Uncommon Grounds

Coffeehouses are the fast-food burger joints of our time. But where to find great grandes? Ambitious baristas? Pour-over perfection? Join us on our local odyssey to the caffeine-fueled world of roaster aromas, direct-sourced beans, and strange new brews.
The Boho Paradise

Sitwells Coffeehouse

Owner Lisa Storie’s inspiration for Sitwells came while studying theater in Poland in the 1980s, where she worked in a 300-year-old café. “The coffeehouse in Poland was so egalitarian,” she says. “Everyone from the tram drivers to the intellectuals would get coffee in one place.” No tram drivers turned up when she opened her Clifton shop 16 years ago, but the dynamic community produces plenty of other characters.

The Brew

Sitwells is the only coffeehouse to serve Seven Hills Coffee’s Indian Monsooned Malabar—“monsooned” because it’s exposed to the humid winds of monsoon season. The rich, spicy coffee is a favorite in the Indian community in Clifton. Sitwells’s espresso blend is extra dark, and keeping the poverty of the student-centric clientele in mind, there are bottomless cups of house coffee. For late-night relaxation (Sitwells is open until 1 a.m. during the week, and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday), look no further than the fully stocked bar.

A Taste of the Place

Storie is very much part of the decor, with her oversized tortoise shell glasses, beret, and mop of golden hair. She’s named her store for Dame Edith Sitwell, the eccentric English poet, and eccentricity certainly rules. Local artists are free to cover the walls however they please, the furniture seems to have been acquired from yard sales, and the men’s room boasts a chest-high “Simon Leis Memorial Urinal.” It’s easy to feel part of the family here—especially at peak hours, when Storie is likely to seat you at a table with strangers.

324 Ludlow Ave., Clifton
(513) 281-7487


The Old Guard

Coffee Emporium

When Coffee Emporium opened in Hyde Park in 1973, coffee shops were a novelty. Fast forward 38 years: There’s plenty of competition, but the oldest in-house roaster in Cincinnati is still cookin’. Today the company has three locations, though the heartbeat of the business is their store in Over-the-Rhine.

The Brew

Tony Tausch’s T-shirt says it all: “Coffee Snob.” Tausch and his wife, Eileen, bought the company in 1996, and Tony turns Emporium’s 12 bean varieties into 39 roasts and blends. Tausch is a Direct Trade advocate—“If we can pay [decent wages] to our own people, why not [growers], too”—and he travels to the origin countries to vet the beans and negotiate with farmers. Among the customer favorites are his triple-picked Costa Rican and his Ethiopian coffee, made from a bean that’s dried in fruit. Tony uses Chemex, a sort of Erlenmeyer flask-cum-coffee brewer, when he “cups”—taste-tests—his products. Want to learn more? Just ask. “I’m not in the coffee business,” he jokes, “I’m in the training business.”

A Taste of the Place

Located on the ground floor of the Emery Building, the shop draws a mix of students, downtown suits, and OTR regulars. Each Saturday morning you can up your coffee I.Q. when the “brew table” highlights a different drink and brewing method.

110 E. Central Pkwy, Over-the-Rhine
(513) 651-5483


The Arty Agora

Sidewinder Coffee

Owner Kim Maurer fell in love with the coffee shop ethos while studying art in Italy and Switzerland. At Sidewinder, she’s tried to recreate the aesthetic of those European cafés with works by local artists hung casually, changed frequently, and offered for sale. A knitting club, a political discussion group, and a writing group call Sidewinder home. “Our vibe, our attitude and atmosphere are a real reflection of the Northside community,” Maurer says. “I love it here.”

The Brew

Sidewinder gets its beans from Seven Hills, Coffee Please, and its near-neighbor, La Terza. All the selections are—you guessed it—Fair Trade and organic. Considering the choosy clientele, it’s no surprise that there are two house blends—an earthy, dark-roast Sumatra and the medium-roast Hell Town brew, which gives a taste-appropriate nod to Northside’s old nickname. Here, however, the fancier drinks are really where it’s at. The place has a substantial roster of coffee cocktails, including one that combines Tuaca—the vanilla citrus liqueur—and white chocolate with a steamer. Maurer calls it  “You ‘Tuaca’n to Me.”

A Taste of the Place

The service area up front is small, but the back room is commodious and inviting. On any given day you might find artists, bikers, rehabbers, or matronly knitters enjoying the vegan baked goods and comfy seats. In nice weather, there’s a patio with its own pet bunny. Welcome to Northside.

4181 Hamilton Ave., Northside
(513) 542-8321


The Jolly Roaster

Luckman Coffee

It was Steve Luckman’s dream to open a coffee store, and in 2006, when his wife took a job in Cincinnati, he decided it was time. A former sales manager with Espresso Machine Experts in Portland, Oregon, for years he roasted beans at home. Today, equipped with the red 10-kilo roaster that stands at the back of his store, he has turned his hobby into his job. “I get to do what I like,” Luckman says. “Fortunately, most people like it as well.”

The Brew

Luckman’s brews range from bright morning roasts to deep, dark espressos. He focuses on making each of his offerings distinctive. “We try to roast to get the most out of the beans, not a certain color,” he says. The Peg Leg Jim blend—a house favorite—is slightly lighter than a traditional French roast; Dawn, the breakfast coffee, is a bright mix of Nicaraguan, Colombian, and Ethiopian beans. Luckman’s obsession is most evident when he talks about his complex Legendary espresso—a mash-up of three beans at four different roast levels. It took him more than 60 attempts to find the bittersweet balance he was looking for.

A Taste of the Place

Luckman is having fun, and it shows. The Mt. Washington shop (there’s a second location in Anderson Township) has a mural that depicts him standing, bald and Buddha-like, in a tropical field holding a branch of red, ripe coffee cherries—with pirate tattoos added by a customer. The place is a mecca for Beechmont Avenue commuters, but Luckman also does a brisk business in on-line sales and custom-packages his products for community fund-raisers so that fans can experience Peg Leg Jim in the comfort of their own homes. Arrrrr…

5200 Beechmont Ave., Mt. Washington
(513) 231-1040

The Olfactory Factory

Lookout Joe

Erec Reichardt opened his first coffee shop downtown in 1996. Shortly thereafter, he bought what was then Blue Mountain Coffee in Mt. Lookout, apprenticing as a roaster with the previous owner before taking over. His wife was a graduate student at the time. “She was glad that I wouldn’t be just a barista forever,” Reichardt laughs.

The Brew

When Reichardt put the roaster smack in the front window of the Mt. Lookout shop, he knew what he was doing: the heady aroma pervades the place. “It highlights the fact that we roast all of our coffee,” he says. Here you’ll find 28 roasts and blends in stock and six daily brews on tap. The house blend is a medium roast of several Latin American coffees plus an African bean that adds a nip of acidity; more exotic coffees are rotated in and out of the lineup. Reichardt’s big on encouraging DIY-ers; he sells green, unroasted beans and petite tabletop coffee roasters for home use, and happily offers advice. One enthusiastic regular even brought back beans from a trip to Vietnam so that the staff could help him nudge them to perfection.

A Taste of the Place

The crowd is a mix of just-passing-through commuters, neighborhood regulars, and amateurs trying to learn the roasting ropes. The small room can get hectic, but the shop offers a prepaid speed card to get folks in and out.

3181 Linwood Ave., Mt. Lookout
(513) 871-8626

The Neighborhood Hub

College Hill Coffee Co. and Casual Gourmet

A sign in the window of College Hill Coffee Company reads, “More Than Just Coffee.” No kidding. The store offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a gift shop; and live entertainment on weekends. Tina Stoeberl bought the place in 2006 and remodeled it with an eye to giving her community something it sorely needed: a morning-to-evening gathering spot. It was a big risk; on the eve of the deal, she took a deep breath, “opened a bottle of wine and never looked back,” she says.

The Brew

Seven Hills Coffee provides the top quality java here. Stoeberl carries 28 unique coffees from the local wholesale roaster and also stocks them for retail sales. The house regular is the College Hill Blend—medium roast South American and Mexican beans make it a bright, well-rounded all-day coffee. College Hillians must really like their cup with something extra, because here, more than at most other shops, you’ll find lots of flavored coffees on offer, from earthy Butternut Cream to indulgent Bavarian Strudel.

A Taste of the Place

You can get a sit-down breakfast or grab a fresh pastry (Quiche muffins? Really!), and the lunch/dinner menu of soups, sandwiches, and salads is varied enough to keep the place interesting for regular patrons. Saturday nights (and some Fridays), fans come from all over to catch folky/indie/acoustic performers like Ryan Adcock, as well as local groups such as Wild Carrot and Raison D’Etre.

6128 Hamilton Ave., College Hill
(513) 542-2739

The Activists’ Mecca

Rohs Street Café

A bible study group hosted by University Christian Church gave birth to Rohs Street Café. Pastor Troy Jackson and barista Les Stoneham, now a member of the Espresso Guild and Deeper Roots Development, founded it to make an impact in the neighborhood and ended up affecting change in La Armonia Hermosa, a Guatemalan coffee farming community. You can drink La Armonia Hermosa’s finest while browsing through pictures of the farmers who grow it. “If you want to do coffee right,” says Jackson, “you need to know where it comes from.”

The Brew

In addition to the direct trade Guatemalan coffee, the shop serves other varieties from La Terza, the specialty roaster based in Northside. Among the offerings: Sumatra Lingtong Wahana, a blend with a surprising fruity finish, and Sulawesi toraja from Indonesia, a medium roast with a wine-like acidity that can leave your mouth a bit dry. These coffees are brewed on outstanding equipment, including the Clover vacuum brewer—a single-cup coffee maker with a cult-like following: The machines are hard for independent cafés to come by since Starbucks purchased the manufacturer in 2008.

A Taste of the Place

Housed in a rambling Clifton house with high ceilings and a creaky hardwood floor, Rohs Street Café is true to its founders’ desire to provide a community space. Most of the staff are volunteers and most customers are UC students who use the shop as a place to hang out, talk, study, and listen to the musical offerings that range from veteran hip-hop artists ISWHAT?! to freshly-minted jazz talent from CCM.

245 W. McMillan St., Clifton Heights
(513) 381-7647

The Suburban Agora

Coffee Please

A few long-time regulars may remember Lisa Schlake as a shy teen barista-in-training. That was 1995. Schlake grew up along with the business, purchasing the store in 2009. “I never felt a huge change for myself,” Schlake, now 30, says about her new role. “It was just another Monday.”

The Brew

The previous owners mentored Schlake in the art of roasting fine coffees, and now she has it down to a science, tightly controlling the roast levels to ensure a consistent product. Coffee Please’s diversity of beans ranges from nutty, spicy Tanzanian Peaberry to caramel-toned Puerto Rican Yauco Selecto. However, the store’s real strength is in its six signature blends. The medium-acid, full-bodied Wright Blend (named for the shop’s founders) is the local favorite; Schlake’s personal pick is Super Nova: a mix that owes its earthy charm to coffee from Papua New Guinea, Sumatra, and Celebes Island.

A Taste of the Place

Schlake wants customers to understand and appreciate the finer distinctions of artisan coffee, so she gives them ample opportunity to try new things. There are seven daily brews—straight, blends, flavored, and decaf. Not sure what you want? Talk it over with Schlake; she’s no longer shy.

6930 Miami Ave., Madeira
(513) 271-4700

The New Kid in Town

Tazza Mia

Back in college, Bob Bonder spent Saturdays cultivating his palate by tasting bean varieties and keeping a meticulous coffee log. “I was such a dork,” he recalls, “I had six French presses.” After a stint as a business strategy consultant and a failed attempt to launch a luxury B&B on a secluded Brazilian beach, he returned to his first love and in 2008 opened Tazza Mia’s first location just a few steps from Fountain Square.

The Brew

Here’s how Bonder selects beans: “We try to have coffee that resembles the qualities of each country,” he says—crisp and citrusy Ethiopian, for example, or the kind of balanced brew that’s typical of Central America. A bit of a travel bug, Bonder visited farms in Guatemala in conjunction with Les Stoneham of the Espresso Guild to set up direct trade relationships—his goal being to directly source as many coffees as possible and eliminate the middlemen. Eventually. “Even with fair trade, big companies drive the industry,” Bonder says. Tazza Mia boasts a Synesso, the Ferrari of espresso machines: Each grouphead has its own boiler that can be dialed in to a tenth of a degree. And, yes, Bonder says that everyone on staff knows how to maximize its potential. The Tazza crew is a creative lot; recently they teamed up with Rock Bottom Brewery to craft an Espresso Porter, the first few batches of which sold out in two nights. And roaster Rob Hoos invented a drink he calls the Pale Horse Bourbon Latte, which uses a syrup of reduced Kentucky bourbon (see page 65). Now that’s what we call an eye-opener.

A Taste of the Place

The original Carew Tower location (a former jewelry store) attracts businesspeople and travelers. The pace is brisk, and the service area can be cramped during a rush, but the lofted second floor is a quiet retreat. Those with the time to linger can consider indulging in French press or experiencing coffee from the slow-but-gratifying pour-over bar (a service that’s also available at their newest location on the corner of Vine and Sixth streets).

441 Vine St., downtown
(513) 381-1293

Photograph by Stacy Newgent
Originally published in the April 2011 issue.


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