Caffeination Destination: Darkcloud
As much as I’d like to say I really keep up with the Chicago coffee scene, I don’t follow coffee blogs as much as I probably should. So imagine my delight in late December when I happened to glance at Time Out’s restaurant section and spot an unfamiliar name under “Newly Opened”: Darkcloud: Urban Coffee Lab. First of all, what was a coffee lab (and are there suburban ones?), and how would I found out? Next stroke of luck was the date of the cafe’s grand opening– what do you know… it was the following day!
So I hauled myself up to Lincoln park (which is probably a quarter of the distance to Metropolis, so no big deal) to experience a cafe opening in the flesh. But what, you might wonder, is so special about Darkcloud in particular? No, it’s not the industrial, graffiti’d space (although that is pretty cool) or even their rotating selection of different roasters (see my reviews of The Wormhole and Buzz Killer Espresso). No, what distinguishes Darkcloud from any cafe in all of Chicago is that they have a Slayer.
No, not this kind (although that would be arguably more awesome):
But this kind:
Initially, whenever coffee big shots mentioned that a cafe had a Slayer, I assumed it was some kind of drip coffee contraption, like a siphon. It never occurred to me that it was a kind of espresso machine. Ironically, even though I used to prefer espresso to pourovers, I never knew much about the different machine models.
To my understanding (after some internet research and asking the barista, who was more than willing to explain), the Slayer, aside from looking pretty cool (and costing $18,000), allows for the upmost precision when pulling shots. It allows you to actually adjust the pressure for each individual grouphead (aka “pressure profiling”). Why would you want to do this? Well, just as every coffee is different, the time it takes for each shot to drop will vary depending on the type of beans you’re using.
Because of this, Darkcloud weighs their espresso differently, depending on the beans (You can see a great video of this here).
So my question is– is this kind of precision necessary? A double shot of espresso takes up such a miniscule amount of volume– can you even tell? I ordered a traditional cappuccino and prepared to find out.
Yes, I know I should have ordered straight espresso, but they were featuring an Intelligentsia Ethiopian, which I knew would be too bright for me on its own (and sure enough, when MOOG joined me and ordered espresso, she nearly gagged. But she’s a die-hard cappuccino drinker). Initially, I was skeptical that such a bright coffee would work with the milk, but the barista assured me that it “brought out the spiciness of the beans.” And sure enough– he was right. There really was something almost fiery about the underlying espresso, but not so pronounced as to overwhelm the (perfectly foamed, by the way) milk.
But would I have been able to pinpoint that it had been made on a Slayer? I’m going to be honest and say NO. It was a really incredible cup of coffee, but I also found it hard to judge it without being biased. The same way you can’t dislike a $300 bottle of wine, it’s hard to turn up your nose at something made on such an extravagant piece of equipment.
As for the cafe itself? Unfortunately, I can’t speak for what’s going on now, since I only showed up the day it opened. I’ve been following them online, however, and crying silently that I can’t attend their coffee classes, which are complete with food pairings.
Dark Cloud is unique: not only does it have a Slayer and a wide range of espresso offerings, but it is located in Lincoln Park, a generally pretty yuppie area (as opposed to say, Wicker Park).
When I get back to Chicago, I know what cafe I’m visiting first:
It’s time for some Slaying.