Amongst the legions of companies supplying our countrymen with their morning fuel, there are some coffee roasters who offer more than just a buzz. These are the type of roasters who send their farmers cards on their birthdays, have trekked across continents in search of the perfect beans, and package their coffees with poetic strings of tasting notes (honeysuckle! Lemon curd! First kiss!) that would instill desire for something more refined in even the most old-school cream-and-sugar Café Bustelo evangelists.
Naturally the companies on this list aren't the only ones on a first-name basis with their farmers and we would've loved to honor twice as many passionate roasters, but based on the recommendations from trusted industry professionals and personal experiences, we've settled on the following 21 as representation of everything that makes American coffee culture great. They range from companies that've made massive national impacts, to smaller upstarts yet to expand outside of boutique circles, but no matter the size, the one thing that every roaster has in common is a dedication to making a cup of coffee something worth celebrating (and also a deep hatred of K-Cups).
So read on to learn about the companies turning coffee cherries into brown gold, click through to buy a bag of their finest beans, and be sure to leave us a comment to let us know whose coffees we should try next.
San Francisco, CA
The bean: Three Africans (fruity, radiant, creamy)
Named after Central Europe's first coffee house, Blue Bottle was started by a freelance professional clarinetist (more crazy facts about them here) with the philosophy that coffee is best enjoyed in less time than it takes the oddball team of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy to catch a killer, which is to say, 48 hours. The company only sells through its own shops so it has full control over how the coffee is presented, which allows for experimentation with seldom-seen methods like Japanese syphons. If you don't live near one, you very well might soon thanks to a recent $70 million investment, but you can still enjoy the beans at home if you buy online. Just be sure to follow the meticulous brewing guides. Or else.
Santa Clara, CA
The bean: Santa Marta micro lot (Meyer lemon, custard, caramel)
The Bay Area doesn't joke around about coffee, so when we asked a panel of experts to weigh in on their favorites it was interesting to hear the resounding local love for Chromatic. It hasn't expanded as widely as other SF roasters on our list, partly due to the San Jose upstart's DIY mentality, namely personalized packaging for every coffee and a meticulous focus on water, a key element that many coffee companies neglect. The San Jose shop uses three different types of H20.
We admit that this list is heavy on the Portland beans (sorry Seattle!), but the Rose City is blooming with so much great coffee it's hard not to include a company like Coava. Founded in 2008, wholesaling out of the founder's garage, Coava believes that there's no magic button on the roaster that makes a crappy bean taste good. Like everyone on this list, these guys take sourcing seriously, picking each single-lot coffee only after trying beans from roughly 500 other neighboring farms. That commitment to excellence continues with next-level roasting tech like a sorting table that lets them weed out any defects that have made it past the processing stations. At any given time there are around 10 coffees on offer, ranging from natural-processed Ethiopians to washed Colombians, but blink and your favorite might be disappear -- they went through 67 different beans in 2015 alone.
The bean: Olke Birre, Ethiopia (citrus, peach, jasmine)
One of the last of the major third-wave companies that hasn't received an espresso shot in the arm from Big Coffee, Counter Culture has opted for a wholesale-only route. This means you won't see its name on any storefronts, but it's led it to be perhaps the most ubiquitous roaster in the espresso machines of fancy American coffee shops. This popularity means it might not have the cool points of smaller companies, but what it does have is the full endorsement of our panel of world-class coffee geeks, a commitment to sustainability that puts boutique roasters to shame, and enough industry respect that it could actually create its own flavor wheel for categorizing super-limited releases like The Natural, a blend of Burundi and Rwandan coffees that is thought to taste like berry cobbler. Don't believe it? Head to one of the company's 10 regional training centers for a free public tasting every Friday.
The bean: Ethiopian Jimma Agaro (honey, jasmine, orange juice)
The best coffee companies are about more than just roasting beans. Crimson Cup exemplifies the total package with a lengthy resume of community activism. The founder's book Seven Steps to Success: A Common Sense Guide to Succeed in Specialty Coffee is basically a bible for fledgling shop owners, and for true disciples there's a free franchise program to guide them to opening day. Ohio State helps spread Crimson's great coffee gospel through educational seminars, and its direct trade relationships with farmers come with Peace Corp-style community improvement projects attached. The breadth of this coffee activism is part of what earned it Roast Magazine's 2016 Macro Roaster of the Year award, but it wouldn't mean a thing if those beans didn't sing, which they do enough to impress the hardened tasters at Coffee Review, who for instance, gave a light-roasted Ethiopian with notes of honey, jasmine, and orange juice a score of 95. Bonus points for the next-level nitro cold coffee, which includes creative additions like hops and cacao.
The bean: Classic Spicewood 71 (sweet melon, toffee, caramel, orange citrus, malt chocolate)
With as big an attitude as its home state, Cuvée's lately been so embattled with the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission that you'd think the roaster doesn't sell anything except Crowlers (canned growlers) of cold brew and local beer spiked with demonic rites. These days most of the commotion is about the nitrogenated and canned cold brew, but Cuvée made its name based on a masterful roasting operation that eschews trendy Nordic blondes for full-bodied roasts that are more coffee-like than tea-like.
It's kept coffees like the Meritage on bars across Austin for years, but be sure to jump at a chance to try any of the limited seasonal releases. The most recent standout is the winter Cuberow, a natural Ethiopian heirloom varietal bursting with peach, grapefruit acidity, jasmine, and rosemary, grown by an 85-year-old woman who lives and breathes coffee beans.
The bean: Honey Huila (honey, orange blossom, caramel, and a hint of eucalyptus)
On paper Devocion doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Pick some of the most expensive real estate in Brooklyn, build out a stunning coffee shop in enough square footage to run a 100-seat restaurant, then stick a roaster in the front. If that wasn't enough, try taking advantage of Colombia's year-round harvesting cycles by shipping green beans immediately after picking instead of in bi-annual shipments like most roasters. The result is arguably the freshest coffee you'll ever taste, sourced with the expertise that only comes with having boots on the ground (Devocion also has an outpost in Bogota).
The bean: Kenya Wahundura (grapefruit, raspberry, sugary)
Next to Wisconsin's Ruby, Evocation might win this list's award for most unlikely origins. Based in the Texas Panhandle city of Amarillo, the company was founded in 2009 by a geek whose coffee inclinations were so strong he asked for a roaster for his 17th birthday instead of a car. The nerd flag is still flying in the form of blog posts with statistical analysis of barista competition minutiae and coffee-hunting travelogues, but more importantly in coffees like the Kenyan Wahundura, whose grapefruit and raspberry qualities earned it a five-star review from Roast Ratings.
San Francisco, CA
The bean: Friendo Blendo espresso (citrus, fresh berry, toffee)
There's no Wi-Fi at Four Barrel's three San Francisco locations, but you will find intensive classes in espresso and milk preparation, home brewing, bean sourcing, and taste-testing of some of the Bay Area's best coffees, which are roasted the old-fashioned way on a vintage German machine that's guided by human attentiveness rather than computer control. Bonus points for a unique online shop organized around specific flavor notes rather than country, helping drinkers dial in something that fits their personal taste, whether that's just something juicy or heavy, or more specific like honeysuckle or lemon curd.
The bean: Ethiopia Biftu Gudina (nectarine, brown sugar, honeysuckle)
Portland isn't in short supply of sleekly designed coffee shops, but in addition to a design sense that would make a Scandinavian proud, Heart's coffee shop is literally built around a functioning black Probat roaster that fills the space with the smell of not-too-light, and definitely not-too-dark coffees. Heart makes a point to only sell coffees at peak season (so basically no Guatemalans), and to avoid the smokier flavors that can compromise the complexity of some of the most precious beans on the planet.
Intelligentsia paved the way for the type of intense bean sourcing that characterizes so many of today's roasters, but as the Chicago-born company has expanded to a tri-coastal operation and recently sold a stake to Peet's, it's still managed to maintain that level of Indiana Jones-style coffee hunting that first endeared it to drinkers in its original location on Broadway Ave. Special releases like the Geisha Trilogy, which sourced expressions of the coffee world's most fetishized varietal from three different countries are a geek's dream, whereas the little details of the roaster's coffee bars, like a carefully designed to-go lid, makes sure that every customer has the best cup possible.
The bean: Ethiopia, YirgZ (lemon zest, peach, vanilla)
Despite the ubiquity of chain coffee shops, there hasn't yet been one that the snob sect can get behind. La Colombe's looking to change all that thanks to a $28 million investment that will translate to roughly 100 new shops across the country, which would send an AeroPress evangelist running for the hills if it weren't for the fact that the coffee is fantastic. The sourcing pedigree couldn't be higher (you might've caught co-founder Todd Carmichael on Travel Channel's Dangerous Grounds), but in addition to treasure hunting for the finest beans, it also ups the ante brew-wise with innovations like draft lattes and its proprietary Dragon brewing system, which Todd used to take second place in the national pour-over Brewers Cup championships.
The bean: La Union, Colombia (creamy toffee, cocoa nibs, well-balanced acidity)
Operating out of an industrial space deep in the heart of Bushwick that originally doubled as the founders' living room, Lofted is one of the most boutique roasters on this list, which means it's buying tiny quantities of only the highest-scoring micro-lots. Thankfully Lofted works with the best sourcers in the business (including a new partnership with coffee hero Tim Wendelboe). This allows it to keep a "no blends allowed" policy that celebrates the individuality of each coffee, like the orange blossom aromatics of the Colombian La Union and the concord grape and honey flavors of the Rwandan Kivu Kanzu.
Despite its small scale, it's becoming a fixture in some of New York City's best shops, from Budin to Joe Pro, and soon will be expanding to a cubicle near you through an office delivery program.
Grand Rapids, MI
The bean: Amparo Botina, Colombia (plum, maple syrup, pineapple, raspberry, exotic, tangerine)
It can be harder to appreciate specialty coffee than craft beer, because there's seldom an opportunity to build a nuanced palate by tasting an array of different coffees at once. Here's where Madcap's Tasting Series comes to the rescue, offering budding coffee nerds the chance to tour through eight different Colombian farms or taste expressions of every major coffee varietal from bourbon to typica. It isn't the only company offering this type of coffee buffet, but most other third-party subscription services offer a grab-bag of mediocre roasters. Madcap's expertise means that every coffee in the set is truly special and our panel of industry experts agreed, voting the roaster the fifth best in the country.
The bean: Fazenda Sertao, Brazil (chocolate fudge, plum and red cherry, creamy and approachable)
Started with a pair of museum-quality German roasting machines built in 1927, the husband-wife team behind Panther took their legit Portland pedigree (Stumptown and Ristretto) to Miami in 2009 and helped jumpstart a discerning coffee culture that fit right in with the trending Wynwood neighborhood. Good Food Awards wins in 2014 and 2013 mean you know you can trust their sourcing, and strong showings at the US Barista Championship make a visit to one of the three Miami locations a must on any Miami vacation itinerary.
The bean: El Socorro Maracaturra, Guatemala (caramel, white grape, tangerine)
One of the oldest companies on this list, PT's has been roasting since 1993 and is such a big part of the Topeka community that the death of one of its longtime employees made the news. The longevity also means that it's been cultivating some of its relationships with farmers for longer than many of the other roasters on this list have been in business, with 80% of the 100 tons of yearly output sourced via direct trade, like a recent staff favorite from Finca Kilimanjaro in El Salvador that uses beans from trees that were imported from Kenya in the '70s and have been producing award-winning coffees ever since.
The bean: Ethiopian Guji Good Food Winner Special Release (peach cobbler, honey, florals)
The best that most small towns can offer in terms of coffee is a fresh pot of diner drip, but Nelsonville, WI isn't most small towns. The 200-person population dot on the map is home to Ruby, the roasting project of an Intelligentsia veteran that in the past two years has worked its way into the hoppers of some of the best coffee shops in the country. The flavor profile skews towards sweet and juicy, with a focus on Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Colombian coffees, and beans come from a host of other Latin American producers with which Ruby's developed personal relationships that will bear brewable fruits for years to come.
The bean: Finca Cerro Negro, Honduras (apple-like acidity, chocolate-covered orange flavor)
It's tough to stand out in a city as synonymous with coffee as Seattle, but Slate swims against the dark-roast tide by straying as far from the Char-bucks side of the spectrum as possible. Its philosophy's called “exposure roasting,” which aims to heat the beans just enough to unlock the unique flavors, like an Ethiopian Kilenso which it compares opening a bag of to setting off an atomic strawberry bomb. To even further the experience, Slate goes so far as to serve its drinks in stemware to amplify the aromas, literally turning its nose up in defiance of crappy coffees.
The bean: Hair Bender (cherry, chocolate, toffee)
Coffee geeks might've scoffed that Stumptown was recently bought out by Peet's Coffee, and even geekier drinkers might say that the company sold out back in 2011 when a private equity group took a majority stake, but acquisition doesn't seem so bad when it's a company that founder Duane Sorenson has been calling an inspiration for years. From their home base of Portland (hence the name) these guys worked tirelessly to sing the gospel of single origins and careful brewing through wholesaling to some of the hippest hotels and restaurants in the country, and pulling shots of their famous Hair Bender blend from one of their five other outposts across the country. Also watch for their on-tap cold brew and bottles of Grand Cru iced coffee featuring ultra-rare Gesha beans.
The bean: San Adolfo Colombia (floral, berry, nougat)
Most roasters are proud to have visited the farms they source their coffee from, but Sweet Bloom takes it a step further by actually inviting its farmers to its Lakewood, CO headquarters to taste the fruits of their labor, which happen to be roasted by a guy who's taken home first or second in nearly all of the most important competitions in coffee. The roasts skew lighter than average, with an emphasis on sweetness (go figure) and floral aromatics. Word on the street is that Colombian beans are the move, but it's hard not to try the Guatemalans once you hear the story of the third-generation farmers behind the crop.
Santa Cruz, CA
The bean: Streetlevel espresso (stone fruit, dark chocolate, candied)
Verve's Streetlevel espresso isn't just some ambiguous blend: the two Guatemalan farms fueling the shots were hunted down by the company's green buyers, who cupped fresh coffee at one farm daily until finding the right lot, then mixed in some wild heirloom trees from a neighboring region to add some extra complexity. This type of specificity is just part of what spurred expansion from the roaster's native Santa Cruz and helped propel the city into the upper echelon of US coffee culture.
A pilgrimage to one of Verve's shops pays dividends in the form of adorable tasting note cards served alongside every pour-over, but if you can't hunt down one of the shops or partners, it's well worth looking into the subscription system that falls in line with the company's motto: "can't stop, won't stop."