Milwaukee’s Coffee Olympus

They talk about “waves” in coffee culture.

First wave: Folgers or Maxwell House.

Second wave: Starbucks, which didn’t arrive in Milwaukee until the late 90s, although its local (better!) homologue — Alterra/Colectivo — was founded in 1993.

Then there’s the third wave: refined and elevated places that treat coffee like a culinary product — like fine wine or good olive oil. They might be a tad precious. In the wide world, names like Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia and Sumptown are synonymous with the third wave.

In Milwaukee, it’s Valentine and… Kickapoo.

Kickapoo: when you walk through the dog park without looking down.

Kickapoo: a tributary of the Wisconsin River.

Kickapoo: a native American tribe that once lived in Wisconsin but, pushed out by Europeans, now lives mainly in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Mexico.

Kickapoo chief Babe Shkit, circa 1900. Wikipedia.

But this is Kickapoo, too:

If coffee is art, this is its Guggenheim.

It’s a big clean white hall with inspired lighting and a spacey feel. Is it a Kubrick movie? An Apple ad?

The crowd fits the space: we’re just across from MIAD, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. You might see a Japanese woman in platform lace-ups and a kick-pleated skirt. There will be portfolios dangling from shoulder straps. And statement spectacles.

It’s kinda cool.

And the coffee is phenomenal. While Valentine rules the pour-over, Kickapoo’s espresso is best.

There are actually two espressos: an “espresso crema” (referring the creamy beige head that is the mark of any good cup) and, for a buck more, a “single origin espresso” which — when we visited — came from Ethiopia. The staff, who are Midwestern and not in the least intimidating, will explain their wares with unfaked enthusiasm.

Here we have espresso that leaves an astringent sensation on the teeth. The kind in which you could almost stand your little demitasse spoon. People who love espresso will be nodding at these words, and maybe dribbling a little saliva.

This is the place to go full gastro-snob. Inhale deeply over the steaming liquid as if you were French and holding a fetid wedge of cheese. Delight in the notes of cherry and tobacco in your cup. Because those flavors really are there. And the flavors are toe-bunchingly pleasurable.

Come on, try it. Don’t just taste, conduct a tasting. Sometimes it’s fun to be a bit affected and a little chichi.

And we can say without a trace of irony: you’ll be rewarded for all your slurping and sniffing and tipping the cup. The difference between this and an espresso anywhere else will smack even listless amateurs in the gob. It’s great.

If you’re still not convinced, let us add: this just might be the only cafe in Milwaukee to which we’d take an Italian visitor without the slightest anxiety. Need we say more?

It’s a treasure. For coffee people in Milwaukee, it should be a source of pride.

We say, take it down — in gulps!