Coffee Culture in America: Top 4 Cities for a Cup of Joe

Coffee by Lyz Pfister

The Italians may have their espresso bars and the French their outdoor cafés, but no other country has embraced the coffee shop as much as the USA. In America, the coffee shop is both meeting point, living room and remote office. A city’s coffee shop culture is also an insight into the way that city lives, its local flair and what makes it tick. Here are four of the country’s top caffeine cultures.

Seattle, Washington

It makes sense that the city where Starbucks was born is the city in which more coffee is consumed than anywhere else in the US. Seattle boasts 2.5 coffee shops for every 1,000 residents, the greatest concentration in the country. For Seattleites, the coffee shop is hub around which work and leisure wheel, and you’ll find a coffee shop attached to almost anything – Laundromats, barbershops and strip clubs not excluded. In a city famed for its constant rain, a coffee shop is a quick escape into comfort and warmth.

Seattle’s coffee claim to fame is Starbucks, the coffee shop that sparked a revolution and changed the way we think about coffee culture. You can still grab a tall vanilla Frappuccino at the original location in Pike Place Market. While Starbucks might have had a big role in creating coffee shop culture, today it’s overshadowed by the small, independent coffee shops who’ve refined the concept. From the art deco Victrola Coffee, which hosts live music and art shows, to the book-lined Bauhaus Book & Coffee, the city is chock full of coffee purveyors serving quality organic and Fair Trade blends. If you’re unsure of where to start, book a spot in the Coffee Crawl, a two-hour walking tour of some of Seattle’s best coffee joints.

Portland, Oregon

Seattle’s nearby neighbor is a city dedicated to environmental awareness, especially when it comes to food and drink, which is why Portland takes its coffee sustainable with a side of local vibe. Independent coffee shops are likely to tell you where your beans came from, who harvested them and how much they were paid for it.

Portland’s DIY mentality means smaller is better, so the person who owns the coffee shop might also roast the beans or serve you your drink. Coffee bars like Coava brew single-origin beans which they roast in shared workshop spaces, or experiment with light, clean roasting for a juice-like flavor that’s not your typical brew as at Heart Coffee Roasters. But that doesn’t mean everything in Portland is small – Stumptown Coffee Roasters, the gold standard for quality roasted coffees, has already made inroads in Seattle and New York and has plans for Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you’re in town, stop by for a free tasting (called a “cupping”) of Stumptown coffee every day at noon and 2:00pm at the Annex.

New York City, New York

New York has a reputation to uphold, and the city that never sleeps relies on a good cup of coffee to keep on buzzing. Residents can almost always be seen with a to-go cup in hand, whether it’s the iconic blue and white Greek-style bodega cup or emblazoned with a Starbucks logo. Real coffee culture might have come late to New York, but today brewing is an art, where cafés roast their own beans, drip coffees are brewed by the cup and beans are ground to order, sometimes with a different grinder for each type of drink. Try your coffee French pressed, brewed in a filter cone or hand cupped from a vintage espresso machine.

You can find your poison of choice at a stand-up espresso bar such as Blue Bottle Coffee, imported from San Francisco to the ever-fashionable Williamsburg district of Brooklyn or delve into experimental brews such as those on offer at The Randolph at Broome (booze-spiked coffee with curry, coconut and cacao, anyone?). However, in true New Yorker style, if you don’t want your coffee the way it’s served, you might just have to leave. Some baristas won’t let you add milk, others won’t let you take it to go (it tastes best in a ceramic cup) and still others will re-pour a shot until it’s just right. Your barista’s happiness is utmost.

San Francisco, California

If you want to get a feel for San Francisco, start with a cup of coffee. While coffee shops form the backbone of most neighborhoods, doubling as cultural centers or performance venues, that doesn’t mean they don’t take the craft seriously. These coffee shops roast rare beans from around the world and brew them with care. San Francisco has long been a coffee-lover’s city – Folgers and Hills Bros Coffee were both founded here, as well as Peet’s Coffee, the precursor to Starbucks credited with launching the rebirth of coffee culture in the 60’s.

San Francisco has kept up the tradition of sharing great coffee with the world. Blue Bottle Coffee, known for its super strong espresso brewed with techniques imported from Japan, got its start here. For a more old-school coffee vibe, head to Café Trieste, the oldest café on the west coast. Every Saturday, this North Beach coffee shop hosts a live opera concert with accordions and Italian mandolins. Their house signature cafe africano, made with house-roasted beans, is a strong glass of espresso and steamed extra-rich milk.