Driftless Terroir: People Are the Heart of Our Coffee Shop Ecologies

Grace Vosen

By Grace Vosen

I’ve never been sensitive to the flavor of coffee — I can barely keep light, medium and dark roasts straight, let alone those alleged notes of cherry or maple — but I have first-hand knowledge of the flavor of coffee shops. I have long felt that these gathering places are the beating heart of our Driftless towns. Like the town in which it resides, each coffee shop in our region differs in small ways from the one 10 miles down the road.

At their core, however, these many are unmistakably one. Let’s call this super-entity “the Driftless Coffee Shop.”

Cheery paintings by local artists beam down from the walls of the Driftless Coffee Shop, inviting one to stay warm in the shop’s warm embrace. This photo of “Imagine,” a mural painted by employees of Crossroads Coffeehouse in Cross Plains, highlights Perfect Swallow coffee, named for the Barn Swallow so ubiquitous to the Driftless and roasted by the Just Coffee Co-op.

The Driftless Coffee Shop is a feast for the senses. A cloud of coffee-scented steam, like a sacred incense, wreathes the door to tempt anyone who ventures near. The voices of chatty regulars (and the baristas who patiently nod along) mingle with the whirring of espresso machines and, if you’re lucky, the strumming of guitars. Cheery paintings by local artists beam down from the walls, inviting one to stay in the shop’s warm embrace.

By “warm,” I mean both a warm temperature and the warmth of community. Much like an ecological community, the Driftless Coffee Shop is an assemblage of individuals who show up for their own reasons. But these individuals soon become recognizable as a defined group. With the right training, it’s easy to tell who feels at home there.

Enter the Driftless Coffee Shop and you’re faced with every stage of life at once. Kids spend their allowance on sweet treats after school; college students visit their old haunt over the summer. Old friends reunite, then part again. The occasional dog wanders in. All of this is underscored by the incessant clicking of laptop keys.

It’s not just the bumper stickers and trail guides for sale that define the Driftless Coffee Shop. However, merchandise does contribute to the sense of place, like these Ice Age Trail T-shirts made by Seek Dry Goods to celebrate and support the trail.

Equally varied are the topics of conversation. While Chamber of Commerce members plan for the future in one corner, a group of retirees reminisces in the other. The friends solving the world’s problems at the big table might be discussing political unrest thousands of miles away, or a single tree in a nearby woodlot. I was stunned a few years ago when, returning home with a newly minted degree in natural resources, I found that the regulars in my local coffee shop had been talking about prairie restoration the whole time. All I had to do was tune in.

I’m not saying that the Driftless Coffee Shop exists outside of time, although it seems timeless. There are regular surges and dips in activity. Ask any server or barista: Within a coffee shop’s four walls, routine reigns supreme. The morning crowd gives way to the lunch crowd, and never the twain shall meet. Wednesday might bring the artistic set while Friday is when the hikers convene. Conversations swing predictably from excitement to contented quiet. Even those patrons who seem most focused on their work are prone to periods of indolence.

The Paper Crane in Spring Green serves homemade “scuffin” scone muffins and coffee roasted just down the street by Brewhaha Roasters.

Given time, these short-term dramas play out on a larger scale. Hot-chocolate-sipping kids — myself among them — grow into teenage caffeine junkies; the high-schoolers leave for college. Among both customers and employees, the cast of characters constantly rotates. Musicians have even been known to launch their careers here. Some of them stick around and others leave. The Driftless Coffee Shop stays with all of them.

What in all this is unique to the Driftless? It’s not just the bumper stickers and trail guides for sale, or the menu items made with local produce. It’s more than the lucky rock on its special pedestal (you know who you are). Even the vital phrase “sense of place” can’t quite explain what’s going on here. There are many corners of the country and world where coffee shops reflect the tenor of their communities. But we’ve chosen to live here, in the Driftless, and so we make its coffee shops our own. You and I are as much a part of the Driftless Coffee Shop as the espresso grinder, the milk frother or the table with the fish on it (again, you know who you are).

The idea that you can return to the same place day after day and still be happy may be radical in some societies, but it’s a no-brainer here. When I visit the Driftless Coffee Shop, I get a flush of pride at having chosen to be there over anywhere else on earth. Often, just being there is my only goal. It is this pride that gives me the motivation to make my community a little better.

We patrons of the Driftless Coffee Shop are daily participating in something beyond ourselves. And perhaps, as a fellow coffee lover once sang:

“If I treat you like a friend,

It’s gonna come right back again.”

Author’s Note: I started this essay in the year 1 B.C. (Before COVID) to express my love of independent coffee shops. If I thought I had a healthy appreciation for my neighborhood coffee purveyors then, it has since grown tenfold. Thank you to all the coffee angels who sustain our communities, providing us with that ever-elusive “quality of life.”

Grace Vosen is an ecologist living in Sauk City. She observes both the human and nonhuman communities of our region and writes about them on her blog,“Driftless Grace.” Find it at driftlessgrace.com.