Over the weekend my wife had some business about 45 minutes south of St. Louis, so I decided to spend the day in the car with her so I could visit a couple of coffee landmarks in the Gateway to the West. I went home with armloads of coffee from both Blueprint Coffee and Sump Coffee so there will be a lot more coffee reviews to read, but this article is about the coffee shops themselves and the coffees I drank while I was there. The first thing that struck me as I was doing my coffee trip research is that St. Louis has a much smaller specialty coffee industry than Kansas City. I guess I just naturally assumed that the St. Louis scene would be on par or even more robust than KC’s but I quickly realized how spoiled I’ve become living in the Paris of the Plains! That being said, the specialty coffee that is in St. Louis is very good and I think that part of the industry is just going to continue to grow!
Sump Coffee was my first stop and I was pretty excited for it. I’ve been following Sump for quite a while on social media and I’d done my homework when I was researching where I should go on my trip. My reading quickly told me that Sump has earned quite a reputation in specialty coffee and after watching their videos on YouTube I was excited to try a place that takes its coffee seriously.
Being a history nerd (and an architecture dork) I immediately fell in love with the neighborhood Sump Coffee is located in. As you near the shop the buildings get older and older, many of which are a characteristic gorgeous bright red brick. The blocks right around Sump gave me an Amsterdam vibe because of the narrow brick buildings that extended far back from the road. It was gorgeous and gritty and I wish I’d taken some time to take photos. Sump is found in “South City,” which is a conglomerate of older neighborhoods south of downtown St. Louis. It sort of sits on the border of a couple neighborhoods, but I place it in Marine Villa. This neighborhood got its start in 1855 and boomed in the 1890’s. The area was clearly on a gentrification upswing from what I observed, but like a lot of old city neighborhoods, it definitely hadn’t lost its edge yet!
Sump Coffee is known for doing things different. It’s the brainchild of owner, Scott Carey, and there are tons of articles about him and Sump that I won’t rehash. 1 2 Like many “third wave” coffee shops Sump does one thing, and that’s serve coffee (well, and tea). Reference those excellent articles for the story behind the business.
I opted for my old standby’s, starting with a straight shot of espresso (which was $3-$4) and then followed it up with a Cortado ($4.50). I was excited for the espresso because they were serving the washed Ethiopian, Reko, which they won 2015’s Midwest America’s Best Espresso competition with earlier in the summer. I was thinking about buying a bag to take home, then I had the espresso, pulled from their gorgeous matte white and black powdercoated Slayer machine, and I realized I would only be disappointed trying to make it at home!
The espresso was served a few minutes later in a gorgeous red Heath Ceramics demitasse and that costs an ungodly amount of money! A little wavy/twisty shot glass of carbonated water accompanied it. The aromas pouring off of this Reko were berries and florals and the flavors were bright yet sweet and balanced. This was a third wave espresso beginning to end, but it was so good and while bright it lacked any harshness or sourness. There were berries, like a natural Ethiopian (even though Reko is washed) in the front of the sip, florals spilling all over the place and then the lime acidity washes over everything. There’s a ton of fruit in the cup, and I was getting a purple plum vibe with a single origin (think Mast Bros.) chocolate bar finish and raisin in aftertaste. This was definitely one of the best espressos I’ve had, and I have had many. Many.
After recovering from the Reko and cleansing my palate for a while I went with my other old pal, the Cortado. They use whole milk from Ozark Mountain Creamery and I always like to see how a cafe can handle milk without having a giant drink. A 4-4.5 ounce Cortado is perfect for me. When it comes to milk we’re spoiled in KC with Shatto Milk Company but, man, that Ozark milk was crazy delicious in my cortado.
It came a few minutes later in a standard Gibraltar glass and the rosette on top was beautifully poured. The espresso Sump was using for the milk-based drinks was their Guatemala Waykan from Huehuetenango. This was another bright drink and, like the espresso, it was up there with the best Cortados I’ve ever had. Maybe the best! The problem with bright espresso and milk is that it sometimes gives a sour, almost spoiled cast to the milk. This cortado was perfect. The espresso cut through the milk but didn’t give it that sour-ish, spoiled-ish tinge that I sometimes get. The milk was super thick and lucious and the barista who made my drink knew how to get every nuance out of it. It was super rich, had a cocoa/hot chocolate vibe to it and I got tons of caramel in the drink, too. It was heavenly. I was blown away.
When I went to settle up with Scott I was going to buy a bag of their Sumatra but he offered to send me home with their entire line-up in 2oz sample bags, and I was much obliged!
If you read Yelp you’ll see the usual mix of reviews that all third wave coffee shops get. There is no sugar and milk bar and, yes, I’m sure every cafe owner is torn by whether to offer condiments or not. As someone who drinks a lot of different coffees and has been for the better part of two decades now, Sump Coffee is way, way up there with my top experiences and that’s saying a lot.
After the experience I had at Sump Coffee I was ready to see what Blueprint Coffee had to throw my way. Like Sump, I’ve been following Blueprint on social media for some time, always enamored with their amazing coffee bags 3 (I’m easy to please, but these are awesome)! Blueprint opened in the Delmar Loop neighborhood of St. Louis (an area that seems to be exploding with restaurants, bars and shopping). Like with Sump, a lot has been written about Blueprint since it opened in 2013, so check out those articles if you want the backstory. 4 5
Like Sump, Blueprint is both a cafe and retail space as well as roasting space for their own coffee. Blueprint offers their menu on little boards and has a kitchen as well as coffee and sweets. I decided to go for an espresso, their San Andres and a pourover (V60) of the Kenya Karimikui AA Top. I had just reviewed Compelling & Rich’s Karimikui Peaberry a few days prior, so I was looking forward to checking out coffee from the same co-op in Kenya! I forgot to write the prices down but they were similar to Sump’s for the most part. Co-owner, Mike, left me with a bag each of the San Andres and Karimikui, too, funnily enough, so it will be interesting to see how they differ when I use them at home!
The San Andres espresso hails from El Salvador and it was really bright but also sweet. Again, another very solidly third wave type of shot, but nice and tasty. There were some dark fruits in both the high notes and sweetness of the coffee and I was getting cherries and plums with a pleasant, almost herbal bitterness that counterpointed the sweetness. It was a complex and delicious espresso. I think the Sump Reko ruined me for espresso for a while, but this one from Blueprint was really good, too.
The Kenya Karimikui on V60 was interesting. I don’t drink many V60 coffees and I’m really looking forward to trying it in my Gino dripper at home. This coffee was exceptionally light in body and, to me, was actually a bit watery. As you would expect from a lightly roasted Kenyan coffee on a V60, it has super bright and vibrant. The aroma was really unexpected. I thought I would get citrus and lots of it but the first thought that came into my head was the tart-sweet purple plums my Hungarian Nagymama (grandmother) used to stew for traditional plum dumplings (szílvas gombóc).
I know I’ve been saying “plum” over and over again in my coffee impressions from Saturday, but it has been a few weeks since the last plum I ate and I wasn’t getting palate drift, I swear! I don’t know if my impression of the aroma was correct or not, but that plum aroma from my Nagymama’s kitchen was unmistakable and that was the first thought that came into my head when I breathed in the aroma from this Kenya. I had a lot of trouble putting any more flavor notes in my notebook while drinking this coffee. It was very, very unique. It’s going to sound weird and probably gross, so I hesitate to say it, but I got a really strong pickle juice and dill association with this coffee, too. I know stewed plums and pickles don’t sound like a great combination, but my mind went straight to that flavor, too.
Maybe I was having neurological problems by this point from all the coffee (and no food) that I’d had (I had a PT’s Santa Maria AeroPress and a Meta Coffee Co. Peru La Florida cold brew I’d made at home for the drive across the state before I even started my St Louis tour!), but the Kenya was exceptionally unique in every way. I like fuller bodied coffees and this was too light and too out-there for me, personally, but I was happy to drink it because it really showed a whole different aspect of this coffee that is possible, and for me that uniqueness is often a worthy experience, too.
**Thanks to Flickr photographer, Jason Steffens, for the Arch photo!
- https://www.stlbeacon.org/#!/content/26516/take_five_sump_coffee_081412 ↩
- http://sprudge.com/inside-the-fiercely-independent-world-of-sump-coffee-in-st-louis-68811.html ↩
- http://sprudge.com/nice-package-blueprint-coffee-of-st-louis-mo-80610.html ↩
- http://sprudge.com/st-louis-mike-marquards-got-the-blueprint-34749.html ↩
- http://sprudge.com/build-outs-of-summer-blueprint-coffee-roasters-st-louis-41490.html ↩