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Seattle's Top 10 coffeehouses

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In Seattle, hometown of Starbucks, coffee is a topic locals debate with buzz-induced fervor -- with a piping cup of java in hand, of course. When baristas hold regular competitions to determine who brews the meanest macchiato, you know the topic has endless appeal. Here are some of my recent favorites among Seattles most beloved coffee joints. And yours?

It's easy to get bad coffee in Seattle, says Bob Prince, sales manager at Caffe Vita's ([206] 709-4440 or [888] 223-VITA; www.caffevita.com). "There are lots of people selling coffee who just aren't passionate enough."

The Vita boys, by contrast, are so passionate that they were forced to start locking their back-alley dumpsters when spies from other companies began making nighttime dives in attempts to find out what goes into Vita's divine espresso blend.

Mike McConnell, Vita's founder, travels the coffee-producing world -- between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn -- to forge relationships with farmers and educate them about the coffee profile he seeks. Once he finds the beans he wants, such as the single-origin Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or the Kenyan Peaberry, he establishes direct trade.

Back in Seattle, he has a factory-like roasteria (the centerpiece of which is a massive late-1930s Probat roaster that, yearly, turns 900,000 pounds of green coffee beans into the artisan product), a cupping lab, a training room and three Bohemian-style cafes in which highly satisfied customers -- and the occasional dog -- get their fill amid chill music (think mellow reggae or Amy Winehouse) and sparse art. Dave Matthews and Pearl Jam are fans and can sometimes be spotted at the company's Capitol Hill outlet.

Three Seattle-area locations: Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and Olympia.

There's usually a line snaking past the boundary of Espresso Vivace's ([206] 860-5869; www.espressovivace.com) checkered floor and out the door. The crowd is eclectic: hipsters wearing newsboy caps, tattooed girls with dual-tone hair, students sporting fauxhawks.

But the product they're waiting for, Northern Italian-inspired espresso, is homogeneously consistent, smooth and precise, qualities for which it has won an unwaveringly devoted fan base. For nearly two decades, owner David Schomer has developed a scientific methodology about the way he chooses, blends and roasts espresso. His research is so extensive that he wrote "Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques," a book that has become an industry mainstay.

At Vivace's Capitol Hill location, the baristas are blasé enough to make you feel as though you're buying something exclusive, but not so disengaged as to let you buy the Dolce bean blend if you mention that you're going to hVE the brew with milk -- that calls for the Vita blend (duh). Bar backs, on the other hand, are perpetually sunny.

Music, likely to be country or down-home classic rock (the Eagles), seems to soothe customers, many of whom sit on retro-style bar stools facing windows overlooking a park. Clientele, which is often chatty, can also sit in the powerfully scented roasting room.

Three Seattle locations: two in Capitol Hill and one in South Lake Union.

You'll have to hunt for Lighthouse Roasters ([206] 634-3140; www.lighthouseroasters.com, 400 N. 43rd St.). Its only retail location is tucked away in a residential segment of Fremont, wrapped around the quiet corner of 43rd Street and Phinney Avenue.

When you get there, don't plan on doing work: It's one of Seattle's only coffeehouses without Wi-Fi, though you usually can catch a patchy signal from elsewhere.

A deep, nutty aroma greets customers. In the back of this small space (only six tables; minimal bar seating) sits a large, circa-1960s cast-iron roasting machine that fires up five days a week to churn out small batches of premium beans.

Chris Wilson offers this advice to indecisive customers: "You can just get a regular coffee if you want." So you order Captain Bert's Breakfast Blend, a French-pressed mix from Central American and Sumatran beans. It's good but pales in comparison to the mocha Wilson can make. With an artist's attention to detail, he laces an espresso shot with milk and a unique chocolate mix, then whisks the foam on top to picture perfection. The taste is flawless.

Bauhaus Books & Coffee ([206] 625-1600, no website, 301 E. Pine St.) sits on a prominent Capital Hill corner (Pine Street and Melrose Avenue). This beloved urban gem attracts sophisticated intellectuals -- and the coffee's great. Lattes are heavy on the milk, mochas are deep and rich with a lovely aftertaste.

Despite its name, Bauhaus stopped selling books two years ago. But it does still have an old-library feel about it. Because this two-story space was once a motorcycle dealership, windows are floor-to-ceiling, allowing ample natural light and a view of the Space Needle backed by the Olympic Mountains. Upstairs, the wall is brick and art is sparse. Outside, there's a sidewalk patio with metal seating.

Any casual visitor can tell that the clientele here is literate: Newspapers are prevalent, professor types read Nietzsche, and it seems people are more likely to have their noses in books here than in laptops, though the laptop contingency definitely turns out.

It's obvious that Victrola Coffee Roasters ([206] 624-1725, www.victrolacoffee.com) values its appearance. Perhaps the most upscale of the Seattle coffeehouses (not a difficult feat to accomplish), Victrola's clean yet artsy ambience might remind Angelenos of their own fancy-pants haunts (like Literati or Urth Caffé).

The company's second outlet on Pike Street is in a light-filled, open space that combines brick and glass walls, and features whimsical canvas artworks. Oil-burning candles sit on each table, and mellow Enya-ish music lends a lyrical element.

Besides excellent coffees and powerful macchiatos (request yours made with the Streamline Espresso, if it's available), Victrola sells artisan beers and wines, as well as high-end treats from local bakeries and confectioneries (such as Theo Chocolate, www.theochocolate.com).

Interested clients can watch roasters roast, or take a free cupping class (every Wednesday at 1 p.m.).

Two Seattle locations in Capitol Hill.

Monorail Espresso, Seattle's first coffee stand, is often credited with starting it all. It's just a tiny walk-up window (at 5th and Pike streets, not its original location), best for getting amazing coffee to go. No website. One location in downtown.

Caffe Ladro ( www.caffeladro.com) would never exploit any living thing to get its product from plant to cup. Eleven locations, including Fremont, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, downtown and West Seattle.

Fremont Coffee Co. ([206] 632-3633, www.fremontcoffee.net, 459 N. 36th St.) is housed in a homey cottage made interesting by alternative music, framed digital prints for sale on the walls, rooms, rugs and mysterious doors. One location in Fremont.

Uptown Espresso ( www.uptownespresso.net) is a chain, but it's a local chain, and one that serves good coffee. Owner Dow Lucurell grew up in the restaurant industry, so he knows that quality and service are paramount to success. Seven locations throughout Seattle.

OK, so Six Arms ([206] 223-1698; www.mcmenamins.com, 300 E. Pike St.) is really a brewpub. But there's no denying that this hot spot serves up some enviable coffee brews -- many of them with liquor mixed in. It even has its own brand of handcrafted coffee liqueur.

A tea lounge in a coffee city? Remedy Teas ([206] 323-4TEA, www.remedyteas.com 345 15th Ave. E) a hip locale boasting about 150 tea options, pulls it off.

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