Driving east on Division is now a whole lot more colorful, as gracing the side of the building that houses the Wicker Park Intelligentsia Coffeebar is now a brand new, four-story tall print by the art collective Sonnenzimmer. A duo that produces prints, paintings, textiles, books, and music, Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi have been producing art as Sonnenzimmer since 2006 and are veterans of the design world. Trying to pin down their work in simple description would be difficult, except to say that the common through line for both the large mural, and the surrounding prints on display inside the Wicker Park Intelligentsia is a strong sense of color and playfulness.


The Sun Never Sets is side-long slippery affair that mixes improvisation, airy guitar chimes, and sun-shaped mantras going in and out of phase. It’s the soundtrack to excavating your way free of a simulated reality. On Thursday, August 24th, Sonnenzimmer staged a performance around the album inside the Wicker Park Coffeebar to launch the album and celebrate the new art. By mounting an overhead camera and projecting their workspace behind them, Nick and Nadine were able to build a fully flat visual workspace that displayed their audio playground. Their audio playground, it seems, was a dual skeletal turntable setup with custom inlay record mats, wood block shapes, and other items that would be physically placed on top of copies of their records as they played in order to create new loops within the music itself. Utilizing a glass display, Sonnenzimmer was able to also stack objects and create new visual elements that overlaid the playing turntables in a three dimensional stack, but projected as fully flat art.


The overall effect was a powerful visual representation that mirrored their latest prints and their large new mural, while at the same time creating a once in a lifetime new way to experience The Sun Never Sets as it’s ambient blips were distorted live by the artists’ themselves. The subversion of taking this type of art outside of traditional art spaces and creating it in a coffeebar, as well, established a unique approachability to an expression that that might otherwise exist only as an abstraction. And this is to the core of what Sonnenzimmer is creating. An array of different media that pursues different abstract elements and contours, but ultimately, art that’s designed to be experienced and enjoyed in real spaces.


Silver Lake Celebrates 10 Years in LA

Ten years ago, our Intelligentsia Silver Lake Coffeebar opened it’s doors and helped shift the concept of what a coffeebar could offer the community around it, and what a single coffeebar could do for coffee nationwide. Almost immediately, nestled in Sunset Junction, Silver Lake Intelligentsia became a landmark of the Silver Lake neighborhood, with it’s iconic tile, buzzing patio, and constant line. But soon, word spread, and this ambitious new project from a young wing of this growing coffee company began to seep out past the borders of LA County.


Intelligentsia Silver Lake popularized a new bar flow concept, where you would order with the barista pulling shots who greets you immediately upon entering, and pay for your drink as it flowed down the line with you. The line then built on anticipation instead of backed up at the hand off plane, and with the airy design based around light wood panels, the now famous blue and white tile, and the open patio under the signature red arches, the new Silver Lake coffebar became the newest social hub for LA. Coffee wasn’t a task or an office or a drug: it was an event.


It’s hard to imagine that the magic of Intelligentsia Silver Lake’s success didn’t somehow shape in some way how modern coffeebars began to form. It grew to world renown all from it’s modest square footage and, along with a few other iconic coffeebars from that era in other cities, ushered in a new era where a coffeebar could be the cool, bustling, loud social mecca of a city.


It only seemed right, then, to celebrate those ten years properly. On August 17th, 2017, Intelligentsia Silver Lake threw open its doors to customers, friends, neighbors, employees, and those who had helped build it into what it is today with an all out tenth anniversary party. There was amazing food from Demly Pupusas, and our friends from Eagle Rock Brewery and Silver Lake wines helped bring the party vibe forward. To cap it all off, co-founder of longtime Intelligentsia LA friends Stones Throw Records Peanut Butter Wolf himself ran a DJ set on the cleared out patio that drew in people off the street.


It was the perfect way to celebrate the success of the store and really enjoy the recently remodeled space, which had undergone a facelift in 2016 to help with some bar flow and under the hood improvements. Being able to say “thanks” to everyone who had helped put the store together and “thanks” to everyone who comes into the store every day at the same time over a glass of wine, a beer, music and a pupusa was absolutely the only way to really explore the history and future of Intelligentsia Silver Lake.

Buyers Notebook: Los Delirios Nicaragua

As I write this, a collection of coffee giants is stalking the halls of our Chicago Roasting Works: George Howell, Susie Spindler, Paul Songer, Darrin Daniel and members of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence Board of Directors.  The folks who bring you the Cup of Excellence are squirreled away here for a strategic planning retreat: after staging more than 100 competitions and generating over $50 million in farmer revenues from the auction of nearly 3,000 winning lots since 1999, they are taking stock and looking ahead at the next stage in the life of the organization.  As they do, it is hard to imagine a case more emblematic of the COE’s success than that of the Canales family of Nicaragua.

The ideas of lot separation and financial incentives for quality-based differentiation that drive the specialty market today were still in their infancy when the first official COE was held in Nicaragua in 2002.  That inaugural COE event provided a powerful validation of those two concepts and delivered a message that every COE in the intervening 15 years has amplified: while investment in quality may involve some risk, it also carries the possibility of significant reward.  In fact, in a market characterized by chronically volatile and often-low prices, a quality-first strategy may be the only one that makes sense for all but the most efficient and industrialized production models.

Consider the backdrop of that first COE event.  In 2001, the coffee-market free-fall hit rock bottom: futures contracts were trading at as little as 43 cents per pound.

Less than a year later, the top-scoring lot at the 2002 COE in Nicaragua fetched $11.75 per pound at auction.  (We paid $3.65/lb. for the lot that finished third that year.)

These outcomes were exciting, worthy of celebration and important landmarks on the long march toward coffee quality.  But for us at Intelligentsia, it was in 2004 when the COE in Nicaragua delivered on its real promise to challenge conventional wisdom on the issue of coffee quality and to catalyze lasting relationships rooted in mutual commitment to coffee quality.

That year the winning lot came from a farm in Esteli called Los Delirios that belongs to Daniel Canales.  It earned an average score of 91.4 and the highest price ever earned at auction in Nicaragua: $12.50 a pound.  But that wasn’t the big news out of the 2004 COE.  The big news was that the winning lot was, wait for it: certified organic.  It was the first time top honors at the COE had ever been awarded to an organic coffee.  It quieted a rising chorus of naysaying and challenged the widely held belief that organic coffee couldn’t be great.

We split that winning lot with our friends at Stumptown and have never looked back.  We are now in our 14th season of collaboration with the Canales family and still working together every year to improve quality and deliver more value to one another.  (Along the way, the Canales family has also done plenty for the planet, reinvesting again and again to expand the coffee farm by turning cow pastures into coffee forests.)

Too often, it seems auctions like the COE and countless others that it has inspired are seen by growers as lotteries and by buyers as novelties: growers looking for a one-time windfall that will erase a fistful of tough years seek buyers looking to build their quality bona fides through one-off purchases of unique coffees at sumptuous prices, with a general tendency toward the fetishization of coffee.  In Nicaragua, Intelligentsia and the Canales family have seen the COE as something a little less Tinder and a little more a mechanism to can help growers and roasters with shared values seeking long-term relationships find each other in a marketplace that is crowded and noisy.

The most recent episode of our Buyers Notebook podcast features perspectives on Los Delirios from our Vice President of Coffee Geoff Watts, who used COE to jump-start Intelligentsia’s relationship with the Canales family back in 2004.  Since then, Daniel has passed the Los Delirios torch to his sons Milton, Norman and Donald, and Geoff has shared the green coffee buying duties for Nicaragua.  I contribute to the conversation a few thoughts of my own based on my experience this year pinch-hitting as Intelli’s green coffee buyer for Nicaragua, including a lengthy reflection on the family’s extraordinary record of environmental achievement: for more than three decades, the Canales clan has been reinvesting its coffee earnings in expanding its coffee operations, turning cow pastures into thriving agroforestry systems, as the before-and-after pictures below show.










Listen to the Los Delirios Buyers Notebook podcast here.

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia Buyer’s Notebook: the stories behind our coffees in the words of the buyers themselves.

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Download the 2017 Los Delirios Organic Nicaragua coffee biography here.

Purchase Los Delirios Organic Nicaragua here.


Bloom San Francisco 2017

There are so few outlets in the world of coffee dedicated to the exchange of ideas. Bloom, a young event run by the Barista Guild of America with support from the Specialty Coffee Association, has been designed to do just that. The main event features a variety of speakers and panel talks, with a key element of each opening up into public engagement and question and answer sessions focusing on pushing the boundaries of where conversations about coffee usually go in the cafe, office, or roasting floor.


Intelligentsia has always been heavily committed to promoting the exchange of ideas. Nine years ago in Colombia, Intelligentsia hosted our first Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, in which we gathered farmers and producers from around the world to participate in a week long series of talks, forums, cupping, roasting, and tasting workshops, all in the name of spreading new seeds of thought and promoting the exchange of ideas. One famous story that always comes to mind for me is when producer Don Fabio Caballero from Honduras learned a new post-fermentation soaking technique from coffee producers who came from Ethiopia at the ECW in El Salvador. The idea posited that re-saturating the coffee once more in water to help control moisture and density during the drying stages, preserving more delicate flavors when it would be stored in a green state in a warehouse or during shipping. I had just so happened to be travelling in Norway, and a well known roaster in Oslo had always complained about coffees from Honduras rarely surviving the trek across the Atlantic and showing up after the long journey tasting flat and papery. But that year, he was floored by Don Fabio’s coffees and their dynamic complexity.

I like that story because it really touches on how tiny those details can be and how large the impact can grow. A stray piece of knowledge in El Salvador travelling from Ethiopia back to Honduras carried beautiful coffees to Oslo where a person from Chicago just happened to be able to explain to a Norwegian why they were so stunning in that moment. Information and ideas have power, and each new person who receives that nugget is then infected with that power: not only do you see the immediate impact from the audience, but everyone who interacts from thereon out with anyone who bore witness to the original presentation becomes a new host for those ideas to spread.


Bloom becomes that exact opportunity once a year in a different city across the United States. When we were approached with the opportunity to become a title sponsor of Bloom San Francisco 2017 and host the kickoff event, it seemed like the absolute best fit. On Wednesday, July 26th, Intelligentsia’s San Francisco Roasting Works hosted Bloom’s kickoff event featuring a panel of members from the Barista Guild of America and the Barista Guild of Europe discussion unification, as well as a wine tasting from natural wine producer Martha Stoumen previewing her talk about natural wine production at the next day’s main event. While both the panel was extremely informative and allowed for the audience to dig into hard questions (“If I’m Canadian, and the BGA and BGE are merging, who represents me?”), and the chance to taste Martha Stoumen’s almost immediately sold out wines was a sublime rarity in itself and definitely gave structure to the talk for the next day, for me, one of the best moments of the whole kickoff evening was just being able to exist in the space and watch our panelists and speaker become immediately accessible. The official presentation might end, but the conversation never really stops — especially, since, during the panel, a new email address was created to specifically create dialogue amongst all the Barista Guild Executive Council.

A major theme this year that seemed to weave it’s way through every presentation was “opportunity.” All four main presentations — from Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s talk on pursuing specialty coffee in Yemen, the panel on convenience opening new doors for specialty coffee, a dive into natural wine production from Martha Stoumen, to the deeply personal group work led by Boss Barista podcast hosts Ashley Rodriguez and Jasper Wilde on acknowledging and confronting privilege as a step towards new dialogue — all centered around ideas that at their core there’s a chance for something new to grow. That opportunity could be the pursuit of further sustainability along the coffee chain, or creating a wide new swath of specialty coffee consumers to purchase it. The opportunity might be growing stronger parallels to specialty agriculture that’s happening in our backyard and learning, or learning how to look inwards and listen outwards to examine the finer points of relationships around us and how the things we carry with us can always be impactful on the people and communities that coffee exists in.

The opportunities don’t have to stop there, however. In September, the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop will be coming to Intelligentsia’s San Francisco Roasting Works to continue on the core value of exchanging ideas. For the first time ever, the ECW will feature a day open to the public on September 29th, and if you can make it, we’ll see you there.