Review: Big Shoulders Coffee Works // Chicago, IL

Review: Big Shoulders Coffee Works // Chicago, IL
1105 West Chicago Avenue // Chicago, Illinois // 312.888.3042

Something is brewing in Chicago—something exciting. Last year, Chicago welcomed Passion House Coffee Roasters to its roster of fine roasteries; this year, a handful of roasters are popping up throughout the city.

These places have been big news for months now; a heck of a lot of hype has been generated by names like BOWTRUSS Coffee Roasters, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, Gaslight Coffee Roasters, and Big Shoulders Coffee Works. Weeks and months have gone by since we first started hearing these names mentioned and now, at long last, one them has won the race, being the first of these new businesses to open.

Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of Big Shoulders Coffee Works. Feel free to grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair.

The Windy City, the Second City, the White City, the City by the Lake, the City of Big Shoulders… Chicago has a lot of names and is known as many things. It hasn’t been, until very recently, known as a coffee city, though. At least, it hasn’t been on the same level as the likes of a Portland, or a Seattle, or a San Francisco, or even an Austin. Tim Coonan, the founder of Big Shoulders Coffee Works, is doing his part to change all of that, though.

While his retail store (and de facto roasting facility) have only been open for business on the corner of Chicago and Milwaukee Avenues for a couple weeks now, Tim has been working at his craft for a while now. Big Shoulders is a project that is four years in the making.

Before being a small business owner, Coonan was a chef, a culinary instructor, a stay-at-home father, and an even smaller business owner; he roasted at home, on his kitchen counter, for his own pleasure and enjoyment. Then, once he got good at that, he roasted more, on a bigger roasting apparatus, and got himself some customers and a bicycle delivery route. Then, once he got himself about sixty or so customers, he decided he needed a business plan.

That’s how Big Shoulders was born.

So far, business has been steady; not booming, but not slow. I’ve ventured in there a couple times now and while the baristas were never too busy, they were never standing around, looking bored either. Of course this probably isn’t of much concern to Coonan since his big plan for Big Shoulders is wholesale—selling to grocers, markets, restaurants, and the like—and he already has a loyal customer base that keeps expanding.

With some hard work, a little more publicity, and a solid reputation, though, I think Coonan’s retail operation could be a massive success. The space that Big Shoulders inhabits has a great atmosphere, an extremely prime location (directly on the corner of Chicago and Milwaukee Avenues, steps away from the CTA Blue Line subway, and half of a block away from the Interstate (for road-weary, coffee-deprived travelers)), a couple of baristas that mostly know what they’re doing behind the bar, and they’re really playing the “Sweet Home Chicago” card (Chicagoans are fiercely proud to be Chicagoans and they like the products they consume to embody that pride; this is why it baffles me that only two roasters in Chicago (Big Shoulders and Bridgeport) play that card; you can bet that a lot of Big Shoulders’s initial business will be Chicagoans that just like the name of the store).

However, all of that being said, Big Shoulders is going to have a hard time impressing the specialty coffee folks in the city.

While I was mostly pleased with the doppio that was pulled for me, a Rwanda, I was really unimpressed with the black coffees I ordered—a Colombia and a Papua New Guinea Kimel Estate. The Colombia was pretty bland and tasteless, like most of the Colombias I’ve had before that region’s recent resurgence in the specialty market, and the Papua New Guinea Kimel Estate was smoky, ashy, gassy, and even gave me an upset stomach—I couldn’t even finish it. I had a Kimel Estate from Buzz: Killer Espresso not a few days before and it was spicy and zesty and had a nice lemon acidity; Big Shoulders’s paled in comparison (or maybe it “burned” in comparison).

It seems like all of their coffees are over-roasted, are big-bodied and bold on the palate. I was really surprised, though, to learn that this probably isn’t a roaster error—it’s what Big Shoulders is going for. In an article they wrote about Big Shoulders, Coonan himself told Crain’s Chicago Business, “I tend to roast just a touch darker than most people. I’m not afraid of a dark roast. I roast every day. I have super-fresh beans.”

The fact that their coffee isn’t like anything else you can get in Chicago (at a Passion House, or a Wormhole, or a Caffé Streets, or an Intelligentsia, or even a Metropolis) is reflected in their mission statement:

Chicago is the city that showed the world how to work hard, build high and laugh while doing it. And you’re a part of it. Every morning you get up with a renewed determination to make your piece of our great city just a little better. Big Shoulders Coffee was created specifically for hard-working Chicagoans like you: a perfectly roasted, no-nonsense brew delivered fast and hot in our signature one-size fits all cup. No fancy lingo required.

“No-nonsense,” “no fancy lingo,” “one-size fits all,” “hard-working Chicagoans”—these are terms of endearment for the Everyman, the blue collar sort of person that scoffs at the likes of the specialty coffee industry. The type of person that says, “A coffee is a coffee is a coffee.” The type of person that couldn’t possibly care less about grind settings, extraction times, brew ratios, etc., etc., etc. The type of person that just wants some steaming hot caffeine delivered in a coffee cup.

Hey—to each their own. What makes me feel okay about this is that’s the demographic that Big Shoulders is going for. They’re not as interested in the snobbery that often accompanies specialty coffee. If their over-roasted beans are intentional and not roaster error, or lack of knowledge on the part of the roaster, there’s not much I can say negatively. Coonan knows what he’s doing, and he’s doing it.

So, kudos for that.

For my dime, though, I’d rather have a cup that is both expertly roasted and prepared, that a lot of passion goes into, that is expertly roasted, that reflects the fact that a fine coffee is every bit of gourmet as the finest wine money can buy. You can leave the Franzia and the Arbor Mist for the “No-nonsense, one-size fits all, hard-working Chicagoans”—I’ll have a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir.

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  • mark

    after reading your review and coonan’s “dark roast” comments, i’ll probably stay away from this shop, despite the convenience of their location. i wish them luck, but i’d rather continue patronizing wormhole, caffe streets, intelli, etc.

    • Agreed. I was really excited about them since they opened a block or two away from my old house, but after trying them out… I’ll pass, thanks. I wish them nothing but luck and success; their coffee just isn’t meant for my palate.


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