February 21, 2012

CUSTARD OR BUST: Intelligentsia

This was our second visit to Intelligentsia’s roasting facilities, this time we visited their headquarters. The first visit was on the West Coast to their facility in LA. If you want to count Ecco, a roaster Intelligentsia owns, this was the 3rd Intelligentsia visit.

Rolando and I were talking on this trip and realizing we’re in a pretty unique position at this point. We’ve been committed to working with the best beans in the world since day one. And we won’t take a coffee into our program until we’ve had a chance to visit the roaster, learn about the company, see how they roast, etc. So to date we’ve visited a crazy list of roasters: Barrington Coffee, George Howell, New Harvest, Coffee Exchange, Speedwell, Barismo, Matt’s, Stumptown, Ecco, Barefoot, Four Barrel, Ritual, Verve, Intelligentsia (West Coast), Blue Bottle, Counter Culture, and after this most recent trip Alterra, Metropolis, La Colombe Torrefection, and now Intelligentsia (Chicago). I have no way to confirm, but I suspect nobody has ever done that. I’m guessing we’re the only folks out there that have visited these roasters, a roster that includes most of the best coffee roasters in the world.

Add to this the fact that we’re both non-industry folks,neither of us ever worked in a coffee shop, and you end up with this journey. We’re slowly learning about coffee, having fun with new and surprising cups, and learning about different company missions and cultures. Amazing how much they vary.

This brings us to Intelligentsia. These folks are one of the pioneers of the “Third Wave” of coffee, along with Stumptown, and Counter Culture. These folks started working in the 1990s to help others think of coffee more as an artisinal food (e.g., wine) and less like a commodity (e.g., corn). Intelligentsia is based on Chicago, but like Stumptown and Counter Culture have taken recent steps to expand around the country. I’m guessing the timing is related to Starbucks growth leveling, but maybe I’m wrong. Anyway, all are expanding, albeit in different ways. And all 3 of those players have done amazing and important things for coffee.

So we were pretty excited to visit Intelligentsia. When we arrived it had this funny cold feeling. I don’t know how to capture this very well, but just about every roaster we visit feels full of life. They remind me of artists studios. Sort of bustling, full of life and creativity. It’s a really fun feeling. I was surprised that the Intelligentsia headquarters had more of a corporate feeling. That picture is of Rolando sitting in the lobby. Not sure we’ve visited a single roaster with a lobby. In the roasting facility it was silent, no talking, no music. We were asked to wear hairnets (a first at a coffee roaster).

But in the roasting facility we met Xavier (did I get your name right?). He rocked. He moved with purpose and passion. Really awesome to see him in action. He told us all about the coffee and roasting approach, which was really fun.

This trip has us thinking a bit more about our coffee program. No question their beans are awesome, and they source very responsibly. On those measures Intelli is without questions one of the best in the world. But we didn’t come away from the visit with the same feeling we’ve had about our favorite roasters. We still haven’t met the owners (a first), we didn’t taste (a first, although we’ve obviously had a bunch of their coffee in the past), the facility wasn’t filled with that energy we’re used to finding. I suspect we just weren’t super important in their larger picture. Does that stuff matter?

Recent Posts

May 24, 2023
I recently learned that garlic has 4 stages that it goes through on its journey to become the cured stuff you’re probably used to seeing. This year I learned about Green Garlic. It’s the mild, sweet, un-cured bulb, plus the fresh green shoots. We got our hands on a super limited crop from Red Fire out in Granby, and so we decided to see if we could incorporate it into every single different type of box we make next week…
May 23, 2023
We’ve intentionally steered clear of bowls for a long time. If you see Ayr tomorrow, ask him why : ) Tomorrow (5/24) we’re starting a 2-week test of bowls at CloverNTV, our restaurant in Newtonville. If it goes well, this could represent the beginning of one of the bigger changes our menu has EVER seen. We’re hoping we’ve cracked the code to bowls that are seasonal, carefully-composed, easy to carry, and craveable – all the things we love about bowls, and none of the things we don’t.
May 18, 2023
I used to eat Cheesy Grits almost every morning, and if you were eating with us around 2017, I bet you did too. We took our Plimoth-ground-grits off the menu for a little while, but now they’re back at all locations (except for the HUB for the time being). Stop in for breakfast during the next 2 weeks – we’re aiming for these to be hot and ready at 8am and we’ll be selling them til they’re out. The staff has been waking up extra early and adding a lot of extra whisking to their mornings, so we’d love to hear what you think. If you’ve never had our Cheesy Grits before, here are some things you should know….
May 16, 2023
What is Chris eating? When we toured the field at Siena, the crew was planting dahlia tubers. They get planted in warm soil, will grow all summer and will be ready for harvest in the fall. They reminded us of sunchokes, so we got to talking about whether the tubers are edible and it turns out they are! Are they delicious?
May 15, 2023
Do you want a beautiful box of produce for a fraction of what you’d pay in the grocery store? Do you want to invest in a farm’s success and be with them throughout the harvest season? Do you think you hate eggplants but you’ve just never had a good one? It might be time to look into a CSA (or farmshare).
May 5, 2023
I remember exactly the moment we started celebrating May the 4th (“May the Force” be with you). We were on a planning call about meal boxes and we were talking about how we were going to launch our Taco Tuesday program on Cinco de Mayo (May the 5th). Chris accidentally said “May the 4th” and Ayr said, “May the 4th! We should do a Star Wars Box!”
April 24, 2023
If you’ve been reading for a while you probably know we hate waste. Most of the time, minimizing waste is pretty unglamorous, but every once in a while our mission to reduce waste takes us to some very cool places. I look after Clover’s grocery marketplaces (including our Assembly Row grocery store). A few months ago I noticed that the marketplaces were going through a lot of our paper bags. They’re compostable, which is great. But I think the best bag is one you can use over and over again.
April 22, 2023
Few people know that Clover is environmental activism. This is by design.  And it works. We do these customer surveys and see that 9 out of 10 Clover customers are NOT vegetarian. Yet I’m constantly troubled by conflicting feelings about the approach we’ve taken.
April 10, 2023
Over the next 3 weeks, on a rolling schedule, most Clovers are going to be giving out a free hot or cold George Howell Montecarlos coffee to anyone who stops in between opening and 11 am. No strings— we just want to see you all and talk about coffee!! George Howell’s Montecarlos is a single-origin coffee we love for our pour-overs…
March 30, 2023
Each year, early spring is a busy time at the Clover kitchen because we have 2 of our tastiest boxes, usually back-to-back. For the Passover box, a lot of care goes into the kashering of the kitchen, with Rabbi Dolinger coming in to ensure the box is totally Kosher for Passover via Lighthouse Kosher.
March 15, 2023
That photo is corn fritters drizzled with maple syrup. We just started frying them up for a 2pm special – and they’re an element of our Maple Meal Box. If you head away from the city this time of year, you’ll see signs for sugar shacks, where maple sap gets boiled down into syrup and little restaurants pop up to serve pancakes, corn fritters, cider donuts, and dill pickles (to cut through the sweetness of the fresh syrup).
February 28, 2023
You’ve been asking! And finally we can announce: sunchokes are here, starting tomorrow, 3/1. Thanks to Pete’s Greens in VT for getting us local sunchokes. At breakfast we’ll be making The Sunchoke Truffle: fluffy house-baked pita, creamy truffled butter, caramelized onions, a 6.5 minute egg, and thin, crispy sunchoke slices. At lunch and dinner: The Sunchoke Mushroom: scallion-black-pepper mayo, fresh arugula, roasted crimini mushrooms, fried brined onions, and roasted sunchokes. But what IS a sunchoke?