Snugly hunkered up against the arid western foothills of the Rockies is the lush, low-key metropolis of Boise, Idaho. Geographically remote and politically conservative, the walls of this valley tend to resist winds of change, although with each generation comes some progress.
Coffeewise, this was manifested in the 1990s through a handful of early independent shops that staked their claim prior to the Starbucks invasion, and these remain the go-to shops for Gem State capital loyalists. Today, the sprouts of another generation in coffee are unfurling in the light of the high desert sun.
It is an electrifying time for artisan gastronomy in the Treasure Valley. Crafty, Northwest-style breweries are proliferating, the Treefort Music Fest is fast becoming an annual pin on the nation’s indie music roadmap, and in just the past few years Boise has cut ribbons on its first Whole Foods and its first Trader Joe’s — all significant milestones for consumer culture here.
Brian Wight, owner of eight drive-thru Dutch Bros Coffee franchise locations in Boise, has observed “a dramatic upswing in consumerism” over the past five years. “Our volumes are up 30 to 40 percent across our stores,” Wight tells Daily Coffee News. In 23 years the Oregon-based drive-thru company has erupted into 245 locations spread out over seven states, and only four of these stores have seating. Dutch Bros’ fifth-ever — and first in Idaho — seated location is slated to open at the intersection of State and 15th near downtown this coming August — a well-researched indication as an uptick in coffee consumption here.
Boise is a well-established enclave among college football fans, retirees, Mormons, and the NRA, but it also seems like potentially fertile ground for burgeoning micro roasters. Grant Shealy, affable 26-year-old proprietor of Neckar Coffee, is just that. Shealy’s got big plans for a brick-and-mortar Neckar flagship somewhere in the downtown area within the next year or two, and the coffee business is poised to push quality forward for all of Boise.
In the meantime, the city’s solid showing of old-guard indie drink-builders and handful of inspiringly up-to-date go-getters keep the people abuzz and the local industry heading in the right direction.
Here’s a roundup of the Boise coffee scene as it stands today:
Guru Donuts – 204 N Capitol Blvd (map it)
Yes, even Boise now enjoys a purveyor of rich, fluffy, yeasted vegan donuts, right alongside the maple-bacons and other inventive offerings in the downtown brick-and-mortar home of Guru Donuts, which opened in January 2015. An imaginative selection of fresh decadent square and circular sweets is available daily with coffee roasted by Hailey, Idaho-based Maps Coffee (not to be confused with the Kansas micro-roaster of the same name). “We decided to partner with Maps Coffee because they do offer a lighter, brighter roast,” manager Darryl Vickers told Daily Coffee News. “We wanted to be unique in the valley with that, and we feel it pairs well with our donuts.” Jens Peterson, son of the owners of longstanding Hailey roaster Grace Organics, is the skateboarder at the helm of Maps. Grace has been roasting for 25 years, but Maps, the boutique-style next generation, has gone from apprentice to primetime independence with Guru as its first commercial client.
Neckar Coffee – www.neckarcoffee.com
Neckar‘s Diedrich IR2 lives happily behind the scenes in the Woodland Empire Ale Craft brewery space. These two businesses, along with the occasional food trucks that swing by to sling munchies to sudsy Woodland patrons, constitute an exemplary ground zero of Boise’s upward trajectory in creative sips and eats. You can find Shealy and company serving careful pourovers at the new Boise Farmer’s Market most Saturdays, as well as select streets and events around town. Within the coming months, pending requisite approvals from the city, Neckar intends to step up production to break into the metropolitan wholesale market.
The Crux – 1022 W Main St (map it)
The Crux is a cavernous coffeehouse by day and a venue by night, with gritty local art on every wall and most of the square footage wide open for performances. Local and traveling bands can rock out then return the next morning for some Hair Bender, of the dog. Owner Bob Cooper fell in love with the Stumptown coffee served to him by gifted baristas at the Albina Press in Portland, Ore., the city in which he still runs a hardwood flooring business from afar. Despite all training and scrutiny he, with some dismay, recalls going through in the process of earning Stumptown’s approval, he nevertheless jumped at the opportunity to be Boise’s exclusive brewer of Stumptown, a deal he believes the company would not have made today. Four years later, he’s still pretty sure he serves the best coffee in town, and it’s hard to argue. Bob is surprised that most sales are still just grab and go, but that’s life downtown. The upside is that for those that prefer to take it slow, there’s usually plenty of room on the Crux’s several couches and sunny storefront window tables.
Flying M Coffeehouse – 500 W Idaho St (map it)
The Flying M Coffeehouse is kind of like Boise’s Central Perk, only bigger and with less upholstery. Its doors first opened in 1995 and it quickly expanded from a small space into the larger space next door. Their perennial espresso blend and similarly enduring House Blend help maintain the M’s slot among shops most often recommended to visitors as either the best in town or at least better than the nationwide chains with which they would seem to compete. Also on offer is a consistent selection of single-origin coffees in whole bean form, in-house baked goods, and smoothies. Flying M’s zanily colored walls and furnishings, local art, and tchotchkes galore are rounded off with a cheeky novelty gift shop occupying a semi-cordoned corner inside the cafe. Meanwhile, behind the counter, a shiny new Nuova Simonelli Aurelia II rules, and if you squint through the towers of branded merch you may spy a WBC sticker on the back of one of their grinders. Service is speedy and friendly, the atmosphere is bustling, and the clientele is as eclectic as it gets here in Les Bois.
Dawson Taylor – 219 N 8th St (map it)
Dawson Taylor is the earthy farm-worker-themed mosaic counterpoint to Flying M’s hypercolor alternative vibe. Both opened in 1995, both have one downtown location and second locations at their roasteries, and both do wholesale, although DT is the company more likely to knock more than once in pursuit of your business should you be setting up shop anywhere around Boise. Artsy, unassuming, and mildly granola, the DT downtown shop is on the northernmost pedestrian block of 8th Street, which is lined with posh eateries, apparel shops, and nightspots. The ample front patio seating is a hub of community chitchat, and their paralysis-inducing selection of coffees includes no fewer than eight decafs, along with single-origins and blends. Brewed behind the counter there’s a daily rotation of three regulars and one decaf, plus all manner of espresso and milk drinks. It’s fascinating to note that, like the set of a Hollywood underdog movie, directly across the narrow pedestrian street is the lone Boise location of the sleek 16-store Washington-based coffee chain Thomas Hammer. It may take a harrowing dodgeball tournament to decide which one will ultimately prevail.
Afro Phil Coffee – www.afrophil.com
Afro Phil is unapologetically Afro Phil. If you meet the man in any food-related context, he will probably introduce himself as Afro Phil, and, really, every town should have an Afro Phil. A West Boise nanoroaster with a driver’s license that actually reads Phil Tegethoff, Afro Phil roasts one kilo at a time on a diminutive Probatino in his home garage, surrounded by his kids’ toys and bikes. He’ll slide up the door and sell coffee right there, though he also sells online, ships through the mail, and will even deliver it locally. Afro Phil has been operating for about two years and maintains a few cafe accounts. He estimates his business is at this point roughly half retail, half wholesale, although he fell a bit behind in the wake of recent equipment snafus for which he found service and support to be painfully unresponsive. Now back in the saddle, Phil continues logging every roast in a spiral notebook and cupping obsessively throughout the day, striving for balance, consistency, and his marque “smoothness.” He also hosts occasional public cuppings in his backyard, in an effort to create a better informed and more zealous Boise coffee culture.
Java’s trademarked tagline reads “Wake Up and Live,” although as head barista and quality control tech Jude Claffey points out, their official coffee slogan is “Coffee That Rocks.” It’s a play on the volcanic coffee island moniker as well as the fact that Java’s owner, Todd Rippo, is a guitarist living in Sun Valley that has jammed with the likes of Bruce Willis. The drink on Java’s menu called the Keith Richards — a quad-shot Mexican mocha — is born from Rippo’s actual experience rockin’ out with Keef. Founded in Ketchum in 1991, Java has six total locations, two of which are fixtures of the Boise coffee scene. The downtown spot opened in the mid 1990s, followed a few year later by a second location in Boise’s quaint Hyde Park neighborhood. Downtown, Java has high ceilings, Warhol on every wall, and is the only Java not nestled in a repurposed house. The Hyde Park location is a freestanding house with a spacious patio and porch, and an interior with couches and a hearth providing living-room coziness. Both offer full breakfast and lunch, with organic, Fair Trade coffee by San Diego roaster Café Moto.
Big City Coffee – 1416 W Grove St (map it)
Big City Coffee and Café is equal parts chow-house and coffeehouse. The tidiness of the shop’s façade and picnic-table sidewalk seating plays against the circus of old-timey signage exploding within, while in-house baked goods and a diner-style, all-day breakfast and lunch menu scores high marks with the locals. Its barn-like exposed wooden rafters and well-worn wooden furnishings are all country, though Big City Coffee is the go-to spot for a hot cup or capp in Boise’s thoroughly urban Linen District, as well as at the Boise Airport, where it recently established a presence. Big City’s coffees are roasted by Doma Coffee Roasting Company, the only Idaho roaster chosen as a finalist in the 2014 Good Food Awards.
Janjou Patisserie – 1754 W State St (map it)
The interior of Janjou Patisserie is almost defiantly precise and pristine, in Apple Store-like contrast to the rest of the town’s rustic, mountain-sporty aesthetic. Since 2008, the artisan boutique bakery has served delicately crafted pastries alongside traditional espresso drinks, including a faithful 6-ounce cappuccino and 4-ounce macchiato, which are rarities in this town. Their coffee is roasted by Lizzy’s Fresh Coffee, an outfit based in Ketchum, Idaho, a few hours east of Boise. (See the “Firestarters” column of the January/February 2012 issue of Roast Magazine for more on Lizzy’s founder and roaster Liz Roquet.)
Kahve Coffee – 5823 W Franklin Rd (map it)
The Boise International Market is an exciting recent addition to Boise’s evolving culinary tapestry, with Kahve Coffee situated right up front. A coffee lover’s window to the world, Kahve might also be the closest thing Boise has to a multi-roaster café. Their Turkish comes from Turkey, their Arabic-style is made with coffee from Jordan, and their Cuban is, well, from Miami. For drip and espresso, Kahve serves fresh roasts from Full Circle Exchange, a non-profit social enterprise brand based in the neighboring city of Eagle, that is devoted to empowering women and lifting communities out of poverty through sustainable commerce. The gorgeous and intricately gilded glass “Coffee & Tea” sign hanging over Kahve was hand-made by legendary Boise sign artist Noel Weber over 30 years ago. The piece is so unique that Weber bought it back when its original home café shuttered, and it took a fair amount of convincing by Kahve to get Weber to part with it again. Or so the legend goes as told by Omid, the friendly and knowledgeable Kahve barista. In Persian, Omid’s name means “hope,” which makes him a fine representative of Boise’s budding coffee scene.