Have you ever wondered who grows the coffee you enjoy every morning? The liquid gold that wakes us up and caresses our senses with tons of fresh aromas has a story – and oftentimes we forget all about it. Thankfully, things are about to change. A Milwaukee-based coffee company aims to stand out from the crowd by telling amazing stories about their coffee producers as well as selling their delicious coffee. The name of the company is Colectivo Coffee, and they have recently opened a café in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Does coffee need stories? Having listened to Colectivo’s reps and having tried the coffee they sell, my answer to this question is a resounding yes!
I visited the new Colectivo Coffee location (their second in Chicagoland) one late December afternoon with my friend Marina. The wind was piercingly cold, and as we parked and crossed the grainy, salt-covered street, we were both looking for a respite from the frigid weather. Once we entered the new Colectivo coffee shop, everything fell into place – for me, forever the warmth-seeker, anyway 🙂 There were hot, made-to-order black coffees and seasonal mint matcha lattes, humongous pretzels, scones and muffins to warm the heart and belly, granola and croissants yours to enjoy at leisure – and the list went on.
Even if the location was not yet open to the public, there was a lot of activity going on behind the counter, as staff were using the coffee machines to hone their coffee-making skills in anticipation of the official opening. The smell of fresh coffee was intoxicating!
There to observe the preparations was Al Liu, Colectivo‘s Vice President of Coffee. An expert in the economic/social issues associated with coffee production, Liu has the dream job of traveling the world to forge relationships with coffee producers and exporters on behalf of Colectivo. We sat down with him and had a lengthy discussion about coffee in general and about Colectivo’s vision and philosophy in particular – all the while sipping on coffee, how else? 🙂
Around 55% of Colectivo’s coffee is fair trade and comes from countries as diverse as Mexico, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Furthermore, according to Liu, coffee from Guatemala, Costa Rica and Sumatra is enjoying increased popularity these days, leading to a boom in the selling of Colectivo’s single origins coffees, which come from a single farm or from multiple farms in a distinct geographical region.
In a market that is overpopulated and fiercely competitive, what makes Colectivo Coffee truly stand out? According to Liu, their uniqueness lies in the powerful images and cleverly crafted message: simply stated, coffee producers “aren’t faceless robots,” and their stories deserve to be told. Staying true to this vision, every bag of Colectivo beans displays a unique story. The organic and fair trade coffee from the Kulaktik cooperative in Mexico is a case in point. Colectivo’s history with Kulaktik (a coop located in the Chiapas region, an hour away from the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas) goes back in time almost twenty years. As Colectivo’s oldest coffee producer, Kulaktik boasts more than 250 members, carries its own export license, and helps its farmers maintain a focus on quality improvements.
Strong women and travel – these two themes permeate much of Colectivo’s unique branding experience and are the catalysts to great storytelling. Going by the slogan “Strong Coffee from Strong Women,” some of the Colectivo coffee bags highlight particular women producers by putting their pictures on the front cover and sharing interesting facts about their lives and coffee crops.
As for traveling, the design of those bags is truly a work of art. The lines and colors are exquisite, while the accompanying stories about far away people and places drawn you in and make you eager to discover more.
Who knew you could learn so much about different cultures from a coffee bag?
At Liu’s recommendation, I sampled Colectivo’s Guatemala Hunapú single origin coffee. Grown from 1,500 to 1,800 meters above sea level and dried on patios under the Antigua sun, this robust coffee delivers sweet-tart acidity that cuts through a mix of blood orange, black cherry and Mayan cocoa flavors.
Now that the choice of coffee had been illuminated, all I needed was a sweet accompaniment to it. Biscotti or muffins? Scones or bagels? With so many appetizing items on display, choosing was going to be difficult:
Sweet treat #1 was a cherry Danish, which my friend Marina brought over to our table while I was interviewing Liu. Meanwhile, for sweet treat #2 I picked a pumpkin cranberry muffin which I’d been eyeing up ever since I had entered the café 😉
I am not a fan of pumpkin flavor (oh, no!), and yet I really enjoyed the pumpkin muffin I ate at Colectivo. Chock full of cranberries bursting with refreshing tartness, the muffin benefited from a generous topping of pumpkin seeds and sugar, which provided crunchiness and an extra delicate layer of sweetness. Meanwhile, the Danish had a creamy whipped cheese & cherry filling and its flaky exterior was light, pleasantly chewy, and baked to perfection.
Without a doubt, the coffee recommended by Liu was the highlight of my experience. Deep and aromatic, it exhibited resilient notes of black cherry, as expected. I could also distinguish some caramel undertones, which made for a sophisticated and exciting sensory experience. The complex coffee flavor build up was like the gift that kept on giving – the mark of a quality, multi-faceted product.
I had a great time at the official opening of Colectivo Coffee’s latest Chicago-based coffee shop, and I loved trying out their coffee and learning more about their vision. It was a memorable December afternoon, whose frigid weather was alleviated by the delicious hot drinks we enjoyed inside the café. As my friend and I sampled our treats in the gentle afternoon light coming through the windows, I thought to myself: Oh Colectivo, you know I will definitely be back 🙂
*Disclaimer: While I received a complimentary tasting to facilitate this review, all opinions expressed here are my own.