varieties of bulk coffee for sale, 8 of them organic. Prices for most are $13.50 to $14.00 per pound. We have tried one of the decaf roasts at home, Steve’s Smokey Double Dark, organic. Quite good.
Staff — Students. Somewhat brusque. They are not fans of latté art, as the drawing indicates (although there apparently was once a dissenter named Caleb). This cartoon is taped to the counter facing the patrons. When I asked the counter people about it, they hadn’t ever noticed it.
Food — Baked goods, reasonably fresh; wrapped sandwiches and packaged fruit salads. Katharyn had a cinnamon twist roll that she pronounced moist and yummy. My plain croissant was not bakery-fresh, but was as good as you get most places.
Music & noise — The music was set at a low level and the only speaker was located in one corner — both pluses as far as I’m concerned. The background noise level became rather punishing when about four conversations got going in that tin-clad space.
945 Broadway St. NE at Central Ave., Minneapolis (website)
The Spyhouse is a serious Third Wave coffee house, very chill. The warehouse interior is dark despite copious windows. Decor mixes industrial and midcentury modern. Much of the seating is on benches, not particularly comfortable. The baristas are journeyman professionals, the Wi-Fi is excellent, and the music is cutting-edge.
Vibe — Katharyn: Urban; Keith: Young & hip.
Crowd — 20-somethings predominated, from local startups perhaps. A smattering of students (the U is nearby).
Wi-Fi — 64 Mbps downstream and 13 Mbps up, sharing the signal with perhaps 15 others. Latency 23 msec.
Faster than I get at home. [At the time of writing; but see here.] Provisioned by Comcast Business. Both 2.4 and 5.8 GHz signals with a common password.
Coffee — Serious. Nine roasts are for sale in the bean, 3 of them organic. Prices range upward from $17 per 12 oz.
Staff — Consummate professionals. I had a latté and it was one of the more beautiful drinks I have ever beheld. Also: delicious. They call their espresso brew Orion roast, and it comes with “chocolate tones & sweet fruits.” Katharyn had a brew of the day, Fazenda Recreio from Brazil, which she found strong and a bit acidic. Good if you like that sort of thing.
Food — I had a plain croissant, my go-to for comparing baked goods, and it was large and wonderfully fresh. Katharyn had a ham-and-cheese croissant over which she is still raving.
Music & noise — The music was far more hip than I am, with a driving beat, and played loud. Aside from that the noise level was moderate, for a high-ceilinged, echoey space.