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Is Milwaukee's Coffee Scene Unique?

Cassidy Schrader
Milwaukee is home to tons of local coffee roasters... and that's a very good thing.

If you take a look around Milwaukee and its surrounding communities, you may have noticed that coffee shops are kind of the new corner stores. From international chains like Starbucks to local roasters like Stone Creek, coffee seems to have taken over the city.

But this didn't happen overnight. In fact, Milwaukee's coffee scene has been growing for decades to become the powerhouse it is today. But how did this happen? And is Milwaukee's coffee scene unique compared to similar-sized cities?

Those are the questions our Bubbler Talk asker Danny had percolating. For answers, we reached out to Kyle Cherek, culinary historian and former host of Wisconsin Foodie.

"Per capita and per population," he says, "Milwaukee, quite frankly, shouldn’t have as good of a coffee scene as it does compared to other cities."

Credit Zoe Smith Munson
Colectivo Coffee got its start as Alterra back in 1993.

But before we dive into Milwaukee, here's a glimpse of the coffee scene from a national perspective.

Peet's Coffee, a Berkeley institution, initiated coffee culture on the West Coast in 1966. Originally, Starbucks bought their beans from Peet's.

"From Peet's, we see all these other brands develop — all these devotees — and that way of thinking about sourcing actually from the farm in Bolivia, in Brazil, in Colombia, in Southeast Asia, wherever," Kyle says.

Peet's also inspired people to appreciate the flavor those coffee beans have.

"Not over roasting them and just turning them into one big chocolate-y cherry bomb, which is the easiest thing to do by the way, just over roast and then everything tastes the same. Burn the toast, right? It’s all the same. And that’s the West Coast aesthetic," he explains.

When it comes to the East Coast, Kyle compares the style to a quote from food writer Clementine Paddleford:

“Coffee is the Italian espresso. Black as an owl's nest at midnight. One sip burns your tonsils and two sips shines your shoes.”

Consequentially, the West and the East Coast flavor profiles eventually mixed, creating exotic and new choices for coffee drinkers, especially those in the Midwest.

The two growing coffee scenes sparked Milwaukee roasters, which didn't get their big break until the early 1990s. Two of the biggest Milwaukee roasters today, Colectivo and Stone Creek, were both founded in 1993 and started selling in the North Shore neighborhood.

Credit Zoe Smith Munson
Milwaukee's Stone Creek Coffee was founded in 1993.

"If you want to go to the epicenter of the original coffee culture in Milwaukee, you just go to either Bayshore Mall or Whitefish Bay. You’re kind of right in that North Shore neighborhood, that’s where great coffee began," Kyle explains.

Here's a map of some of the roasters and cafes that call Milwaukee home:

Popular national coffee roasters, such as Stumptown and Four Barrel, weren't on the map until the 2000s. That makes Milwaukee ahead of the curve. 

"Milwaukee folks were easily a decade ahead of the rest of the artisan or third wave, as it’s sometimes called, of coffee. The really great microlots, the way that people talk about wine talking about coffee and considering it and roasting it and presenting it in that capacity, we were doing it a decade before some of the really big names," Kyle says.

(For those of you who aren't coffee snobs, microlots are small plots of land that farmers put extra time and effort into to grow higher quality coffee beans.)

Because of that jump-start into creating more innovative coffee, Milwaukee's coffee drinkers formed a specific flavor palette. 

"We’ve got great coffee, and we’ve got people here demanding great coffee. That’s a match made in heaven," Kyle says.

Credit Cassidy Schrader
Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company entered the Milwaukee coffee scene in 1999.

So now that we've identified that Milwaukee's coffee scene is, indeed, special... just how special is it?

"When you look at Milwaukee as compared by population with a Cleveland or an Asheville or a Nashville or a San Diego, something like that, we’re way ahead of them. Miles and miles and miles," Kyle says.

So, it's true. Milwaukee is the Midwest’s pioneer of great coffee. It's a perfect mix of coffee makers and coffee lovers.

Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.


Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.
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