Founded in 1682, Philadelphia has always been an innovative city, with the first hospital, medical school, business school, stock exchange, and zoo in the country and was also the nation’s first capital. It’s no wonder that some of the finest coffee roasters in the US are plying their (very welcome!) trade in Philly.
Americans have loved coffee since the dawn of time – probably inspired by the events surrounding the Boston Tea Party – and as the sixth most populous city in the country, Philadelphia produces superb home-roasted coffee for its thirsty inhabitants.
The Philly coffee crowd is exceptionally well catered for. There are scores of roasters in and near the city who also roast superbly (Rival Bros, Backyard Beans..), but in this article, we will stick to Philly itself and go through the 4 best coffee roasters.
Regarding taste, we are all very different, and as we all know, one man’s meat is another man’s tofu, but with our list below (in no particular order), you can’t go wrong.
1. Ultimo Coffee Roasters
Ultimo Coffee Roasters was one of the earliest arrivals on the Third Wave coffee scene in Philly, opening their first cafe at 1900 S 15th Street in 2009.
Initially, Aaron and Elizabeth Ultimo bought their coffee beans from a wholesaler, just like thousands of other coffee outlets in the US do, but started roasting for themselves seven years later.
By then, they knew exactly what their customers wanted and what they needed to do to ensure a growing core of supporters would have a reason to stay. Aaron now roasts the beans himself in the lab/roastery in Newbold on a lovely brass Probat Roaster, and the results are delicious.
Beans from South and Central America and Africa are roasted every few days and made immediately available via courier/subscription.
Coffee Subscriptions are available both weekly and monthly. Sign up in moments, and receive a freshly-roasted bag of coffee delivered right to your door on the first Tuesday of each month.
They select one of their carefully-sourced single-origin coffees from their seasonal menu and send it to you with free shipping. Weekly subscriptions are shipped every Tuesday after a Monday roasting.
The SHOONDHISA, from Ethiopia with its cacao and shortbread tones, is well worth trying, as is Guatemala’s EL TEMPLO. Still, if the patrons can be believed, Ultimo’s roasts are all sensational and worth a subscription.
Ultimo has a wide range of single-origin beans from Africa and Latin America, but only one decaf option. In vogue with the trend of Industrial Reclamation, Ultimo’s Rittenhouse locale is in a former dry-cleaning outlet, so it’s intimate, bordering on small.
There are a few tables, or you can sit at the window or stand around the counter looking suitably knowledgeable. (Try not to look like a hipster – these are regular folk and very coffee-savvy!)
2. Elixr Coffee Roasters
Elixr Coffee Roasters claim they “are on a mission to deliver transformative coffee experiences through the sourcing, roasting, brewing, and serving of the planet’s most unique coffees.” This is quite a claim and a very bold assertion, but then they are one of Philly’s finest roasters and live up to this mantra.
US Roasting Championship Finalists in 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019 (before Covid-19 rocked their world), Elixr specializes in lighter-roasted specialty coffees, unique and exquisite.
Their roastery is a deliberate swing away from the woke/hipster, Macbook-toting crowd typically found in these establishments. They have chosen a clean-lined, zen-like layout that is refreshing.
Owned by Evan Inatome, Elixr was founded in 2010 and has won accolades for its baristas, blends, cafes, and even its packaging. They do their own roasting, sell and serve their own coffee, and also supply wholesale coffee to many other cities across the US.
Surprisingly, Elixr has no subscription offer, but they offer free shipping on orders over U$20.00.
Elixr sources the coffee beans through independent and specialty importers like Cafe Imports and InterAmerican, whose range includes Certified Organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance coffees. These choice beans are roasted using a Deitrich IR-12 Roaster and packaged into their beautiful (award-winning), stylized bag-in-a-box packages.
Blended coffee is not generally my bag, but Elixr’s Treehouse Blend is beautifully smooth and silky, perfect for late mornings. Even though the components vary seasonally, Elixr assures me that the standard never drops and that this is actually an all-day roast, with cacao, caramel, and honey tones prevalent in the one I enjoyed (several times!)
3. La Colombe Coffee Roasters
La Colombe Coffee Roasters was founded in 1994 by experienced restaurateur JP Iberti and fellow entrepreneur Todd Carmichael. La Colombe grew steadily over time and now offers its own roasts in cafes as far apart as La Jolla in San Diego and South Station, Boston.
The massive demand on its buyers means that La Colombe can carry an extensive range of beans and other coffee-related items on its impressive website.
Other products they offer include Different Drum (love that name!), a coffee-infused rum, which they obtain from a micro-distillery in Fishtown.
Single-origin coffees and small-batch blends are sourced globally, and with their buying power, they can get beans from micro-farmers and co-operatives which produce a minimal crop. These gems are roasted at their Philly location.
Their subscription program is somewhat limited, with seamless buying a priority, and you can get your bag of joe beans every week, fortnight, three weeks, or monthly. Too much choice can slow logistics down, so they limit their offering to subscribers to:
- Light to medium roast
- Medium to dark roast
In 2013, La Colombe joined forces with the Clinton Foundation and founded the Haiti Coffee Academy, aiming to improve the livelihoods of coffee growers in Haiti.
This improvement is achieved through training programs for micro-farmers, a demonstration farm, and a nursery to bolster the supply chain for local and export markets and elevate Haitian coffee in the US.
Surprisingly, they offer no Haitian products, although one imagines that is due to the recent environmental catastrophes the island nation has faced.
My absolute favorite was the Yirgachefe from Ethiopia near the Horn of Africa and the birthplace of coffee if the urban legend is believed. In the highlands of this beautiful country, the Yirgachefe region is world-renowned for its distinctively floral and fruity coffees and seldom fails to deliver.
La Colombe uses modern processing techniques, sorting the bean by size, color, and density, ensuring the final product reaches near-perfection, and this dedication helps the purity of the heirloom bean dance across your palate. One cup is never enough.
Now, I know this article is on roasters, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my new addiction, which, happily, was made from Brazilian coffee beans, roasted by La Colombe:
PEPPERMINT MOCHA DRAFT LATTE
- 100% Arabica, single-origin, Brazilian cold brew coffee
- 170 mg natural caffeine (2.25 cups of coffee)
It’s heaven in an exquisite tin can!
4. ReAnimator Coffee Roasters
ReAnimator Coffee Roasters was started in 2010 by Philadelphia natives Mark Corpus and Mark Capriotti, who entered the world of coffee by roasting blends in the basement of the latter’s house. Passionate about coffee, the two friends soon quit their jobs and opened their first shop in Fishtown.
Since those early days, they have opened up another four venues and actively promoted Third Wave coffee in Philly by supplying other outlets with beans. These beans are roasted by a state-of-the-art Probat roaster, which produces the beautiful, aromatic roasts that ReAnimator is justifiably famous for.
Roasting is done in their W. Master Street location in Kensington, where aficionados can gain insight into their roasting process and ideology, followed by an hour or two at one of the tables.
The ReAnimator subscription service provides customers with a choice between a bag of single-origin selected by the roaster, a blend of your own choice, or their decaf.
Select as many bags as you like in your preferred size, and choose to have delivery weekly, fortnight, three-weekly or monthly. Packaging is fresh and funky and a delight to receive from your courier.
The assortment of single-origin beans is relatively small; however, the taste has very little to do with size, and I’d recommend the Guatemalan La Bendicion, with its caramel, candy, and toffee tones.
La Bendicion is situated high in the mountains of Huehuetenango, where the cool nights and warm days create an ideal ripening environment for the Caturra, Bourbon, and Catuai varietals growing on the farm owned by coffee expert and farmer Edelfo Hidalgo Don Roger.
The 4 Criteria For Rating
I’ve looked at many different aspects when deciding about list above such us their fairtrade mark, ethics, depth of roast, prices, packaging, environmental impact, production reliability and more.
I’ve considered the best coffee roasters in Philadelphia, not the best-roasted coffee bean.
1. Production Reliability and Packaging
If you want Arabica coffee beans, you don’t want to be buying a blend of Arabica and Robusta. African beans must be packaged as such and not labeled Costa Rican, etc.
Crops and other products that are grown abroad are not easily visited and evaluated by the average consumer, so a series of checks and balances must be in place to prevent the end-user from being hoodwinked.
2. Fairtrade Mark and Sustainability
One important system in place is the Fairtrade Mark. This mark stands for certified products having been fairly produced and fairly traded in terms of honesty, non-exploitation of any person in the production and delivery chain, lack of child labor, and more.
This means the product carries a chain of custody from farm to shelf. Products like bananas and coffee can bear the mark.
With the well-documented exploitation of farmers, pickers, and many others in the path of coffee from bush to cup, many consumers will no longer support any roaster or outlets suspected of perpetuating this practice.
As a result, standards have tightened sharply in the last 15 years, and the farmers’ quality, sustainability, and further education are now expected from importers, roasters, and distributors.
Many also boast a commitment to transparency which they consider integral to a free market. Some, and this number is growing steadily, even take a few cents profit from each bag of beans they sell and ‘seed’ this into start-ups and struggling farmers in the countries from which they purchase the raw beans.
When rating any food and drink, the taste will undoubtedly be an essential factor for the consumer.
4. Does Size Count?
Size does not count, and micro-roasters and the larger companies are in the same melting pot, often with the same ideals and goals. Since many of us purchase 12oz bags of coffee at a time, the roaster size is unimportant. (BTW, a bag of beans of this size will last around 11 days at two cups per day)
What Does The Term ‘Third Wave Coffee’ Mean?
The so-called ‘first wave’ of coffee is generally considered the era when many coffee consumers did not know or care about origin or beverage type. The Instant Gratification era had begun, and Instant coffee, grocery store canned coffee and diner coffee with free refills were the norm.
The ‘second wave’ saw the introduction of artisanal sourcing, roasting, and blending, highlighting the various countries of origin. High-altitude Arabica beans started to stand out from Robusta, and coffee-based beverages were introduced to the broader coffee-consuming world.
The term ‘third-wave coffee’ is a nomenclature given to coffee businesses (opened after 2000), which share a mission or goal to deliver high-quality coffee. They consider coffee an artisanal food, like wine or bread, the enjoyment of which can be significantly enhanced via improved education, experience, and sensory exploration beyond the cup of coffee.
A Third wave coffee proponent seeks to highlight the unique characteristics that result from the interactions between the coffee’s source cultivar, growing and cultivation methods, processing methods, roasting methods, and the various ways of brewing coffee.
It’s an experience, after all, not a chore.
If you’re a lover of coffee, regardless of the brewing method, a talented roaster is an integral part of the experience, and Philly has more than a fair share. Try these four by all means, but add to the journey by finding many more of your own. They won’t all be great, but as with art, you never know when you’ll be surprised.