Smile Politely

Hammerhead Coffee takes on “Third-Wave” Coffee

In an ever-growing sea of University Avenue apartment buildings sits Hammerhead Coffee, a self-describing “third-wave” coffee shop adjoining the new Latitude unit. I must admit, I had to google the term “third-wave coffee,” which led me down a rabbit-hole of confusing subreddits containing opinions stronger than most French Roasts. (Okay, I also learned coffee strength is more dependent on brewing and not roast darkness, but I still wanted to make the joke.)

I generally discovered that self-described “third-wave” coffee shops or roasters aim to be to Starbucks what Starbucks was to Folgers. With that in mind, I set out for a light lunch and coffee.

If you’ve been to Hammerhead or even their website, you’ll know it shares its namesake with Hammerhead Records, the Champaign-based label. That’s because the label also shares its owner, Todd Thorstenson, who wanted to marry his support for local artists with a great coffee shop. I noted and appreciated the effort they took to mix their influences into the décor and create a unique and pleasant ambiance for both studying or chatting.

Sofia, General Manager of the store, helped me understand what they are going for. “We have a passion for the coffee culture,” she said, and they source that passion from Quills Coffee based in Louisville, Kentucky. The beans come direct-trade from “local micro-lots and small farms throughout Central America, South America, and Africa, which are then crafted to bring out the most delicious flavor profile possible.”

Hammerhead encourages guests enjoy anything from a latte all the way to a gourmet pour-over. Food options include various soups, which were not offered when I came in because it was winter break, and four types of “toasts,” which feature two pieces of toast with various toppings.

Turning first to the “toasts,” at only $4 to $5 per order, we splurged and chose two: the $5 Super Nova with lox, capers, onions, and tomatoes, and the $5 Avocado Smash with avocado spread, feta cheese, and red pepper flakes. I ordered the Super Nova on sourdough bread and Avocado Smash on multigrain. The bread, along with most baked goods at Hammerhead, came from Pekara bakery.
Neither toasts disappointed: each order came with plenty of toppings and a delicious flavor profile. I love a bagel with lox, and the sourdough bread satisfied my incessant bagel craving with its chewy and lightly-toasted mouthfeel. I found the lox to be perky and fresh, its creamy texture dissolving into an acidy tomato and salty caper. The red onion added a light crunch to each bite, and a squeeze from an accompanying lemon slice further produced a bright finish.

Although the Super Nova was an excellent translation of a bagel with lox to toast, I’ll probably come back for the Avocado Smash. This time I chose multigrain bread, which lent a hearty note to the dish. Using a delicious avocado spread, it was easy to eat and well-seasoned. Huge, tangy chunks of feta cheese complimented the mellow avocado spread, and crushed red pepper flakes on top pulled the entire toast together by adding a slightly spicy note tampered down by the other fatty toppings. Again, a lemon wedge was included to squeeze on top, bringing out the feta’s acidity.

The toasts were significantly better than they had any right to be, and they quickly filled up these hungry lunchers while we sipped coffee.

Speaking of coffee, we ordered an Americano ($2.50 for 12oz) and a latte ($3.60 for 12oz). I expect espresso to be very dark, velvety, and chocolatey, but this espresso had a bright and almost tannic note. In the Americano, with no milk to back it up, it was a little too pungent for me, but the latte was wonderful. I tasted a jammy, yet chocolatey dark cherry flavor that held up to the large amount of milk for a pleasurable drinking experience. It was the first time I had taken a minute to appreciate the espresso’s role in a latte, and if that means I took the first step to third-wave understanding, Hammerhead did what it has set out to do.
While I’m still in my nascent appreciation for coffee’s taste over its function, I’ll be back to try Hammerhead again, if not only for more toast. Next time, I’ll check out the pour-overs and try to learn another thing or two.

Hammerhead is located at 608 E University Ave in Champaign and is open Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
All photos by Emily Cross. 

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