3 Apr

THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 12 Part 2

How Being Unemployed Got Me Acquainted With Some of Chicago’s Top Roasters, Brewers, and Baristas



Everyone’s back was to us when we walked in. They were crowded around the counter, probably 50 people, some holding beers, everyone watching the two people behind the bar, who were each armed with a small, silver pitcher. We stepped all the way inside; I got nods from two guys in the corner—one in a cap and big, clear-framed glasses; the other lanky and tall, with a spotty beard and dark mane—and a ‘hey!’ from the girl that was with them.

We met up with the Ipsento crew—the owners, managers, and employees of a coffee place in Bucktown. A lot of us were there. A lot of them, I guess. I wasn’t a barista anymore. I’d gotten hired at a publishing company a few weeks before, ending the long, excruciating job hunt that had brought me to Ipsento in the first place.

Tonight, though, I was again part of the coffee world. We were at a barista jam at Buzz, a new café on Damen. The two people behind the counter pulled portafilters from the espresso machine, dosed their grounds, and went about pulling shots for their lattes.

The feel of the crowd alternated between that of a college party and a high-stakes poker game. It was loud, but a hush would settle as soon as the finished drinks were presented to the two judges. They examined the art, it’s color and clarity, like assessing diamonds. They liked this one’s shape, but it wasn’t as crisp as the other. They would go back and forth. Finally, they chose a winner.

It was a full-blown tournament; they went in pairs, each time one barista advancing and the other joining the spectators. Occasionally the dramatic Asian fellow emceeing the show would yell out some crazy challenge like “BLIND POUR!” and the baristas would be blindfolded. Then the glistening crema bore designs that looked like creamy Rorschach tests—the rest of the milk spilling onto shoes or the tile floor.

From what I saw—mostly rosettas, a few tulips, an occasional triple—on my best day I might’ve been able to hold my own. But I never know if a day is my best, and I didn’t trust it was that day. So my $5 dollars stayed in pocket, and I remained a casual observer.


The coffee world, like most niche worlds when you really get in and explore them, is intricate and almost incestuous. One person can open up a hundred new connections overnight. And they don’t even have to be Lois Weisberg. For me, that person was a man, remarkably, also named Tim.

The other Tim manages Brothers K Coffeehouse, in Evanston, IL, the city just north of Chicago. It was early October, and we were lucky winter wasn’t in fuller force. I’d been looking for a job since about May and nothing was coming up. I had terrific references and a college degree. But neither did much to set me apart from the migrating herds of graduates streaming to Chicago from Champaign and Columbia and Grand Rapids.

So I looked to coffee.

On an anonymous day at the library, distinguishable from the others only by the dates on the craigslist ads, I saw a posting for Brothers K. I emailed my resume and got a call right away. I drove up and met Tim and while we sat outside, enjoying the warm weather, we talked about me, the café, and just about everything else. I was confident. But he was worried about the commute. Was it worth driving 30–40 minutes for a couple shifts a week? Was it worth it to him to have someone who couldn’t come in on short notice? As much as I wanted the job, these were legitimate concerns for both of us. We agreed to think about it, but in the meantime he forwarded my resume to some people in the city, some friends and former co-workers who were starting a place in Bucktown. He said I should stop by. Today, even.

So I did.

That pit stop—as well as Tim’s recommendation—would become my chance for employment and entrance into a feeling of community we hadn’t yet found in Chicago. And I’d just scratched the surface of the coffee scene.

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