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The best cups of coffee in Alaska

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

A professor of economics once told me that there are only two things that people will pay any price for. One was gasoline. This was about 10 years ago, so technology available today may have lessened the truth of that one over time. The other was coffee. And I'm pretty convinced that's still the case.

If you don't believe it, check out the newest exhibit at the Museum of the North -- "Coffee: The World in Your Cup." New cafés are always opening in different, increasingly remote locations (scroll down to read about the newest coffee shop in Bethel).

Despite the recent fevered push to eat local, many places in the U.S. still import coffee from afar. Hawaii remains the only consistent mass-producing coffee state in the union. We (and by that I don't just mean Alaskans) will pay almost any price for premium, Arabica, free-trade, freeze-dried, fresh-ground, or Folger's coffee. Anyone who's ever suffered an afternoon caffeine-deprivation headache after skipping their morning mug knows why. So despite our self-reliant, independent Alaskan attitudes, we still have to rely on external sources in order to savor a cup of hot coffee on one of the many cold days we enjoy -- or maybe only tolerate -- every year.

Sometimes this even extends to leaving our homes to meet with friends at the local café. Sometimes it means bringing a thermos to work outdoors on a cold day. Maybe it means enjoying a traveling cup while sitting on a rock overlooking a spectacular view of a noon sunrise.

So we asked contributors from a variety of locations around the state -- from Southeast, all the way to possibly the northernmost coffee stand in America -- their favorite places to sip a cup. Whether it's the atmosphere, the coffee, the baked goods, or just the people, we've gathered several cafés to pay a visit to when you find yourself elsewhere in Alaska.

But Alaska's a big place, and we need your help -- do you have a favorite place in your hometown to go have a cup of coffee? Maybe you don't have a cafe in your town or village -- what's your favorite pot of homebrewed coffee? Do you have a special place you go to drink it? Send a couple of paragraphs and a photo or two to ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.


Haines: Mountain Market

Mountain Market (and café) is open year round, seven days a week, and is the best place in Haines to have a strong cup of good coffee. I like the lattes, but they have all the usual espresso drinks and they roast their own beans. You can get a cup to go or stay and have something hearty to go with it, from fresh baked goods to soups and sandwiches. You can also read the local paper -- on sale at the counter -- or chat with locals. They sell organic groceries here too, and you can buy a bottle of wine or some beer from adjacent Mountain Spirits to take home. Mountain Market is Haines’ hippest place to meet, and has been for about twenty years. It’s located on the corner of town, between the school and the library, and across the Haines Highway from the fire hall.

151 3rd Ave. Haines Hwy.
Haines, AK 99827
907-766-3340

Heather Lende writes from Haines. Her new book is "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs."


Homer: French press and a woodstove

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Photo by Lindsay Johnson

From bakeries to bookstores to devoted roasters, Homer's coffee dispensaries are abundant and diverse. In this cosmic hamlet at the end of the highway, the best cup depends more on your preference for a physical place than a limitation of quality offerings. K-Bay, Captain's, The Homer Bookstore, Tech Connect, Latitude 59, Maura's, Two Sisters, The Washboard and the Fritz Creek General Store are among a coffee connoisseur's local options.

But for reliable taste and convenience in a timely fashion, the insulated French press in my beachside galley is tops. Filled with fresh ground beans and water heated on the woodstove, the press delivers a wholly-satisfying elixir when and where I want it: in a public radio mug I can hold while sitting at the table or walking on the shore, watching the sun rise over mountains across Kachemak Bay.

This must be the place.

Lindsay Johnson writes for the Homer News.


Eagle River: Jitters

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It’s become a minor tradition in my house to forgo making a pot at home and to swing by the Jitters coffee wagon on the Mondays or Fridays of a long weekend. Jitters occupies the center of a strip mall in Eagle River, and even before the other stores open, the parking lot is populated by visitors to the well-liked café. Patrons in a hurry can try swinging by the antique-truck-turned-coffee-cart in the parking lot, a one-way drive-through that can be slower than going inside at busy times of day.

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Photo by Ben Anderson
The inside is warmly decorated, with a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace occupying the back wall of a large seating area. One of my favorite parts about Jitters is the seating: there never seems to be a shortage of it, with a large number of tables for parties of varying size. The large leather armchairs in front of the fireplace are perennially occupied. The restaurant is open and airy, and ceiling fans lend to the homey feel.

The coffee has always been consistently good, and I tried reaching back in my memory to remember if I’d ever been disappointed with a cup -- I couldn’t. It’s not a full-service restaurant, but they offer a variety of sandwiches and soups, although their breakfast menu is definitely more varied than any mid-day or late-afternoon noshing. But it’s a great place for meeting friends, as a couple or as a large group.

11401 Old Glenn Hwy.
Eagle River, AK 99577
907-694-5487

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.


Fairbanks: Alaska Coffee Roasting Co.

My winters, like any other Alaskan's, are fueled by caffeine—large quantities of sunshine replacement therapy served up from one of the drive-through coffee huts found on nearly every corner of every street in Fairbanks. But if I'm lucky, I have the time and space to enjoy my coffee at the Alaska Coffee Roasting Co., known to locals as "ACRC."  The Alaska Coffee Roasting Co., owned by Michael Gesser, opened in 1992 and has developed a loyal local following since then.  The coffee is roasted in-house, and, from the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe to the Scandanavian Breakfast Blend, each cup is consistently good.  The baristas, although they turn over fairly quickly, seem to really understand what they do.  And a "shot of espresso" in this place is an actual shot of thick, dark and jittery goodness, not the concentrated coffee-like syrup you're likely to get from corporate or chain operations.

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Photo by Madara Hill
Alaska Coffee Roasting Co. has a wide variety of fresh-baked goods from the wood-fired brick oven.
The coffee is the obvious draw to a place like ACRC, but the food has its own magnetic appeal.  The homemade flat breads and empanadas that come out of the wood-fired brick oven are gorgeous, and they taste as rustic and hearty as they look.  There is also a healthy selection of pastries, custards, muffins, and cookies.  A small refrigerator case holds fresh salads and the Achilles' heel of the place: a chicken salad that would be excellent if only the purple onions were diced a bit smaller.

The café itself is usually packed to the gills, but, oddly enough, I've somehow always found a place to sit among the small, pleasantly crowded tables.  If you don't have time to sit, there is always the relatively quick drive-through.  But watch out for the Sunday morning line of cars—it's usually the length of a Princess passenger train, and the line inside is usually just as long.  No one seems to mind though, because ACRC's customers know that, regardless of the wait, the coffee and the food will be reliably delicious.  And sometimes quality requires patience.

4001 Geist Road
Fairbanks, AK 99709
907-457-5282

Madara Hill is a food writer, artist, and ex-pat southerner living in Fairbanks. She writes and paints to stay sane, and you can read about her culinary getaways on her blog, The Tart Little Piggy.


Anchorage: Black Bear Coffee Co. and Terra Bella

Being asked to pick the best cup of coffee in Anchorage really isn't fair -- the barista-to-civilian ratio in this town is higher than Lindsay Lohan's circa-2006 blood alcohol content, and everybody's got a favorite. As far as I'm concerned, the best cup of coffee in Anchorage is the one served at my parents' house: strong, bottomless, and completely free. If I'm going to pay for coffee, though, I generally opt for one of two drive-through coffee stands: Black Bear Coffee Co. or Terra Bella Organic Coffee.

Black Bear Coffee Co., located across the street from Gwennie's, just off Spenard Road, is our neighborhood coffee stand. If you live in Anchorage, you probably have one a lot like it somewhere near your neighborhood. The drinks are good (they never burn your shot) and the service is fantastic -- typical cute Anchorage coffee stand girls who remember your drink and notice if you haven't come by in a while. If you drop someone off at the airport and then have to head toward midtown, downtown or east Anchorage, cut down Spenard and stop by. They have a kids' menu and lot of non-coffee drinks I've never tried, but I can testify to the Americanos, mochas, hot chocolate and lattes, none of which has ever disappointed me.

Terra Bella stands out from the crowd because, unlike many Anchorage coffee shops, it uses beans roasted at Homer's K Bay Caffe rather than Kaladi Brothers coffee. (Not that there's anything wrong with using Kaladi beans. I have drunk many cups of Kaladi coffee and will drink many more before I die. In fact, I probably should have mentioned them on the acknowledgements page of my MFA thesis.) Terra Bella's hook is coffee with a conscience, and they're committed to fair trade and organic practices, which is great mostly because the coffee tastes really, really good. Best soy latte in town, hands down. (As far as I'm concerned, anyway. Like I said, Anchorage is a swirling vortex of coffee preferences.) Plus they have this aggressively healthy and strangely delicious sprouted-grain bagel you can't get at any other drive-through coffee stand. It tastes especially nice with a side of the sunshine-and-rainbows glow that comes from patronizing a business with a mission you can feel good about.

Black Bear Coffee Co.
4300 Forest Rd.
Anchorage, AK 99517
907-243-3242

Terra Bella Organic Coffee
Benson Boulevard at C Street
Anchorage, AK 99503
907-562-2229


Prudhoe Bay: The Prudhoe Bay Hotel

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Photo by Robert Wells

Robert Wells braved the weather in Deadhorse -- the high temperature has been above zero only eleven days so far this month, and it was minus-65 degrees with wind chill on the day Robert went -- to pay a visit to the small coffee shop tucked into a wall at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. Robert, who works on the North Slope,  made the trip because the only other coffee stand he knew of in the area is a small espresso machine that stands in a trailer, and where they make mochas by pouring packets of hot chocolate into the coffee. So a visit to the hotel became almost necessary.

The barista working behind the counter claimed that it was the northernmost coffee shop in Alaska -- any diligent readers in the far northern latitudes are welcome to correct or corroborate the claim -- and that a lot of coffee fanatics make the long drive up the haul road for a feather in their caffeine-fueled caps.  She made Robert a white chocolate mocha, which he described as "pretty awesome."

Shall we add "drive up the haul road to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel coffee shop" to the Last Frontier bucket list?

For readers' convenience, we've taken the liberty of Mapquesting a route from Juneau to Prudhoe Bay. Total distance -- ferry stops included? 1,231 miles.

Robert Wells is a Desktop Support Technician in Prudhoe Bay.