The Joy of Java

Features by Diane Blair and Pamela Wright / February, 2016

On the trail for the perfect cup

We love our coffee. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Coffee Association, about 83 percent of adults drink coffee in the U.S., the world’s biggest consumer of the beverage. That’s an average of three cups a day per person, some 587 million cups consumed daily from coast to coast. But it’s more than just a shot of caffeine that we crave. Going out for coffee has become an affordable indulgence and a well-earned ritual that provides comfort and camaraderie. No wonder there's been an influx of coffeehouses on the Seacoast.

Of course, we each have our own personal ideas about what makes a great coffeehouse. Some of us prefer minimalistic spaces with stiff chairs, work tables, fast WiFi connections, and bright reading lights. Others want to sink into a cushy couch tucked into the corner of a cozy café, full of worn magazines and dog-eared books. No matter your preference, there’s a coffee shop for you. Here’s a roundup of some of the best in the region. What they all have in common: a friendly, welcoming ambiance, quality beans, and skilled baristas. Enjoy your joe!

“I’ve always loved coffee shops,” says Michael Landgarten, owner of Lil’s Café in Kittery Foreside. “The neighborhood needed a coffee shop, a place where neighbors and friends could meet. All the ingredients were there to make it a downtown hub.” He was right; since opening in November 2013, Lil’s, a bustling, sunlit space, has become a go-to spot for locals. They use top quality beans from Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, offering a good selection of light to dark roasts, along with classic lattes and frothy cappuccinos. But the real draw here is the warm, inviting space and the fabulous baked goods. Well-regarded pastry chef Jennifer Woods bakes impossibly light crullers and flaky croissants that sell out quickly. Sandwiches and soups are also served at lunch.

You don’t need a passport to enjoy an Old World coffeehouse; just visit Kaffee Vonsolln. This European-style coffee shop is named after the owners’ hometown, Solln, a district in Munich, Germany. The space is small but efficient, with a brick accent wall, and leather booths and chairs flanking granite tables. A glass counter contains just-baked cookies, cakes, and pastries, and the coffee selection is impressive, including 30 single-origin varieties from around the world, and organic, fair trade beans like the rich Sumatra Pemata dark roast, the slightly sweet Papua New Guinea, and the Ethiopian Harrar. If you’re looking for something really intense, try a cup of the Vonsolln Dark Blend, which they describe as “deep, savory, woody, syrupy, and rustic.” It will definitely leave an impression.

If you’re looking for quick service, a home-style breakfast or lunch, reasonable prices, and a bottomless cup of coffee, head to Café Espresso. The restaurant, located in Islington Plaza, is simple but cheery and bright even on the darkest, coldest mornings. Bring your appetite for hefty breakfast platters, like the Café Piggies, which include pancakes, French toast or waffles, two eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, and home fries. Take your time; the wait staff will refill your cup with steaming coffee, from Port City Roasters, as often as you like.

One step in the door of the longstanding Caffe Kilim and we’re transported back to one of our favorite coffee shops near the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. It’s the aroma of coffee, the colorful rugs, and the Turkish music in the background that lends an exotic atmosphere to this local favorite, which grabbed runner-up honors in the Best of Taste 2014 awards. It enjoys a near cult following, noted for its relaxed atmosphere, passionate staff, and rich, fair trade brews. The Café Mocha and Dark Chocolate Latte are popular choices, but you really can’t go wrong here.

Meet me at BNG. If you’re a coffee drinker in the Seacoast, you know the place. Breaking New Grounds has three locations, and a devoted patronage; it was awarded top coffee shop in the 2014 Best of Taste awards. Each venue bustles with lines in front of the baristas, and often out the door. It’s all about the coffee. Owner Matt Govoni sleuths out the best hand-selected beans from the world’s top coffee producing regions to roast on site. You can grab a cup of joe to go for your morning or afternoon fix, but some folks hang out here for hours (there’s free WiFi and great people watching).

Walk in and inhale. Chances are they’ll be roasting beans at Port City Coffee Roasters. This small, primarily grab-and-go coffee shop, an award-winner in Best of Taste 2014, takes its drips seriously. The selection includes beans from around the world, including light- to medium-bodied Central and South American coffees, thick African brews, and custom blends, like the popular Mocha Java. Port City’s coffee is so good that they supply many of the area’s restaurants. You might want to pick up a pound or two of your favorite beans to take home.

At Popovers on the Square try a fresh-brewed mug of Rao’s Roasted Coffee, a drip-brewed café au lait, or a flavored shot to send you jittering on your way. At this well-known and well-loved café, you can have your coffee and eat your cake, too. Cakes, éclairs, mini pies, fruit tarts, cookies—they’re all good.

We love the mad scientist approach at D Squared Java in Exeter. Sit at the counter, order a “pour-over” and watch owner Dan Demers concoct a caffeinated creation. The beans, from small farms around the world, are custom ground, then put in a ceramic filter and carefully infused with precisely heated water. Or, order a cappuccino and watch as Demers “paints” a flower in your foam. A cup of coffee here is a true work of art, but don’t let this seriousness care you off. The place is cozy with a handful of tables lining a brick wall, and service is unpretentious and helpful.

They get everything right at Adelle’s Coffeehouse in Dover. Yep, the coffee is good. The choices, written on a blackboard behind the counter, are impressive: lattes, cappuccinos, flavored coffees, ice drinks, frappes, and teas too. There are locally-baked cookies, cakes, and pastries to munch on. The space, with a belly-up counter, handful of tables, and slightly bohemian vibe, is cool. And the friendly staff has clearly endeared itself to the local clientele. Come as you are, stay as long as you want, and enjoy the java jolt at this popular neighborhood joint.

Just down the street is another favorite. Locals (and campaigning politicians) love longstanding Harvey’s Bakery and Coffee Shop. The family-owned, diner-style restaurant has been around for more than 80 years, and still draws a faithful crowd. Fresh-brewed coffee, usually available in seasonal flavors, is the first thing offered as you peruse the all-day breakfast menu. Hearty, homemade food—and plenty of it—with reasonable prices make a winning combination. You’ll want to pick up a Chocolate Eclair or a slice of Pecan Cheese Coffee Cake at the bakery before you leave.

“I think it’s the best legal drug in the state,” a friend says as we leave Jumpin’ Jack’s Java, in Hampton, referring to our steaming, extra large dark roast coffees. JJJ knows we want it strong, smooth, and fast, and always delivers. The fun and funky coffee shop, located across from Hampton Beach, got runner-up honors in Best of Taste 2014. In summer, it’s mobbed; in winter, it’s still busy, as folks line up for their favorite daily brews or quick shots of espresso. If you have the time, stick around to enjoy the ocean views.

Plum Island Coffee Roasters in Newburyport is a little hard to find (look in the boatyard along the river, tucked between Michael’s Harborside and the Black Cow restaurants) but worth seeking out. We like to grab a seat on the old wooden bench, check out the menu options on the blackboard (these usually include a daily light, full-bodied, and decaf brew, seasonal flavors, espressos, and specialty beans) and settle in. Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of a boat going down the river, or a friendly regular might strike up a conversation. The coffee, made from an assortment of beans from around the world and roasted in small, weekly batches, is always good. Try a scone or muffin (they serve a decent selection of breakfast pastries and wraps, soups, and sandwiches for lunch). But, more often than not, we’re perfectly content to sip our smooth, foamy lattes in relaxed peace.

Ask the Italians: there’s an art to making great lattes. It has a lot to do with how the milk is prepared (which makes sense as latte actually means milk). When added—slow is better—to the espresso base, it can’t implode. There has to be a delicate balance of flavors between the creamy top layer and the espresso. The folks at Newburyport’s Caffe Di Siena are latte artisans. High ceilings, comfy chairs, and a European-style ambiance, plus an assortment of Italian pastries, add to its appeal, but the caffeine beverages are the real draw here.

Aroma Joe’s are popping up everywhere. The local franchise, now with several locations in the Seacoast, has seemingly hit on a winning combination: a youthful, we’re-having-fun vibe, fast service, quality coffee, and a menu that rivals any java joint out there. The menu is all about flavors. Last time we drove through (yes, most locations offer drive-through service), it took us way too much time to decide—there were 23 espresso choices, including Be Mine Mocha with white chocolate and raspberry, Sticky Bunn with brown sugar cinnamon, and Wicked Mudslide with Kahlua and Irish Cream flavors and chocolate. They also have “Freaky Rush” energy drinks, frozen concoctions, and house brews. Prices are reasonable; service is fast.