The year was 2007. Intelligentsia Coffee, a pioneering third wave specialty coffee brand years before such terms were commonplace, made waves when they expanded from Chicago to open a cafe on Los Angeles’ Venice Beach. It marked one of the first instances of a specialty coffee company not just expanding into a new city, but an entirely new state some 2,000 miles away. Shortly after opening in Venice, they launched a massively influential cafe on Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake Junction. The ripples of this history can still be felt in the modern LA coffee scene, most presciently via the big name cafes that splintered off from the Intelli family tree, including G&B/Go Get Em Tiger and Blue Bottle, whose introduction into the city and start of their global expansion came via the acquisition of Handsome Coffee Roasters.
Now here in 2022, Intelligentsia—acquired by JAB/Peet’s in 2015—has brought another first-of-its-kind coffee experience to the greater Los Angeles area. It’s happening in Pasadena, where Intelli’s Colorado Boulevard coffee bar has been completely reimagined away from traditional espresso preparations. Instead this cafe only serves instant espresso.
Now open in Old Pasadena, the brand-new concept from Intelligentsia known as the Illumination Bar has gone all-in on instant coffee. There isn’t an espresso machine in sight, but instead the tools of the trade for the baristas are “reminiscent of a laboratory: a high-precision freeze dried espresso dosing dispenser, glass beakers, [and a] magnetic stir plate,” per a press release. Seeing how the steam wand used for milk foaming is generally part and parcel with the now non-present espresso machine, Intelli has installed La Marzocco’s Wally Milk (just Wally for short), the hands-free standalone friendly milk steaming robot.
For all espresso-based drinks the Illumination Bar will be the brand’s new Instant Espresso Black Cat Classic, “a new freeze-dried instant iteration of their signature espresso blend.”
The goal of the shift to instant is to up the ante on two of the most important aspects of cafe service: high-level consistency and customer service. From the press release:
The new format of the interior not only allows for baristas to make extraordinary espresso on demand with outright precision, it also curates a special connection between barista and customer—thanks to the lowered the height of the service countertop itself. Free from the duty of perfectly pulling espresso shots or steaming milk, the barista is now available to directly engage the customer, akin to the role of a sommelier at a wine bar rather than operating as a skilled technician.
It is perhaps unfair to call the Illumination Bar instant coffee’s official coming out party in the specialty coffee mainstream; specialty instant’s moment has been in play for much of the last decade, and its popularity has only grown as COVID shutdowns forged new consumer habits. But Intelli’s new instant gambit feels like a high water mark for mass adoption of specialty instant. Heretofore the narrative around specialty instant coffee has typically been tethered to use cases that revolve around a lack of access to traditional rewing equipment: offices, camping trips, travels, your cheeky mid-flight AeroPress habit. But now here in Pasadena, Intelligentsia has chosen instead to opt for instant when traditional coffeemaking methods were readily accessible, going so far as to craft an entire cafe experience around the use of instant specialty.
Here in 2022, the gulf between instant and fresh-made specialty coffee is more canal than St. Lawrence River, and everybody should be pleased. Is this the start of a new, major trend in specialty coffee? Are there more instant-only cafes coming from other brands, in other cities? Will Intelligentsia’s Pasadena experience be a hit, or is the old-fashioned stigma around instant a bridge too far? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: while Intelligentsia’s Pasadena specialty instant revamp would have been unthinkable even a few short years ago, today it feels like a fascinating sign of the coffee times.
All images via Intelligentsia
Disclosure: Intelligentsia is an advertising partner with the Sprudge Media Network