Crossing the United States, one cup of coffee at a time

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — We unfolded the United States map on the kitchen table, simultaneously excited and overwhelmed with our upcoming cross-country road trip. With an arrival date set in stone, we knew we had to be efficient, but we didn’t want such a remarkable experience to fly by in a haze of unremarkable strip malls and Starbucks.

In our planned 10 days on the road, how could we anchor our stops in a way that would let us experience each town, sans tourist traps?

We found our answer in local coffee shops.

My partner Colette and I have frequented independent shops wherever we’ve lived, and love how they often reflect the varied vibe of different neighborhoods. We hoped replicating the practice on the road would have the same effect, providing a window into each community we visited.

Plus, we knew we would need (at least) one caffeine jolt a day. Like many Americans, Colette and I try not to interact with humanity until we’ve gulped down at least one cup of joe.

After three years in Washington, D.C., we were moving back to our native Southern California for a too-good-to-pass-up job opportunity in Santa Barbara.

In the unexplored states and unknown roads ahead, our coffee shop sojourns would connect us from one coast to another.

On a nondescript Wednesday morning, Colette and I loaded up the car and turned in our apartment keys. We had been looking forward to this trip for months, but in that moment, everything was thick with melancholy. We needed to get on the road, yet it felt almost impossible to begin our long westward trek, to start chipping away at the miles.

“Coffee?” I suggested.

“Yeah, that’s smart,” Colette said.

The East

The way I see it, spending time in our nation’s capital means spending time on one of the mismatched chairs at Tryst, a coffee shop in the heart of D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. As a coffeehouse-restaurant-bar-live-music-venue, Tryst is bound to deliver on whatever your needs may be, even as they shift throughout the day. Indeed, I have spent multiple days there with my laptop, transitioning from the traditional coffee and bagel in the morning to an early evening cocktail.

As Colette and I drove out of D.C., reminiscing about our city that would soon be a place we only visit, Tryst came up — more than once — as a place we would miss. Opened in 1998, Tryst consistently nabs top honors for best local coffee shop, with its expertly brewed coffee from Counter Culture beans always served with a handful of animal crackers. The “Food Lovers’ Guide to Washington, D.C.,” which held a prominent place on our bookshelf, described Tryst as “kind of like Adams Morgan’s living room,” an apt explainer since most patrons settle in for long blocks of time on the vintage couches and chairs crammed into the large, high-ceilinged room.

The District faded from our rearview mirror as we drove through Maryland and West Virginia and finally into Kentucky. The verdant, rolling hills meant we were in horse country now, although we planned to spend the next day enjoying the other thing the Bluegrass State is known for: whiskey.

Post-distillery tour, Colette and I made our way to Sunergos Coffee on West Woodlawn Avenue in Louisville’s South End neighborhood.

I ordered a cappuccino and Colette got the seasonal drink — a mixture of coconut milk, simple syrup and espresso over ice. As Elliott Smith and Bloc Party played over the sound system, the bearded baristas explained that the shop recently held its first internal drink competition, with Sunergos employees concocting summertime-specific recipes. The island-tinged beverage (courtesy Hawaiian-turned-Kentuckian barista Kela Strickland) won.

Mismatched tables and chairs dotted the café’s concrete floors, and a huge bay window on the front wall let in lots of natural light, despite an afternoon downpour that kept us enjoying our coffee inside.

In the back, behind windows that spanned almost floor to ceiling, sat roasting equipment and giant bags of coffee beans. The barista who made our drinks told us that they fire up the roasting gear three days a week.

In the 11 years since the first Sunergos opened on South Preston Street in Louisville, the company has landed on a list of the top 20 coffee shops in America and opened up two more outposts: the roasting location on Woodlawn, which opened up four years ago to accommodate a growing number of wholesale clients, and a small grab-and-go storefront in the heart of downtown Louisville.

A Louisville newbie, I learned that the city is becoming more known as a stop for coffee lovers, and Sunergos is key in that development.

At in-town latte art showdowns, baristas from the handful of independent coffee shops get together for some friendly competition. A March Madness-style bracket of a Sunergos latte art contest even sat atop shelves of merchandise in the shop.

The Midwest

After a short drive (at least by road trip standards), Colette and I crossed the Mississippi River into St. Louis, Missouri. The city was transfixed by Cardinals fever that afternoon — the beloved baseball team was on day two of an at-home four-game series with the San Diego Padres – but we were in search of Shaw’s Coffee in The Hill, the historic Italian neighborhood.

A group of older men speaking Italian formed a semicircle outside the front door, while customers mingled among the matching tables and chairs inside the bright storefront. The feel of the place was clean and streamlined, no vintage couches or overstuffed armchairs here. The café opened in 1999 and sees mostly regulars because of its off-the-beaten-path location.

The Probat roasting equipment sits behind the espresso bar, and the barista who made us a refreshing raspberry Italian soda explained that Shaw’s specializes in a darker roasted coffee. Beans are roasted twice a week to be used in the shop and sold by the pound.

Our stop was quick and efficient, and the next day’s 4 a.m. wakeup call meant we turned in early. By sunrise, we were far outside the city, passing cornfields upon cornfields on our way to Des Moines, Iowa.

The stop in Des Moines coincided with that city’s weekly farmers market plus Independence Day, making for a particularly Americana-themed afternoon. We expected some sort of red, white and blue themed block party would take over the city once the market closed, but in the Heartland, businesses actually shut down for the Fourth of July, pushing our stop at Mars Café to the next day.

The outer space-themed coffee shop is spitting distance from Drake University, and its menu of traditional coffee drinks, inexpensive comfort food (bacon quesadilla, anyone?) and a few beer and wine offerings make it a hit with the college crowd.

But a nook of couches allowed people without a looming term paper deadline to thumb through a newspaper or Kindle, and on this Sunday, instrumental music played quietly as small groups of people huddled at booths and tables for morning Bible study.

The café’s intergalactic motif extends from the acrylic alien paintings on the walls to the menu itself, where one can order a space egg breakfast sandwich or a moon cheese panini. But I’m in this for the coffee, so I got the Sputnik, a swoon-worthy mix of honey, almond, cinnamon, milk and espresso over ice.

As far as non-traditional coffee drinks go, the Sputnik was the gold medal winner of the trip. It was sweet but not cloying, and with just enough spice to make it interesting. I would like to drink one every day; after Colette sipped it with her eyes closed, she informed me: “That tastes like one million dollars.”

Fully satiated, Colette and I hopped in the car, ready for a full day of driving. We relied on an odd soundtrack of Florence and the Machine, Keiza and Taylor Swift remixes to get us through the rest of Iowa and much of South Dakota (and talked extensively about how to concoct the Sputnik in our kitchen at home).

The next day we arrived in Rapid City, the town at the edge of the Black Hills National Forest. Before we ascended to Mount Rushmore, we stopped in at Rumours Coffee & Wine Bar, a shop that opened up just last year.

The shop, with a logo that looks like a record, leans heavily on its musical roots. A barista told us that one of the owners, Tara Little, came up with the name as a tribute to her late father: The last concert the two attended together was a Fleetwood Mac reunion show.

Framed record sleeves of albums by REO Speedwagon, Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Nicks decorate the walls, as does a giant chalkboard with a monthly listing of live music performances.

My cappuccino was foamy and smooth but lacked the strong espresso flavor and kick that I had come to expect. Colette ordered the Black Hole Sun, the house blend plus a shot of espresso, a heartier drink that delivered on flavor and caffeine.

A fireplace in the corner was surrounded by soft cloth chairs and rustic tree stumps, turned into stools and topped with cushions. Metal detailing and a few country accents give the whole space a Western feel. In fact, it was the first place on the trip where the coffee shop reflected the location, where we got a sense of the specific place we were visiting.

We were suddenly aware that we were now in the West.

Originally Posted on : Mashable

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