For a lot of people, Milwaukee is and has always been the beer capital of the US. This stereotype is enticing considering the city’s history but a little bit outdated. There is no denying that Milwaukee’s breweries thrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries and at some point, the city was home to the four largest breweries in the world (Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz, Miller) and dozens of other breweries. However, the days when beer dominated the local economy have long passed. The former beer giants have a very limited presence in the city today, if at all. Pabst is now based in San Antonio, Texas. Miller, although still operating in Milwaukee, is now owned by Molson Coors of Chicago. Schlitz and Blatz no longer exist and ceased their operations a long time ago. The local ballpark is no longer called Miller Park (although the baseball team is still named Brewers). True, the city still has a few smaller, interesting breweries, but if the Milwaukeeans were honest with themselves, they would admit that beer represents a bygone era of the city’s history. Even so, Milwaukee should not rush to ditch its Brew City nickname just yet as it has something else brewing within its city limits. Yes, I am going to say it. Milwaukee has one of the best (if not the best) coffee cultures in the US. Sorry, Seattle and Portland.
The coffee culture in Milwaukee is something of a local phenomenon that is surprisingly not widely discussed. The city is packed with fantastic coffee shops, with new coffee joints constantly springing to life throughout the city, even during the pandemic. This post is not an attempt to rank or describe all of the best coffee shops in the city. Instead, this is my effort to introduce this rather hidden secret that warrants a visit to this often-overlooked city. I urge everyone to come to Milwaukee and discover their favorite coffee shop.
It is somewhat symbolic that those who arrive in Milwaukee on a train in the morning are greeted by the smell of roasted coffee that whiffs from the nearby Stone Creek Coffee – The Factory Cafe. For about a year, I had commuted to Milwaukee from Chicago arriving at the train station at 7:30 am. Every morning, an Amtrak train would spit me out to the awakening city. Sleepy and disheveled, I would start my daily morning zombie walk to the office when the smell of freshly roasted coffee would hit my nostrils and magically wake me up. At times, I would even slow my pace and stay in the area just a bit longer not wanting the aromatic smell of coffee to fade away.
Stone Creek Coffee is one of the best coffee chains in Milwaukee. The Factory Cafe by the train station is an excellent place to grab a cup of joe if you are waiting for your train or have just arrived in the city. This coffee shop is also the best place in Milwaukee to learn about coffee. Every Sunday, Stone Creek offers tours taking visitors around the roastery and explaining everything about the coffee-making process and their cooperative work with coffee farmers in Central and South America. Another cool thing about Stone Creek is that it offers coffee-making classes to the public. If you are a coffee enthusiast, you can play an amateur barista for a day to learn how to perfect your home brewing techniques. Or, you can attend Espresso 101 class to take your espresso game to the next level or become the next coffee Picasso by learning how to create beautiful latte art.
Anodyne Coffee is another coffee chain gem. It has several locations in the city, but the best one is in the iconic Milwaukee Public Market. Grab a mug of coffee and park yourself at the counter to check pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for local news or simply eavesdrop on rumors and discussions of the locals. If the weather cooperates, grab a seat outside and enjoy people-watching, as well as the cream brick architecture of the Historic Third Ward.
A lot of coffee shops in Milwaukee close by 9 p.m. or earlier. Before the pandemic, if you needed your caffeine fix late in the evening, Rochambo Coffee & Tea House on Brady Street was the place to as late as midnight. Once the restrictions are loosened, Rochambo is likely to go back to being open until midnight (it closes at 7 p.m. as of the date of writing). Brady Street is an attraction on its own. The rows of neat houses that were previously homes to Irish, German, and Italian immigrants now house numerous funky restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. The street is rambunctious and lively, especially in the evenings. Visiting Rochambo feels like crashing at someone’s home as the coffee shop occupies the entire house. Rochambo’s local claim to fame is its Irish coffee that many consider the best in town. To prepare it, Rochambo proudly claims to use triple distilled, triple blend Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, exclusive Rochambo House blend coffee, and some undisclosed secret ingredient. Getting Irish coffee in a neighborhood previously populated by Irish immigrants is simply fitting.
Craving a latte or a mocha? My favorite spot is Roast Coffee in the residential neighborhood on the Upper East Side. The place is small and cozy, and the atmosphere is bustling as it is always packed with students from the nearby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Want a double espresso? Fiddleheads Coffee Roasters in the newly constructed BMO Building (where I work as a lawyer on the 25th floor!) located right in the heart of the city, across the street from the City Hall, is my top choice.
But my favorite coffee place, as well as of many Milwaukeeans, is Colectivo Coffee. Formerly known as Alterra Coffee, this coffee chain has been around for nearly 30 years and became a fixture in the city’s coffee scene. For a lot of people in Milwaukee, coffee means Colectivo, and Colectivo means coffee. The coffee selection at Colectivo is always impressive as the coffee chain works directly with coffee producers throughout the world. Some of Colectivo’s coffee shops are housed in unique and old buildings, where you can learn about the city’s history. For example, Colectivo in Walker’s Point is housed in the former Kramer International foundry, while the Lakefront Colectivo occupies the historic Milwaukee River Flushing Station built in 1888. The décor of Colectivo coffee shops represents industrial interior design, while the coffee chain’s colorful patio furniture is unmistakable and is sort of a trademark of a summer day in Milwaukee. Colectivo is where I take all my out-of-town guests. These hip coffee shops are ideal for showing off the city as they perfectly demonstrate the transformation of Milwaukee from a blue-collar town to a trendy urban center.
More importantly, in Milwaukee, Colectivo’s coffee shops are more than just coffee shops. They are the centers of civic life. This is where people go on dates, conduct job interviews, plan weddings and birthdays, or simply study or work. This is where book clubs and meet-up groups gather, invited speakers give their talks, and even Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra does occasional performances. I have so many anecdotes, both amusing and poignant, little tidbits and stories that can occupy a book, all that happened to me while I worked, studied, and enjoyed a hot cup of joe in a coffee shop. One day, I will write a post to recount some of these stories, some of which happened during coffee shop pit stops abroad, others right here at home.
All in all, you can still call Milwaukee Brew City. However, these days it is not beer but coffee that runs this city. For a lot of people, including me, coffee shops are a second home, sometimes a second office, always a place of comfort and familiarity. I missed out on going to coffee shops in 2020 and it feels incredible to be back.