A year before Loyal Coffee opened and many months before he would make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Barista Championship in Atlanta, Georgia, co-owner Tyler Hill sat down with me outside of his then-employer, The Principal's Office. He outlined the vision for Loyal, employing the word "community" more than a dozen times before I could finish a cappuccino.
Hill, a big-bearded, perpetually smiling force of infectious enthusiasm, mentions the word three times inside a minute-long video recently posted on Loyal's Facebook page, introducing the Dis-Loyalty Card, which earns its owner a free Loyal coffee after they have received drink stamps at the pour houses of seven other "friends," ranging from Story to Building3 and Urban Steam.
"So you're incentivizing people to go drink at your competitors?" I ask him one morning while he's playing the ambassador role in the front-of-the-house, clearing tables and warmly greeting customers while eying how long it takes for them to make it from door to drink-in-hand during the busiest rushes. The goal is under 6 minutes to reach the counter, 2½ to receive a drink, and no more than 8 minutes for food to arrive, explains co-owner Chris Mueller. Yes — this is a precision place, as any taste of any drink indicates. I could also point to the 2.5 miles of rope utilized to decoratively weave the ceiling beams above vintage hex tile floors, shiny brass counter accents and Loyal-logo-etched wood panels as wall art. Or the fact that by mandate, only one barista finesses the La Marzocco Strada EP espresso machine during a shift to stay in tune with the minutiae of grind adjustments and proper tamps for perfect pulls.
But getting back to Dis-Loyalty, "Yes," Hill says, they stand to gain nothing monetarily via the program, though he elaborates on a share-the-love principle inherent to the concept of community. From this group of six co-owner/baristas who've already demonstrated much prowess between postings at places like Colorado Coffee Merchants and SwitchBack Coffee Roasters, this humility comes as a call and personal ante toward celebrating our wider city's capability amidst the third-wave movement. Pourovers, appropriately sized traditional drinks, potent cold brew concoctions, and lighter roasts with interesting, discernible aromas are here to stay, and gaining ground against insipid syrup-and-slurp caffeine vehicles. But hey, drink what you like.
Loyal plays sweetly where necessary, with superb house-vanilla lattes and subtly sugary mochas made with Madagascar 75-percent cocoa shavings. They're shipped on dry ice from Ritual Chocolate. "We like nice things," co-owner Bevan Cammell says, also addressing chai procured from Kilogram Tea for smooth, creamy chai lattes. As goes Intelligentsia, the coffee world's trend-setter, so go smart shops. Hence elegant notNeutral-made demitasse cappuccino cups in play too, alongside local ceramic artist Hillary McCandless-Beard's fine wares.
All of Loyal's owners, including Wild Goose-alum Abigail Baum, work weekly barista shifts. Co-owner Seth Fuller — who along with Hill co-won Best Barista by readers' votes in last week's Indy — and Cammell handle roasting duties in a facility at the Ivywild School. Loyal's overall superlative quality starts there, with batches of specialty beans coaxed into maximum expression. Some highlights out of the gate: a lemony Kenyan bean also exuding Belgian chocolate bitterness and richness; a Costa Rican product which gifts a wisp of marshmallow essence in its finish flavor, especially when creamed; and an intoxicating Colombian, which bursts with strawberry scents out of my grinder at home, drinking too with a fruity wildness.
The mostly single-origin labels are joined by lauded guest roasters like Michigan's Madcap and New Zealand's Coffee Supreme. On a given day, one hopper will be devoted to clean shots, the other to milk drinks. A bar tap bleeds a potent cold brew; add house tonic to it, which takes over, but in a good way, leading with bitterness that fades into herbal and citrus notes, then a deep coffee finale.
For coffee alternatives, Loyal hosts a basic house kombucha, a refreshing, carbonated ginger-plum iced tea, and a lively, 48-hour-steeped hibiscus rose tonic bearing hints of orange peel and lemongrass; cinchona bark gifts the quinine. If you get a sense that mixologists are at play here as much as macchiato masters, you're on point. Beyond craft brews, limited wines and four handles of batch-made cocktails, the headlining spirits are nearly 30 generally lower-proof aperitifs, vermouths, digestivos and cordials, served almost neat, with minimal garnishings. Not only do they illuminate widespread European tradition, they also show how Loyal has exploited an interesting niche in the craft cocktail marketplace: Other bars have some of these bottles on their shelves, but generally as mixers, not stand-alone stars.
To sample some, co-owner Eric Nicol, former Blue Star and Principal's Office bartender, takes us on a mini flight. What's quickly apparent is that so many botanicals go into the making of these, they already taste complex and rounded on their own, set off simply by lemon or orange wedges, an olive, a sprig of sage or thyme, or in one instance, a splash of cream. I could write sentences on the nuances of each (like an elusive, tantalizing nuttiness on the Spanish Yzaguirre dry vermouth, or super citrus brightness on the Italian Paulucci Amaro CioCiaro ...), but perhaps better I recommend a single pairing.
Order the Bonal Gentiane Quina, a French aperitif wine, with the pine woodblock-plated charcuterie board, which in part features a Brie-like d'Affinois double-cream cow milk cheese, drizzled with honey. Proving the best of pairing scenarios, where both food and drink enhance one another, tannic alpine herb and sweet raisin notes from the Chartreuse-like spirit swim in a sweet creaminess, creating the feeling that for a moment, all's in balance in the world. Remember, this is a precision place, where even a shot of espresso mixed with grappa (called a caffé corretto) articulates volumes, bearing boozy aromatics with hints of white grapes and cherry, drinking viscous and strong, and leaving hints of dried figs on the palate long after a sip.
Leaving drinks behind, Loyal can be a place to eat, too, but it will always be limited by a small prep space with no actual kitchen; it feels snackier than a full-meal joint. Thereby the "toast" and "not toast" menu makes sense with purveyed pastries from Old School Bakery (except for dense, glazed house cake doughnuts I don't love as much as my colleagues do), and pain rustique loaves currently bought from La Baguette. That is until the much-hyped Lincoln Center baker David McInnis opens and can supply. (That should be a good thing, because consistency lacks on this bread and it fails to rise to the level of loaves we recently ate at Till, which deserves menus built around it.)
Get the toast with just butter, preserves, or a smear of that same Madagascar chocolate blended for vegans with coconut milk and cashews. Or under a soft-boiled egg. Or with a side prosciutto salad, spread with Parmesan-arugula pesto and black pepper-flecked ricotta brilliantly set off by strands of lemon zest. (Former Blue Star chef Will Merwin consulted.) A light, lovely butternut squash and farro salad, wet with vinaigrette, almost makes a substantial enough lunch. Porridge (read: oatmeal with chia, sugar, banana and cashew topping) tastes just fine, but it smacks of the boring type simplicity, in need of some stylized element to elevate it to the rest of Loyal's fare. Perhaps a fitting coffee, chai or herbal infusion?
Regardless, Loyal does so much right — at a not-cheap price, note, because "nice things" aren't — that the few touches that fail to pop hardly ruin a visit to the bright, bustling space. The crew certainly makes a convincing argument not to stay Dis-Loyal for long.