Every now and then, I get restless. I toss and turn in bed, reading doesn’t hold my interest, and going for a moonlit walk seems unappealing; it’s in these times that I put on some clothes, grab the keys for my little Corolla (“Short Round”), my iPod, smokes, and take to the open road. Destination: Anywhere—doesn’t matter. The destination isn’t as important as the drive.
Being a Chicagoan, I’m fortunate to have some pretty good cities to travel to within midnight road trip distance—Saint Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Lake Geneva, Iowa City, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Madison, and, if I’m feeling really frisky, Nashville, Memphis, and Columbus. I’ve driven to all of these cities in the middle of the night—for no particular reason, really. But while I’m in whatever city I’m going to, I make it a point to spend a bit of time there, just driving or maybe even walking around. Or I’ll set a goal for myself, do it, then come back home (for example, my goal during the trip to Saint Louis was to touch the Arch).
Ashley, on the other hand, told me she had never been on a midnight road trip before (this came while I was reminiscing a few trips I took with my good friend, Joshua Riley). I replied, “Girl—tomorrow night, we’re going to Milwaukee.” Of all my destinations, Milwaukee and Madison stand out as my favorites—I’m not really sure why; perhaps something in the atmosphere. But these two Wisconsin cities have something going on that you can’t find in Indy, Des Moines, or Saint Louis, though Grand Rapids, Michigan does share many of their finer qualities. But the foremost reason I’m such a fan of Milwaukee is that it’s so close to Chicago, and is such a peaceful getaway. Chicago is great and all, but after several days in a row of the chaos, the noise, the violence, the filthiness, the stress, it’s really nice to have another city close by to retreat to and to restore some much needed energy.
Another reason I love Milwaukee and Madison so much is that in both cities, one can find some really great coffee (Alterra, anyone?).
During my most recent trip to Milwaukee, however, Ashley and I went a little bit beyond Alterra and wandered around the outskirts of the downtown area until we found something that caught our attention for longer than a couple minutes. We needed look no further than a locally owned coffee shop co-op on Farwell Avenue, called Brewing Grounds for Change.
The most surprising thing about the place, first of all, is that it was open—it was nearly 11pm by the time we stumbled upon it. An old man was standing at the counter and ordering his drink, while pretty obviously trying to impress the young lady behind the counter—for that young lady, Ashley and I came into the shop just in time. She asked us what we’d like to have, so I asked, “What’s good?”
The old man agreed and added, “This coffee really is the best. And I drink a lot of coffee, so I should know” while he pointed to his chest with his thumb, proudly. I smiled and quickly glossed over his comments: “Well, in that case, what do you recommend?”
She then told me about the coffee they use—Peace Coffee—and the mission of Brewing Grounds for Change. That was her focus. Like so many other baristas at places I’ve been to, she could’ve left the interaction at “well, everything;” she could’ve maybe gone a bit further and told me about a couple different drinks that she likes personally; she could’ve gone even further and told me what specials they have going. Instead, she told Ashley and I the entire history of the store, and all about their mission, their focus, their events, their baristas, and took us on a tour of the store. She told us all about herself, asked us questions about ourselves—really got to know us and created a warm place for us to be. All of this before I even got the chance to tell her that I run an amateurish coffee blog (of course, after I did mention that, the old man chirped up again and asked some pretty amateurish questions about the coffee roasting process—to, again, impress the pants off everyone there and one-up me, presumably).
Granted, it was 11 at night and she may have been really bored and was craving conversation. However, judging what Brewing Grounds is all about, I really don’t think this was the case.
Brewing Grounds for Change is a co-op that is operated by baristas who work on a strictly volunteer basis. Nobody takes a paycheck home from Brewing Grounds. In fact, Rachel, the young lady working that night informed me that their daily sales goal is only around $70—that goal just takes into account their utility costs, so they can keep the place running. The volunteers make their living doing other jobs (like Rachel, who works at a deli; or Rusty, who is a professional designated driver).
And the coffee shop itself is, without a doubt, the coolest, hippest, most wonderful coffee shop I’ve ever been to (if you’re into the sort of thing they’re into—which I am). While Chicago’s Wormhole appeals geeks with its NES system and Dolorean in the lobby, and Star Lounge appeals to the hipster in us all, and Noble Tree is a wonderful place for peace and quiet, and Alterra is doing everything it can to be the Starbucks of legitimately quality coffee, Brewing Grounds offers a place for artists to come together as a collective and just be.
Local painters, photographers, and illustrators have their prints hanging on the walls; musicians gather on a weekly basis to play shows or just tune up their strings and jam for a bit; writers and poets take to the open mics. And not only does Brewing Grounds offer them a place to perform or exhibit, it offers them a place to actually hone their craft. Sketchbooks, zines, and journals are available to the public to write in, to draw in, to read—Ashley and I even contributed to their latest volume; I wrote an awful poem, and she sketched a portrait of our yellow lab, Duncan. And it would be the epitome of negligence to forget to mention that in their basement, a volunteer named Katie runs and operates the Liberation Bike School—a “shop” of sorts that not only does bike repairs, but educates people to perform their own bicycle maintenance. So, Brewing Grounds even offers a little something for athletic types.
Brewing Grounds is truly devoted to the community it’s in and is always looking for an opportunity to give back; which is the primary reason they serve Peace Coffee—a 100% fair-trade and organic coffee. While I found their coffee to be right around average, I have to tip my cap to the entire Brewing Grounds experience as a whole. What they’re doing in Milwaukee is truly remarkable and has made a believer out of Ashley and me. If ever you find yourself in the Milwaukee area, do yourself a favor and stop by—I can almost guarantee you’ve not experienced a coffee shop so inviting.