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I guess it’s time for a true confession. I’m a coffee snob. And when I travel, I have a passion for supporting local roasters and coffee houses. Let’s just say I’ve BEAN Around the World and I’m feeling like now is the time to start sharing the love… and caffeine, one city at a time. Recently, I had a fantastic week in Beantown, aka Boston. And while I didn’t eat a single baked bean, I did drink plenty of coffee, so I’ve got lots to share with you. Let’s open the TWG cafe society doors and talk coffee, Boston and Cambridge style.
You’ll notice I wrote Boston AND Cambridge, and that’s the first distinction to make. There are two sides to the Charles River and definitely two sides to the coffee scene as well. No worries, though. I covered both sides and have recommendations for you, no matter where you go.
When I travel, I only review and like to support coffee houses that roast their own beans or use locally roasted beans. Unfortunately, many of the coffee houses in Boston use beans from national roasters like Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown. That’s unfortunate because I don’t care for these three roasters, and there are plenty of good local roasters to use. So do make sure to ask at coffee houses whose beans they use. In part 1, I started with the Cambridge side of the river. Now let’s head to the Boston side of the Charles River and drink some coffee!
There are two main players in the Boston coffee scene. Gracenote Coffee Roasters is one of them. Besides having their own shop, other coffee houses use their beans. I’ll get to that in a minute. I spent a long time at Gracenote talking with Aprille, one of the owners. She’s a fun, energetic, woman who is super passionate about coffee, and she was a delight to spend time with.
Because of its location in the Chinatown / South Station / Financial District area of Boston, you might think it’s an odd area of the city for me to recommend you visit. But it’s an easy walk from the touristy harborside area, only a few blocks from the South Station T stop, and not too far from James Hook lobster rolls! Gracenote also won Boston’s best coffee shop of 2016 and when I was there, they just found out they won for 2017 as well.
In 2012, Gracenote started as a coffee cart a few blocks away near South Station. Patrick, the owner and roaster, decided to find a physical space for his shop and in October 2015, without wanting to go too far from his already developed and loyal customers, he opened up this coffee house.
It’s a small, bright space and what I would call, a stand up cafe. There are counters but no chairs, and no outdoor seating either. They do, however, put out stools on the weekends when people might want to spend more time hanging out there. Take note that there are no bathrooms at Gracenote. Even though it’s mostly a take-away coffee house, they did have porcelain cups and used glass for my flat white, so I appreciated that you can get your coffee in something other than a paper cup.
Like all places that roast their own beans, the beans change according to the season. When I was at Gracenote, they were using 75% Brazilian beans and 25% Ethiopian beans. I prefer Central American beans to Brazilian beans. For this reason, my flat white was good but not great because of the blend. This would not deter me from Gracenote again, but rather I’d check and see what beans they were roasting before I visited again.
Their most popular beverage requests are for cappuccinos and flat whites. They do roast a decaf but, as is often the case in specialty coffee houses like Gracenote, they rarely get decaf requests. Maybe 5% or so, Aprille guessed. And of course, in tapping into the cold brew market, they do create their own cold brew and pull it from the same kind of beer-like dispensers I mentioned when I wrote about Barismo in Cambridge.
I liked Gracenote a lot. Standing and drinking coffee is fine by me and the space itself is light and well designed. I like the energy there and I really appreciated Aprille’s time and attention. Knowing and talking to the owners of businesses I frequent, makes a huge difference to me.
Gracenote does sell their beans to other coffee houses and also trains these other cafes on how best to extract good quality coffee from their beans. One coffee house you’ll find around Boston that uses Gracenote beans is Render Coffee Bar. Render has a few spaces around Boston, but the one I like best is in the South End on Columbus Ave. I really liked this space a lot. It’s community oriented, has an outdoor patio, lots of seating, and in general, a great vibe. I would for sure hang out here!
The other player in the Boston coffee scene is George Howell. George Howell himself has a long-time involvement with the coffee industry, but his own brand of coffee came onto the scene in 2004. He has a few spots around the Boston area. I went to his kiosk location at the Boston Public Market and did not have a good experience at all. The whole market area was empty around 10am on a weekday. This had me thinking I could engage in a conversation with whomever was working at George Howell coffee. But no way!
The two staff members working were not pleasant. The guy making the coffee had a sour attitude. The coffee was especially weak, nothing but paper cups for the coffee, his prices were perhaps $1 higher than they should have been per beverage, and I was really disappointed. There is a George Howell location in a downtown hotel that people say is a nice spot, but I didn’t feel like trekking over there to check it out. If that George Howell location is YOUR spot, do let me know if I should bother with it next time I’m in Boston.
I want to mention a few other places in Boston. Many of the coffee houses in downtown Boston are closed on weekends or Sundays. So I never did get to Ogawa Coffee. I did walk by a few times and liked what I saw, but the block is under construction and they were closed.
In Boston, you’ll hear people mention Pavement Coffee because they have multiple locations. They do make their own bagels, so that’s cool, but they use Counter Culture beans rather than roast their own. I’ve tried them a few times and again, I don’t like Counter Culture beans and want to support the local area roasters. I also don’t like some of the Pavement locations. The one on Newbury Street is too small a space, there are only a few tables and this weird shaped ledge, and the music is awful and too loud.
Another place I didn’t get to try due to the hours they keep is 4A Coffee, which is in the Coolidge Corner area of Brookline. A husband and wife team roast their own beans and from walking by this shop, I have a feeling I would love it. It’s also across the street from my all-time favorite bagel place, Kupels!
It is unfortunate that both Boston and Cambridge are targeted as trendy coffee locations because big chains like Nero, Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, and Philz Coffee are all planning on opening multiple locations around Boston. Please, when you visit Boston and Cambridge, support these local roasters and coffee houses. I’d hate to see them disappear from the scene!
Did I miss any of your favorite local coffee houses in Boston? Have you ever tried the places I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments below.
If you liked this post, please check out all the other cities I reviewed in Shelli’s World Coffee Tour.