Three boards holding dark stain jut perpendicular from the wall, taught and plum square; it’s almost an illusionist’s trick setting table ledges of half-inch thickness this way. Stark white paint covers the walls thoroughly from ceiling to terrazo floor, broken up only by Pilcrow Coffee’s candy red trim wrapping the tasting room like a waist belt. Milwaukee’s newest coffee roaster opened in January on the South end of MLK Drive, with a roast style that follows the decor: modest/mod/craftsman/independent.
Pilcrow Coffee carries its historical thread proudly. What Schlitz Brewery once used as a warehouse, now houses a wholesale coffee roaster. Chicago transplant via MKE ex-urb (the same place that brings us Southside roaster Hawthorne) Ryan Hoban explains, “We specialize in single source coffee, which allows us to have a direct relationship with the farms that our beans come from.” This arrangement allows Pilcrow’s coffee to go beyond fair trade to direct trade, allowing farms to capture the fairest price.
I wait for my Panamanian green roast honey cappuccino. Although it has a tasting room open on the weekends, Pilcrow isn’t a coffee shop, they do wholesale and mobile retail. Pilcrow’s niche follows the high end theory of custom small batch production.
“Our specialty is light roast. When you roast coffee dark it takes a lot from the real taste out of the coffee bean itself.” Ryan turns to a small oven that looks like a chrome stainless pig roaster for your countertop. Roasting green coffee requires the right temperature and a precise amount of time under heat. “With green coffee I’m listening for the right sound of the bean opening, I’m smelling and looking,” Ryan notes plainly.
As a dogged dark roast drip sipper I’m skeptical, especially of cappuccino. At first taste of this brew I’m sold. The espresso gently accepted the honey and Sassy Cow whole milk. Expecting to be singed by light roast’s distinct tangy acidity, I’m soothed by the blend of flavors the same way creme brulee does. It worked exceedily well for this drink. I know how light roast hits the palette, usually bracing, and calling an acquired taste.
Learning the Way
Curious to know how Ryan learned his craft, I point to Milwaukee’s coffee scene that has roasters like Stone Creek which is known for its coffee science and purist leanings toward light roasts. Sacrificing longer evenings at home with his family, Ryan spent about year learning this roasting style from a friend who worked at Ipsento, one Chicago’s few indie coffee roasters. “I learned my roasting methods by doing. I don’t think coffee roasting has to be exclusive or necessarily intellectual,” he offers.
Observing it all, Pilcrow obviously loves the technical part of cupping just as much as Valentine or Stone Creek coffee. Every Pilcrow cupping passes grounds over a scale, has water measured and heated specifically for the preferred preparation method: brewed, pour-over, cold brew, or pressurized.
On a shelf behind the counter stands a three-level glass system that has a vessel with a turn valve leading to a set of spiral tubing that filters into an Erlenmeyer flask. Ryan tells me, “That’s for cold brew. You fill the top with ice water and drip it very slowly through the coffee.” These fellows have cold brew titration system. However hardcore, the focus of Pilcrow’s product remains the bean.
Not Fashion, Coffee
When asked about his roasting philosophy Ryan offers, “We try and let the beans speak for themselves. We are really specific about how we source our coffee.” With such attention to detail one can imagine that Pilcrow might be tempted to make statements about what people should drink.
Ryan easily differentiated Pilcrow by leveling their main purpose on providing buyers with the most refined and custom choices of coffee roast, in opposition to pushing any one type of cupping method or roast style.
The Land, Still Good
Expressing excitement about locating in Milwaukee, Ryan shared that locating in Bronzeville he found the right mix of regulation, price and place. “There are a lot of great things happening in Milwaukee, and on top of that Chicago doesn’t allow sidewalk food carts”
Flanking its entry way, Pilcrow’s display windows show-off two glossy red bikes hitched to golden-stained wood cases equipped with nitro coffee taps. Mobile vending, a practical and essential part of Milwaukee’s local economy, will add nitro coffee to the menu of things to look forward to this summer.
“Our nitro coffee uses pure nitrogen gas, it’s my favorite.” Luckily I don’t feel put-on. Ryan truly digs his nitro brew. I find out why. I pull a sip from a mini-snifter, rich, silky and earthy. It actually tastes like a well-done stout, but it’s coffee.
If you are still being passive aggressive to your loved ones and coworkers by putting Folger’s or Kirkland coffee on the counter (Pink Banana, 2011), Pilcrow can bring you sweet redemption. Coincidentally, Pilcrow’s neighbor Northern Chocolate is only a few doors up the street. They share a kindred spirit about business hours and adhearance to craft principles. Pilcrow opens its tasting room on Saturdays from roughly 10:00a to 2:00p, 1739 N. MLK Drive, Milwaukee. The core of Pilcrow’s business centers around coffee subscription and office and restaurateur supply.