FOR EIGHT YEARS, A POSTDINNER CUP OF COFFEE AT Canlis meant Starbucks’ Casi Cielo roast, a blend designed especially for the restaurant. Its roasty, nutty flavor was so well received that Starbucks decided to release the specialty coffee created for fine dining in locations around the country, and even abroad. It’s available at Starbucks stores for a limited time each January.
Early Casi Cielo releases came in a bag that bore a picture of Canlis and a little story about the coffee and the restaurant. Third-generation proprietors Mark and Brian Canlis even traveled to Guatemala to visit the two local farms producing the beans brewed for one of the most special meals in the city. It was a natural union of two local institutions—until the storied Seattle restaurant chose to part ways with the storied Seattle coffee chain.
Severing such close ties with Starbucks was a tough call, says Brian Canlis, especially for a restaurant that preaches the importance of relationships. The decision necessitated a family meeting and a letter hand-delivered to CEO Howard Schultz. But ultimately, the restaurant’s shift toward small-batch ingredients ran counter to the megachain’s constant expansion.
Now Canlis brews Chicago-based Intelligentsia, as well as a roster of tiny boutique roasters that changes seasonally. It’s a lineup you’d expect at an aggressively hip coffee shop, not a sexagenarian restaurant. To encourage further swooning among coffee geeks, two dedicated baristas brew these niche roasts with a Chemex, a curvaceous pour-over glass coffeemaker known for its precision and clear flavors.
Intelligentsia appealed to the brothers because it was a rare roaster excited about the idea of serving smaller, emerging labels alongside its own beans. Daily sessions sampling various microroasters left the Canlis team jittery and overwhelmed, until Bellingham-based coffee producer and exporter Edwin Martinez offered to curate the seasonal coffee menu. Martinez met the Canlises years ago through mutual friends, and has coffee bona fides that include owning a coffee bar that doesn’t serve sugar or milk—only black coffee—and competing in international coffee tasting championships. In the words of Brian Canlis, “If there were a sexy magazine about coffee, he’d be on the cover flexing.”
Martinez speaks of a coffee’s terroir, a concept that would likely flummox founder Peter Canlis, who once appeared in a commercial for Maxwell House instant coffee. The menu invites diners to sample two offerings side by side, to understand how Costa Rican beans with similar citrus notes can have a softer, slightly spicy flavor when roasted by Transcend Coffee in Alberta and a more pronounced orange flavor coming from Barismo outside Boston.
With prices starting at $4 and going up to as much as $22 for a four-person serving, the restaurant is treating Seattle’s signature beverage with a care usually reserved for drinks of the alcoholic persuasion. Indeed, after an evening spent in the company of Canlis’s extensive wine service, such high-level coffee discernment makes for a fitting nightcap.