We wrap up our brief series on Seattle’s espresso and coffee culture with a few observations.

First, it had been way, way too long since our last visit. Twelve years in fact. Which is all the more ridiculous given the kind of coffee tourists we’ve become. It was 15 years ago that I attended graduate summer classes on the UW campus (in the U District), and for the occasion I grew a goatee to mock many a stereotyped Starbucks barista in its birthplace. (Ultimately the joke was on me, as 15 years later I still sport that goatee.)

Seattle Center, looking down E Harrison St. from Capitol Hill Local characters that aren't homeless in Seattle's Pioneer Square

Is Seattle still relevant to great coffee?

Back in 1995, despite its availability elsewhere at the time, espresso and espresso drinks (lattes, etc.) were a quintessential Seattle thing. Espresso Vivace already had 7 years of experimentation and innovation under its belt, and Starbucks had opened its first East Coast outlet just two years prior in Washington, D.C.

But just a decade later, people started looking to cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles for the next shiny new thing in coffee — with Seattle suddenly treated like some quaint, outdated reminder of coffee’s past. Interest in good coffee mutated into something that today looks more like interest in the next gimmick or fad for making good coffee: single origin espressos, the Clover, naked portafilters, cuppings, toys and gadgets, etc.

Today it isn’t enough to make good coffee. You have to invent something, or be new to the market, to get noticed — which isn’t something always equated with Seattle’s coffee culture. Restaurants suffer the same fate, as a quality stalwart like Masa’s is almost always passed up for the hot new place that opened last month or for a kitchen that starts cooking with liquid nitrogen and lasers. (Though given Masa’s espresso quality, perhaps lasers and liquid nitrogen might improve their coffee service.)

Seattle icon: the pink Elephant Super Car Wash Another Seattle icon: buskers in front of the original Starbucks

Ironically, it was Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) roasting over at Seattle’s Zoka who first coined the term “Third Wave“. But within just a few years, the coffee industry largely hijacked its meaning for marketing purposes, shoving Seattle out of any potential spotlight once again. Meanwhile, Seattle found its coffee relevancy publicly questioned as “second waver” Starbucks convinced more and more reluctant believers that it became just another mass-production fast food chain.

Sure, Seattle as a city earned a reputation for coffee quality that was not commensurate with the typical place down the street. Because, let’s face it, most of the coffee served in Seattle is godawful. But this is essentially true for any city outside of, say, Italy and Portugal. What matters for our reviewing purposes is what’s available at the top end.

And from what little we recently tested, Seattle isn’t missing a beat. With the exception of maybe Zoka and, understandably, Caffè Umbria, most of the espresso shots we had exhibited a rather “modern” New World flavor profile. Oddly, it was the local invasion of Portland’s Stumptown that was a no show — with a larger, weaker shot that didn’t quite make the grade, given expectations.

No visit to the Fremont District is complete without saying 'hi' to the troll Vladimir Lenin, famous resident of the Fremont District

The Seattle espresso bar habitat

Synesso machines were all the rage in town — not surprising, given that Synesso is a Seattle-based manufacturer. And Melitta/pour-over bars were quite common. However, single origin espresso shots — and even the option for different roasts for your shot — seemed underrepresented in Seattle compared to what you find at the top end in San Francisco.

The quality at the top end is on par with SF. Yet Seattle still has the coffee culture down in spades by comparison: baristas regularly know their customers by name (and more importantly: know their preferences), and so many of the top places in town roast their own. And Seattle has Vivace, which is truly a cultural treasure for the American espresso lover.

We wish we could have reviewed many more places in our short time in Seattle, but long ago we made it a policy to never sample more than four espresso shots in one given morning or afternoon. Anything more than that, and the flavor profiles start blending together and we stop trusting our senses. Not to mention the caffeine jitters. But Seattle was so tempting that we had to bend our rules a bit, reviewing shots in two separate “shifts” on the same day.

Readers may be surprised that I typically consume an average of only about two espresso shots per day. So after the first shift, I literally developed an eye twitch. But it was nothing like my first visit to the (long gone) Café Organica in 2005, where I downed four successive shots to sample all their blends and paid dearly the rest of the day. This time, after a few hours and some hydration therapy, I was rather proud of my caffeine tolerance after being so out of practice.

Coffee sacks on the floor of Caffé Vita We tried to get in the Fremont Kuma, but it closes early and we were in caffeine detox


Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Cafe Juanita 9702 NE 120th Pl. Kirkland, WA 7.30 7.20 7.250
Caffè Umbria 320 Occidental Ave. S Pioneer Square 7.10 8.20 7.650
Caffé Vita 1005 E Pike St. Capitol Hill 8.30 8.00 8.150
Espresso Vivace Brix 532 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.60 8.80 8.700
Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar 321 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.80 7.00 7.900
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 616 E Pine St. Capitol Hill 7.40 8.00 7.700
Trabant Coffee & Chai 602 2nd Ave. Pioneer Square 8.10 7.50 7.800
Victrola Coffee and Art 411 15th Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.20 8.20 8.200
Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea 129 Central Way Kirkland, WA 8.10 8.20 8.150