The Mothership

Café Crossroads

Chicago likes to get serious. About sports, about winter—and about coffee. The city’s caffeine habit supports near, if not over, a hundred craft coffeeshops, but with so many options they can start to run together, to feel a bit homogenized. Resisting this sameness in both principle and practice is Dark Matter Coffee, urging all who enter their Mothership on the west side of the city to “get freshly roasted.”

Dark Matter’s Mothership roastery opened to customers in 2014, admitting those who visit through the frosted door on busy Western Avenue into a high-ceilinged room ornately painted in the manner of a carnival wagon or stage set. Red curtains draw back above the windows, revealing here the depths of space, there the gears of a gilded clock. Ordering, the eye catches a sculpturesque roaster at the back of the shop, antiqued in burnished golds and reds to look definitely alchemical. Tubes connect it along the walls and ceiling to air and gas, producing the general feel of a boiler room on a steampunk dirigible.

(Photo: Lara Kastner.)
(Photo: Lara Kastner.)

At the bar, the day’s coffee offering is chalked onto a muraled wall and rotates between blends and specialty batches from Dark Matter’s chief farm partners. Shots of Unicorn Blood espresso are pulled on a La Marzocco Linea, offered with whole milk or soy in lattes and cortados, as well as a dangerously chocolaty mocha. Cold-brew with the energetic power of jet fuel runs through a bar tap and flows freely in the winter as well as summer months. A pastry selection is delivered daily from neighborhood partner West Town Bakery that includes sweet and savory croissants and a sprinkled donut or two, if the rush hasn’t gotten to them first.

It was a chilly gray morning when I met with Kyle Hodges, Dark Matter’s minister of propaganda. That’s his real title, it’s on his card and e-mail signature. “We like to keep ourselves entertained,” he said. He takes a moment to refill an unlidded black stein before heading into the main roasting room, where the light is brighter and colder. Two large Steinmetz roasters are surrounded by trays of roasted beans and woven bags from across the globe piled waist-high. Pop art, the work of locals Sentrock, Ali-Sx, and JC Rivera, this space contrasts with the more curated front room, done in textured detail by Jason Brammer (who continued these curtained windowscapes in Dark Matter’s Osmium location, three miles and four neighborhoods away).

(Photo: Britanny Purlee.)
(Photo: Britanny Purlee.)

Kyle explains that founder Jesse Diaz and director of coffee Aaron Campos have a distinct vision. They want to make sure that Dark Matter is not only finding farms that grow exceptional coffee, but farms that each have their own characteristics and styles of coffee. He goes on to describe them: one is elegant and straightforward, another is a collective of growers all sharing a mountainside, and a third is stewarding their family’s own cultivar of bean. Jesse describes learning early on that even excellent product could be mislabeled, a realization that added to Dark Matter’s commitment to work directly with growers to ensure transparency.

Diaz is the driving force behind Dark Matter. His energy and excitement for his craft is visceral—as he arrives at the table, unexpectedly and readily, he begins to describe the “massive gap” in the specialty coffee culture. “How do you keep growing? Don’t try to be like everybody else,” he says. To maintain connection with source he says Dark Matter got involved in Latin America, “focusing specifically on genetics and fermentation and process.”

(Photo: Laura Kastner.)
(Photo: Laura Kastner.)

“You’re watching leaders in the field pioneer pour-over techniques with blended-grain coffee,” says Diaz. “This is caturra, catuai, and bourbon all brewed together. If you grow bourbon in a pacamara lot, you can’t even call it bourbon. And the pickers aren’t looking or taught that a five-degree branch variable separates a bourbon from a caturra, and are just putting all these pickings together. The culture of not trusting anybody—that information is only information until you know it yourself—is what pushed us.”
Dark Matter now roasts for three branded locations: the Mothership; Star Lounge, their original café in Humboldt Park; and Osmium Coffee Bar in Lakeview. They also support production for dozens of wholesale accounts.

“We could be concerned only with the bottom line but we’re much more eager to keep chasing what it is about coffee that excites us and keeps us interested,” says Campos. Many brands can claim brand ambition but few can demonstrate this commitment at every step of the process. The store’s merch and swag section boasts exfoliant coffee soaps made in collaboration with Scratch Goods, variety packs of blends created with brewers and distillers, and an excellently curated selection of drinkware options all bearing the Dark Matter logo.

“We’ve got to put up or shut up, too—it’s gotta’ be all-around good coffee,” says Campos. “But it also has to look good on the outside,” chimes in Hodges. “We’ve gotta’ make the outside look as crazy and as fun as what we put into the inside.” This season’s holiday specials nod to weed-smoking with Chronikkah and Old Dank Nic (a Nicaraguan blend), sold in a gift set with rolling papers, a Dark Matter lighter, and a branded airtight jar. Get freshly roasted, indeed.

—Matt Didier is a freelancer based in Chicago’s west side.