Quest for the best cup of joe in Philadelphia
There are all sorts of coffee in Philadelphia, from the bottomless-diner cup to the dark-roasted drip to the venti soy latte. Commuters are happy to grab some caffeine as they rush through Wawa, but there’s also a community of coffee purists in town. Boston transplant and coffee-lover Andy Dykstra did several Google searches to find the best coffee in Philly.”The only one I remember seeing consistently was La Colombe. That was the one that showed up over and over again on every single search term I used,” he said.Philadelphians have been fueling themselves with La Colombe coffee for 16 years. Located in posh Rittenhouse Square, La Colombe serves cappuccinos that have won over the palates of the social elite and bike messengers alike. But the acclaimed brand now shares Philadelphia’s “exceptional-coffee” stage with another style of coffee.Ultimo Coffee Bar at 15th and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia opts for lightly roasted beans to showcase the distinct flavors in seasonal coffees brewed one cup at a time. The point? It’s like waiting on a dish that’s made to order.Owners Aaron and Elizabeth Ultimo know this cheflike regard for the beverage makes for a really thoughtful cup.At a free, weekly cupping, or formal coffee tasting, Aaron Ultimo mentioned the jasmine notes in La Esmeralda served black–a $5 cup of Panamanian coffee… and frequent winner of the “Cup of Excellence.” Internationally, that’s the highest award coffee can get.”If you don’t allow yourself to put down that carafe of milk or that spoonful of sugar, there’s something you’re gonna miss from great coffee,” he said. “I would say great, well-roasted coffee has something to offer straight, black.”Ultimo helps to up the ante in Philly’s cafe world literally one cup at a time. Dark-roast coffees brewed en masse are well-loved, but with 800 different components in just the beverage’s aroma — twice as many as those found in red wine — light roasts are headlining and tastes are evolving, according to Bill Walsh who writes pure-coffee-blog.com.”That’s definitely almost like a thing of the past now. In places like, uh, Ultimo you’re seeing people do much more honor to what the coffee bean’s potential is,” he said.Mike Denham, a regular at Ultimo and former barista at a South Street shop, doesn’t think geeking out on coffee will convince Philadelphians to drink it.”I’ve been to cuppings with Aaron and stuff, but I don’t really care that much,” said Denham.Even so, alongside hipsters and caffeine junkies, those who’ve grown up in the South Philly neighborhood will wait for a well-crafted cup of joe, said Ultimo. “We get all of ’em. And they’re all into it, which is awesome. You know, they’re into single-cup brewing. Uh, their eyes get really wide when they watch us brewing the coffee,” he said.”They’ve never seen it before. Um, but they love it, and they come back.”A latte at Starbucks may seem like a bargain compared to that cup of Esmeralda, but the Ultimos hope coffee-drinkers will appreciate the difference.
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.