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Exciting coffees in exquisite cafes

Philadelphia's coffee culture has brewed an identity all its own, framed by reclaimed materials that reflect its historic region, and an increasingly sophisticated sensibility for what makes a good cup.

The spectacular new cafe showplace opened by La Colombe on Frankford Avenue is a jaw-dropper for its sheer vastness, edgy style, and revved-up ambition.

The 11,000-square-foot warehouse has been transformed into a soaring palace of Fishtown coffee chic, with the bonus of a full-on bread bakery (producing the city's best baguette), a copper-clad wood-fired oven, and a gleaming rum distillery that operates behind a phalanx of aging barrels and glass panes.

This is no ordinary cafe. La Colombe's mega-hybrid coffee gambit is a major event, with as many as 1,400 people a day caffeinating there on the busiest days - even without WiFi. It's meaningful not simply for up-and-coming Fishtown, now with a destination of national note, but also as the latest jewel for Philadelphia's already impressive independent coffee scene. There are now nearly three dozen independent cafes.

Thanks to a rapidly expanding roster of serious players - including at least half a dozen new roasters - plus some striking spaces that represent another level in cafe design, Philadelphia's coffee culture has brewed an identity all its own, framed by reclaimed materials that reflect its historic region, and an increasingly sophisticated sensibility for what makes a good cup. (See related article here.)

"Coffee has excelled in Philly 10 times over" in the last few years, says Evan Inatome of Elixr (9207 S. Sydenham St.) coffee, which draws up to 1,000 customers a day to its broodingly magnetic hideaway set back onto out-of-the-way Sydenham Street just off Walnut. "We were just in Portland last week, and I feel we have so many more options here now."

The latest coffee expansion dates to 2010, when an infusion of ambitious independent shops brought progressive new options to a landscape dominated by La Colombe and Starbucks. This generation, known as the "third wave," featured pricey pour-overs from coveted single-origin beans, lighter roasts, and baristas schooled in the tracery foam of latte art.

The newest arrivals have come in all different sizes and styles - each with the power to enhance and shape the neighborhoods where they land: From the airy Scandinavian tranquillity of Menagerie Coffee (18 S. 3rd St.) in Old City to the food truck-turned-sleek-corner-cafe at Rival Bros. (2400 Lombard St.) near Fitler Square; from the Edison-bulb-lit and pine-wrapped modern room of Ultimo's second location in emerging Graduate Hospital, to the iced-coffee "trikes" and Franklin Flea market stands of Peddler Coffee, one of the city's newer roasters; from Joe Coffee's glassy corporate perch across from tony Rittenhouse Square to ReAnimator's ambitious roastery-atelier in a former clandestine pot farm on the gritty frontier of soon-to-be-gentrified lower Kensington.

ReAnimator's new Master Street venture has been easy to overlook amid the well-publicized fanfare of La Colombe's debut just a few blocks east on Frankford Avenue. But it offers clear proof of the new energy and lighter bean styles being produced by the growing ranks of young new roasters. It also demonstrates how ambitious coffee-driven development can spark the progress of a rising neighborhood, and become a beacon, if not a magnet for that area.

If La Colombe is proof Fishtown has reached another level, ReAnimator's arrival makes a good case that Kensington's North American Street corridor is next. (A new distillery is opening there, too.)

In all cases, the attention to more thoughtful design has been key.

"You're not just slinging a cup of coffee, you're allowing for an experience," says Elysa DiMauro, co-owner of Menagerie. "Never underestimate the music!"

"You have your home and office," says DiMauro's partner, April Nett. "We are your 'co-ffice.' "

They hired Niko Dyshniku of Kolemade to create a light-filled room outfitted with multihued natural woods, exposed brick, and an "austere coziness" to contrast with the masculine look of Elixr, where Nett once worked and which Dyshniku also designed.

"[Philadelphia's designers] all recycle from the same market of architectural salvage," Dyshniku says. "It's the human element that gives them each their own unique look."

No matter the style, a serious effort to craft the ambience conveys an important harmony of message to customers from cafes that often source and roast their own beans at considerable expense - with coffee prices to match: "I find that people maybe respect the product more if the space is really well done," says Inatome.

It comes as no surprise that Philadelphia's coffee powerhouse La Colombe had the financial beans to pull off a project of the magnitude of its Fishtown space, with graffitilike murals spanning the walls and a twinkly marquee of La Colombe's name in lights dangling above the pour-over counter, warming the once-abandoned urban shell.

The company recently announced a $28.5 million investment infusion with plans to expand to potentially 90 cafes nationwide - including plans for its fourth Philadelphia cafe to be built next year in the Dow building beside Independence Mall.

What has also been revealing is the clear evolution, and perhaps the fence-mending ways, of La Colombe's coffee philosophy. Four years ago, co-owner Todd Carmichael wrote a column for that snarkily dismissed the third wave's "rock-star baristas," "single-origin Valhalla . . . propaganda," and $5 cups "slow-brewed, one irritating cup at a freaking time."

After he became a coffee-hunting TV star with his Travel Channel show Dangerous Grounds and spent a few years ramping up La Colombe's Workshop series of more lightly roasted single-origin beans, the Fishtown space is a stunning stage for all those trends he once derided. A prime example is the Panamanian Geisha beans its baristas meticulously hand-pour to order for $6 a cup.

The city's young coffee lions, once bitterly put off by Big LC, have begun to take notice with props. Jonathan Adams of Rival Bros. called that elegantly floral Panamanian Geisha "one of the best coffees I've ever had in my life."

And even Aaron Ultimo, one of those most responsible for nurturing Philly's new generation of cafes, has been impressed: "It's time to say: Let bygones be bygones . . . and welcome to the club."