Dave Davison made a pact with himself when he finished college: “No bad coffee ever again.”
The singer of Chicago’s Maps & Atlases has a fair point. Coffee that’s too bitter, too watery, or too sludgy is for the weak. So with the group’s refined second full-length album, Beware and Be Grateful, coming out on Barsuk Records on April 16, they’ve teamed up with Intelligentsia coffee to sell special 12 oz. bags of whole coffee beans with preorders of their new record.
Clearly, the guys in Maps & Atlases are big fans of the black brew and make a special effort to check out independent coffee roasters, distributors and cafés while on the road. Davison and guitarist Erin Elders name-dropped some of their favorites including Slabtown in Portland, Ore., Blue Bottle and Ritual in San Francisco, Calif., and Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C. They believe Intelligentsia carries the same brand association and respect in Chicago.
In fact, Intelligentsia is also quickly earning a reputation for its creative partnerships, having previously worked with fellow Chicagoans including Wilco, a local venue called The Hideout and a label called Numero Group.
Jay Cunningham, a sales representative at Intelligentsia helped set up this collaborative project.
“One of the reasons I think with Maps & Atlases that it makes a whole lot of sense to me philosophically, is that the music they make has this great simplicity to it and almost basic quality, where it’s accessible, but when you peel it back, it’s really complex,” Cunningham said. “It has layers, and there’s a lot going on.
“That’s one of the things I really love about working for Intelligentsia. Our coffee can be enjoyed on a very basic level; you can just sink back into a cup of it and drink it and not think about it at all and just enjoy it. But that same cup of coffee, you can open it up and peel away these layers and there’s all this nuance and complexity. So I like that universal quality of coffee, that democratic nature of coffee that’s able to reach all sorts of people. And I think that’s one of the exciting things about music. No one can quite figure out why people like it so much. People can enjoy it on so many different levels.”
After some discussions between the band, their label Barsuk and Intelligentsia, Davison, Elders, Shiraz Dada and Chris Hainey took a trip to the coffee company’s headquarters just west of downtown Chicago to learn about its magical, caffeinated deliciousness and participate in the ultimate tasting experience.
“It was the coffee equivalent to a kid’s idea of what a candy factory would be,” Davison gushed. “There’s coffee everywhere. People are making espresso all around you while they’re roasting things. It was so cool.”
“It was like Willy Wonka where you could drink from the chocolate river,” Elders said. “People would just appear out of nowhere with these cups of really great coffee that they would just hand them to you.”
During their time at the roasting center, all four band members sat down for a tasting session to choose which beans to distribute with Beware and Be Grateful.
“They had us sit down and taught us how to officially taste coffee,” said Elders. “It’s called ‘cupping,’ I guess. We did blind cuppings at a rotating table and they had four different origins of coffee. So we blind tasted them and decided which one we liked best as a group and that’s what ended up being this coffee.”
“Cupping is an industry-standardized way of evaluating coffee,” Cunningham clarified. “It’s a critical way of tasting coffee; it’s a taste test. It’s quite similar to a wine tasting. The idea is that you create a level playing field to taste multiple coffees at once relatively objectively.”
Ultimately, the band agreed on a single-origin Rwandan brew that Elders called sweet, but not overly fruity.
“[Dave and I] usually drink pretty bold coffees, so that was one of the things going into it,” he said. “We wanted to stay true to that. It was a really good balance between coffees that we would usually get, but something that was new and that we hadn’t ever really had before.”
With 12 years of professional experience at Intelligentsia, Cunningham offered further explanation, noting that the East African beans were harvested last summer.
“This particular coffee is very bright, a lot of natural acidity, which gives a lot of buoyancy and a lot of zip,” he said. “That acidity pairs really well the natural sugars that are in the coffee…It has almost a cranberry or orange flavor note to it. The other thing a lot of people respond to is that it has sort of a big chewy body, a chocolate, caramel, nougaty backbone to it.”
Davison said defiantly, “In conclusion, delicious.”
You can pre-order Beware and Be Grateful and order a bag of Maps & Atlases’ Intelligentsia coffee over at Barsuk.