Behind the Bar at America's Best Coffee Shop

An inside look at Philadelphia's Ultimo Coffee, with Aaron Ultimo
Behind the bar at America's best coffee shop, Ultimo Coffee Bar in Philadelphia.

There was fierce competition for the top spot on our list of America's best coffee shops. After all, how to pick from the hundreds, if not thousands, of third-wave coffee shops that are redefining how we enjoy a cup of joe? But at our top choice, Ultimo Coffee Bar, it's pretty clear that it's not all about the accolades — it's just about really, really good coffee.

Click here for the Behind the Bar at America's Best Coffee Shop Slideshow

On a sunny Saturday, people filed in and out of the Ultimo Coffee Bar patiently waiting for a Counter Culture brew. Aaron Ultimo, the owner of the two locations (we visited the Newbold location), and another barista set up pour-over brews four at a time, executing a perfect two-minute pour-over from rinsing the filter to the coffee "bloom" and letting the drip coffee settle into white mugs. One barista, who Ultimo called the "master of macchiato," perfected the marked espresso drink in teeny 2-ounce cups. Guests lounged outside with an iced Bolivian brew, or sat inside with a book or iPad. Customers also perused the line of fridges holding many different craft brews (Ultimo is also home to a craft beer shop, BREW). Ultimo explained to customers about the new Bolivian coffee they've been serving from Counter Culture, and shared how they make their iced coffee. (Ultimo told us that they brew their coffee at twice the strength, four parts coffee to one part water, and then pour it into a carafe filed with ice. That way, the coffee stays fresh, and settles with the ice.)

Coffee is Aaron Ultimo's thing. He graduated college without a plan, and somehow fell into the coffee business, first in Arlington, Va., at the new-closed Common Grounds. There, he got his first taste of espresso. "At that time [in 1999], it was all about the flavored syrups, oversized coffee, and espresso drinks," he said. He studied up on how to pour a proper shot of espresso, and began teaching everyone else in the shop how to do it right. When the ownership changed, Ultimo left, and debated giving up coffee as a profession altogether. Eight months later, though, a friend convinced him to start again, this time at Murky Coffee. That's where he found his calling, and went to the 2005 World Barista Championship. He stayed at Murky Coffee from 2004 to 2008, until he and his wife decided to move to Philly. "I moved knowing that I'd be opening a coffee shop in Philadelphia," he says. He went to school in Boston, grew up in New Jersey, and knew that New York City was too big: Philadelphia was just right.

Ultimo first worked at Spruce Street Espresso (also closed), which he says helped start the coffee movement in the city. Then, John Langerie of the South Philadelphia Tap Room, now just down the street from the Newbold location, proposed the idea of opening a beer and coffee shop together. That was Ultimo's move; Ultimo and BREW opened in 2009. Now, with a brand-new location, Ultimo Coffee Bar has hit its stride and has set the tone for newcomer coffee shops in Philly. "We've been lucky, Ultimo says. "It's not that we didn't know what we were doing, it's just that we didn't know what we were getting into," he says. Ultimately, what makes Ultimo work, he says, is his attention to the details; he even called himself a bit fussy. "I'm never satisfied," he says. "I always need to do better." And he's experienced enough of the bad coffee shops to know what doesn't work — an unclean shop, sloppy coffee-making, even those god-awful couches that became synonymous with coffee shops (hello, Friends' Central Perk). You never know what kind of spillage and crumbs could be hiding in that comfy couch, he says. "That's why we went with a pretty sleek, minimal design," he says. "There's a certain look to a coffee shop — the wooden paneling, the tables. We wanted to keep all of that, to make it easy for the customer."

And it's that dedication to perfection that makes the customers keep rolling in. With cuppings every Friday and a comfortable vibe to work and relax in, the line of customers was a steady stream. (Hey, even the pups outside were happy.) That didn't stop Aaron Ultimo and the three baristas behind the bar from joking with customers ("we love us some LL Cool J"), explaining the new roast on the board (from Heart Roasters in Portland, Ore.; Ultimo Coffee Bar has a guest roast each month), and sharing their tips and tricks of the pour-over. "We want to keep our door open to everyone," Ultimo says. "Whether you know your coffee or not, we just want to give everyone a good experience." The experience is just a bonus point on top of well-made coffee.

Click ahead to check out the scene at Ultimo Coffee Bar: it may be time to plan a trip to Philly.

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