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First Omaha restaurants focused on wine and the pleasure that comes with drinking a good glass.
Next the city exploded with breweries making locally focused craft beer.
And now — at long last, as far as this month's Food Prowl judges are concerned — the beverage triumvirate is complete, because Omaha can now boast some seriously good coffee.
On this month's prowl, we found talented baristas, locally roasted beans and a handful of well-composed, balanced drinks. We found atmospheres we liked, but, ultimately, this prowl was about one thing: the brew.
The winner: Beansmith Coffee
» Beansmith Coffee
12012 Roberts Road
We headed to La Vista for our real descent into coffee nerd-dom: Beansmith. The bean-roaster calls its shop the Lobby, and it's more of a tasting room and less of a hangout, with its clean white walls and big communal table.
“The main question we have to answer,” said Clark Ross, one of the judges and head bartender at the Boiler Room Restaurant in the Old Market, “is whether or not what we're drinking is well-made.”
A shot of espresso shouldn't be bitter or astringent. It should be somewhere in between. Coffee should be bold but not eye-poppingly strong. There's an art to foaming milk. And a well-trained barista knows just the right questions to ask of a seasoned customer like Clark and our other two judges.
“Like a wine or a whiskey,” Clark said, “espresso is a cross between product and talent.”
We decided to try three items at each stop: a shot of espresso, the base for all coffee drinks; the classic cappuccino; and either a French press or a pour-over, two methods for manually brewing coffee.
Clark and another of our tasters, future doctor and coffee-lover Jeremy Howe discussed at length with the barista which of the house-roasted beans we'd try that day in our three drinks, and we settled at the table to wait.
The small espresso came with an equally petite glass of sparkling water. The team unanimously swooned after each took a sip.
It's sweet and substantial, and the sparkling water acts as a perfect palette-cleanser between sips.
The cappuccino tasted much like the espresso and technically was the right size with the right amount of foam, Jeremy said. It was good enough that I wanted it for myself. It's made with milk from a local dairy with a sweet taste and thick texture. It was, by a mile, the best cappuccino we tried.
The large Chemex, a type of manual coffeemaker, burst with flavor — no wateriness or lack of depth here.
“The espresso at Aroma's was good,” Clark said, “but this beats it.”
Grace Tunning, our other taster and a former barista, agreed. “Magic,” she said.
The team didn't really need to vote: the slurps and nods around the table as we sipped from cups made it clear that we'd found the best coffee in Omaha. The place that had the least coffee shop-like atmosphere and might be the most out-of-the-way turned out to be the leader in terms of both product and execution. It's a destination.
The team was happy to have visited and experienced Beansmith. But more than that, they were thrilled by an Omaha coffee scene that's becoming more thoughtful.
“We found two places downtown — Urban Abbey and Culprit, that were great,” Clark said. “You can have an experience at Aroma's. And if you want to have a coffee event, drive to Beansmith.” Jeremy agreed.
“Everyone should come out here,” he said. “Just to see what coffee can be like.”
We also tried:
» Accelerando Coffee House
3504 S. 108th St.
Accelerando, located on the back side of the Omaha Conservatory for Music (and owned by two of its professors), was the only shop where we drank coffee made using a siphon brewer. Basically, this is a science experiment that results in a cup of coffee.
The siphon uses heat and suction to combine hot water with grounds using two connected bulbs. We liked the more complex siphon brew better than the Chemex, which tasted fine but was too watery. The cappuccino tasted mostly of milk, and the espresso was too bitter.
The vibe in Accelerando is funky — Clark said it reminded him of Central Perk on “Friends.”
There are lots of poofy, colorfully upholstered chairs and couches under the track lights.
» Aroma's Benson
6051 Maple St.
The coffee at Aroma's comes quickly and efficiently.
A large French press was sized to share and served with a timer so we'd know when to press the brew. A tiny espresso was served with cup and saucer and a mid-sized cappuccino came in a to-go cup.
The espresso shot had the balance of acidity and bitterness that Clark is after. He described the flavor in terms usually used for wine: notes of blueberry and lemon and a deep earthiness.
“All in all,” he said, “I think this is the best I've had in Omaha so far.”
Jeremy liked the cappuccino, but he considered it closer to a latte. A cappuccino is supposed to be smaller, and he prefers it with less foam than most Omaha shops serve. Grace liked the French press brew — the whole table did — and I, as the least experienced coffee drinker at the table — was pleased to find I didn't need any milk in the coffee. It was sweet and light in flavor and didn't need to be cut with anything.
“It gives the illusion of sweetness,” Jeremy said, “and at the same time it's not bitter.”
We liked the atmosphere at Aroma's, modern but cozy, quiet and vibrant. It has the right combination of coffee shop, art gallery, bakery and music venue.
» Culprit Cafe and Bakery
1603 Farnam St.
We headed downtown to check out Culprit Cafe, which opened earlier this year and has quickly earned a reputation for good coffee.
We loved the presentation of the petite cappuccino served in a small clear glass called a Cortado. Jeremy and Grace agreed it was spot-on, saying cappuccinos aren't supposed to be served in a mug the size of a bowl. The foam formed a thin layer across the top of the drink, which tasted more of coffee and less of milk, as it should. The table agreed that the espresso shot in the cappuccino was better than the one Clark had straight, which tasted too bitter.
The pour-over coffee we ordered, made using a Chemex, had hints of sweetness, but we wanted more flavor. It put Grace more in the mind of black tea than coffee.
“It needs to be about four times as powerful,” Jeremy said.
The atmosphere at Culprit split the team. Some thought the feel was closer to a restaurant than a coffee shop. But we liked their detailed approach to coffee, like the thoughtful “tasting notes” about the day's coffee on a chalkboard next to the front counter.
» Dundee Blue Line
4924 Underwood Ave.
» Omaha Bicycle Co.
6015 Maple St.
At the Omaha Bicycle Company, in Benson, and at Blue Line, in Dundee, we ran into shops full of people who knew each other and came more to hang out and talk than anything else.
The barista at Omaha Bicycle Company got points for asking us lots of questions about what we wanted, things like if we wanted cups to share our Chemex and what kind of milk we wanted in our cappuccino after we didn't specify. The airy foam on the cappuccino had nice flavor, but the espresso and the shot in the cappuccino were too weak for our tastes. The Chemex wasn't unpleasant, but we'd have liked it stronger, too. We also didn't get to see the barista make the Chemex, and so we weren't quite sure what the problem stemmed from.
“The barista at any coffee shop makes a huge difference,” Clark said. “The barista can be the difference between a good shop and a great one.”
At Blue Line, the tasters had other coffee problems. Because the Dundee Blue Line is my neighborhood shop, I abstained from commenting on the coffee. The cappuccino and the espresso both tasted burnt, though the milk was frothed with the right technique and had good flavor. The pour-over we tried wasn't bad, and the group found it entirely drinkable. It had more body than some of the others we tried.
“If you come here just for the coffee,” Jeremy said, “you are kind of missing the point.”
» Legend Comics and Coffee
5207 Leavenworth St.
At Legend Comics, we found another community-centric atmosphere. This one focused on — what else —comic books. We sat at a table to try our drinks — both the cappuccino and the shot were bitter, and the coffee wasn't so hot either, though we appreciated the shiny silver cups that reminded us of Iron Man.
“The only way this cappuccino would work,” Clark said, “is next to a Bloody Mary."
» Urban Abbey
1026 Jackson St.
The serene Urban Abbey in the Old Market is more bookstore than coffee shop. The front of the space fills with students focused on laptops and iPads. On the weekends, the shop hosts an unusual church service, and while many of the books in the shop are religious, there doesn't seem to be a focus on a specific religion. There are books on Buddhism, Christianity and yoga for the taking.
While we browsed the shelves, a focused barista made our drinks — the Chemex she made earned points for costing just $4 and being served in a dramatic carafe but lost points when it turned out to be difficult to pour from the carafe into our cups without major spillage.
The espresso tasted a bit off to our group — it may have been the milk — and the cappuccino was too bitter. But the panel agreed they'd return for the pour-over coffee in a second.
“This place is totally unassuming,” Jeremy said. “And there's something completely charming about that.”