Ultimo and his wife, Elizabeth, own and run two South Philly shops. Foodie website The Daily Meal recently rated Ultimo Coffee's locations the best in the U.S.
At the Ultimos' cafes - one at 15th and Mifflin, one at 22nd and Catharine - each fresh grind represents a single-origin, sustainable grower. Each brewed-to-order cup is a work of art.
"We do everything by hand," he said, "everything in small batches, so we keep everything really, really fresh, so our customers can have the ultimate experience."
Aaron Ultimo also serves as one of 13 head judges for the U.S. Barista Championship, our nation's most esteemed coffee-making competition. He's the only head judge from Philly. On top of that, he runs the local training center for Counter Culture Coffee, a roaster that's quickly becoming the go-to supplier for East Coast aficionados.
Again, Ultimo's an expert. He's assessed the best of the best. He can identify a bean in a single whiff. He'd never grab a regular joe to go.
That is, until last week.
Last week, Ultimo stepped (and sipped) outside his comfort zone to sample four ordinary, everyday swills. The guy who can make a seasoned barista shake in her boots; the dude who can detect notes of raspberry, cherry, caramel, toasted almond and tobacco in a shot of espresso; the fella whose eyes well up when he recalls meeting a grower in El Salvador - he got in line at Burger King, McDonald's, Wawa and Dunkin' Donuts.
He ordered small coffees.
And, even though he spit out some beverages, even though he poured each hot drink into a short glass he brought expressly for the "cupping" (that's coffee-pro speak for tasting), he didn't hate some of what he tried. In fact, said Ultimo, he was "pleasantly surprised."
A recent survey by the National Coffee Association reported that 83 percent of American adults drink coffee. That's up five points from last year.
Still, most don't consume with the level of care that Ultimo does.
Ultimo always takes his coffee black, because, he said, "Cream and sugar mask the nuance. Great coffee has its own sweetness, a pleasant acidity, brightness, body, pleasant bitterness and a nice, ripe, juicy fruit that comes from complex compounds."
When tasting, he looks for certain characteristics, including "level of extraction," meaning how much bean is dissolved in water. "Thirty percent of coffee beans can dissolve into water," said Ultimo, "We like it 18 to 20 percent extracted." More extraction translates to over-bitterness. Less is too weak.
There's also overall concentration to consider - how many beans used per pour. And, there's the ripeness of the bean and the age of the bean - the fresher the better.
"Old coffee," he said, "when it sits for a while, its flavors start to degrade. It tastes dirty."
On top of that, there's how roasted the beans are ("even the best piece of bread tastes awful if you burn it," he said), and how long brewed coffee's been sitting around.
"It's a fascinating world - with a lot to learn," according to Ultimo. That said, he follows a standardized sampling system.
First, he orders. Then, he sniffs. Next, he tests temperature. "The body does its best tasting when the food is closest to body temperature," he explained. Last, he takes a drink and swishes, to include his whole mouth in the experience.
He said that there's more to coffee-drinking than just tasting. At the 8th and Market Burger King, Ultimo was impressed at the busy outpost's customer friendliness, which included an associate who cleaned a booth before he entered it. "You don't get this kind of service at our shops," he said.
Sure, both BK's "Smooth Roast," introduced in late March, and McDonald's McCafe were quite weak, not something he'd go out of the way for.
He also wasn't a huge fan of Wawa's limited-time African blend, which he called "woody," "bland" and "not like an African coffee." (Africa, he explained, is "the birthplace of coffee," and Kenyan beans are "the best of the best.")
But he appreciated Wawa's effort to rep that continent, along with the Pacific Rim (via Hawaii-grown Kona - "nice mouthfeel," said Ultimo) and Latin America (via 100-percent Colombian) - all three major coffee-growing regions. He also tried Wawa's regular and dark roasts. His favorite there was the Colombian.
He also took somewhat of a shine to Dunkin's Original Roast, which he guessed was fresher, "mainly because all they sell is coffee. . . . Dunkin' Donuts is a coffee shop disguised as a doughnut shop."
His least favorite try, however, was Dunkin' espresso - not frequently ordered as a plain bev, to be sure. He thought it tasted "like rubber."
Still, Wawa and Dunkin' made the joe pro rethink his policy of avoiding fast coffee when he's away from home. "Maybe I will go there next time I'm on the road and need a coffee."
Today on PhillyDailyNews.com: An interactive look at Aaron Ultimo's favorite quick-serve coffee options.