You've dropped in for an espresso. Your own private barista greets you at the door and guides you to a custom-made, walnut-and-steel espresso-making station, tricked out with a swivel base and hydraulics for raising and lowering the attached grinder. Welded to its main compartment is a built-in, two-group machine, from which the barista pulls your shot. You take your cappuccino, grab a cushion from a stack and toss it onto the concrete, settling into the stadium seating at the back of the coffeehouse.
This is the caffeine-by-the-beach experience that Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea plans to debut when its new Venice location opens next month on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Doug Zell, owner of the Chicago-based coffee roaster, sees it as a testing ground for progressive coffeehouse ideas, designed "to bring down the barrier between customer and barista."
"The inspiration is almost like a salon where individual stations will be manned by one barista," says Kyle Glanville, who heads Intelligentsia's West Coast operations. "They customize the experience depending on how they like to work. You can be as high maintenance as you want to be and not have a line of people behind you."
In 2007, Intelligentsia established an L.A. presence at Silver Lake's Sunset Junction. Now Zell and Glanville, who has the title director of innovation, have set out to transform the former Scentiments flower shop on Abbot Kinney into a coffeehouse that strips away conventions.
They're doing away with the counter that comes between you and the barista. There are no cash registers; instead, each barista carries a Blackberry-like tablet so payment is possible anywhere in the store.
For each of the store's four Synesso stations, water and power conduits connect directly to each station from the ceiling. "There's a bit of a steampunk vibe," says Ana Henton, principal of Mass Architecture & Design. Mass developed station prototypes and coordinated with woodworkers, metalworkers, plumbers and electricians. An Intelligentsia technical specialist ensured the mechanics meshed with the espresso machines.
A console in the center of the coffeehouse hosts two Clover coffee makers, the five-figure machines that have made drip coffee hip, producing single cups with minimal sediment and clear flavor.
A coffee bar toward the back of the store will offer multiple brewing methods, including vacuum pots, Eva Solo, French press, manual drip and Chemex.
Glanville hired M'Lissa and Chris Owens from Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco to work the bar. The couple, whose tastings at Ritual drew a following, will conduct coffee cuppings, what Glanville calls "the equivalent of wine tasting but for coffee, a very formal way of evaluating coffee."
You can also order coffee flights, as many cups as you like for $2 a cup, with the number of available cups depending on seasonality. The Owenses will host brewing courses, including latte art, home brewing and espresso classes (beginner and advanced).
Coffee geeks will drool over the four-group , the actual machine that powered the first Starbucks at Pike Place Market in 1972. Intelli- gentsia replaced the original panels with wood and glass, so you can see the machine's innards, most of which have been chromed. They added controls that keep water temperature stable to a tenth of a degree.
A high-tech pump-profiling device enables baristas to vary pressure throughout the extraction. "Declining pressure at the end can soften up the acidity," Glanville says. Also, "a long pre-infusion and then full pressure can lend a sweet, dense cup."
And if tea is, well, your cup of tea, there's that too. The cupping bar will have a tea-focused extension, where baristas pour every pot, so the tea steeps for the proper amount of time at the proper temperature. And there's no tea to-go, because paper filters constrict tea leaves, contribute a papery flavor and create unnecessary waste, Glanville says.
At Intelligentsia's Glassell Park lab and roasting works, Glanville has been drilling nine barista candidates full time, focusing on "palate, customer service, coffee prep, speed, knowledge, espresso, brewed coffee and home brewing." Boot camp includes seven certification tests to become anointed by Glanville as Intelligentsia baristas.
Intelligentsia isn't the first coffee company to try to set a new coffeehouse standard. Blue Bottle Café installed a $20,000 halogen-powered siphon bar in San Francisco's Mint Plaza. LA Mill gave us coffee drinks presented on crystal pedestals and tabletop siphon service.
Meanwhile, Zell's planning to open additional L.A. locations. "The goal is to continually evolve," Zell says. Coffee industry message boards are buzzing about whether Intelligentsia Venice will deliver on its progressive ideas. One coffeehouse owner in Washington, D.C., read an early preview and wrote: "Like perhaps some others, I thought 'Those guys are nuts and stupid.' Then I put it through my barista-brain translator and realized what I really meant was, 'I'm so jealous. That's AWESOME!' "