Few consumable substances have had as much of an impact on human culture as caffeine. Caffeine is regarded as the nation’s most popular drug, with 90 percent of the American population consuming some form of it daily. It has spawned an entire coffee shop culture, especially among college students looking for a calm spot to sit back, study and sip a cup of joe.
With that in mind, welcome to the first edition of “The Caffeine Chronicles,” where I scope out the best local places to get your coffee and tea fixes.
When it came to selecting the first coffee shop to feature, The Ugly Mug Cafe and Roastery seemed like a natural pick. Located on West Cross Street in a former Greyhound bus station turned cafe—some might remember the building as the Mudhouse before The Ugly Mug opened in its place—the quaint coffeehouse is just a short walk or bike ride from Eastern Michigan University’s campus.
Coffee shops are a dime a dozen in the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area, but since its start in September 2004, The Ugly Mug has secured its spot as an Ypsilanti landmark.
I spoke to Eric Mullins, The Mug’s general manager, to learn just what makes this local business so special, and he said what sets The Ugly Mug apart from its swarm of competitors is its direct hand in the creation of the coffee itself.
“After about a year or so, The Ugly Mug decided to buy a coffee roaster and started roasting everything in house so they could increase quality and really get control over where the coffee’s coming from,” Mullins said,
The end result is a cup of coffee that tastes slightly rawer and grainier—“earthier,” if you will, than most other coffee shops. Even the iced coffees don’t seem nearly as watery or flavorless as the ones you’re probably used to. Order a hot latte and the baristas will work their coffee alchemy to create little fluffy hearts or leaves in the froth of your drink.
Like most coffee shops, you’ll be offered a variety of flavors, as well as a lengthy list of “frou-frou” coffee drinks like lattes and macchiatos with tasty names such as the Milky Way (mocha and caramel—think of the candy bar) and the Mexican Latte (a spicy twist on the traditional latte).
Another unique aspect of the coffee shop is the eclectic, eccentric décor. Look behind you, and Jesus is watching you order your coffee. A Buddha protects the refrigerator. Sean Connery stares you down from a poster slapped on one of the coolers.
“There are all sorts of things that have just accumulated over time,” Mullins said. “It’s a reflection of people who come in here every day.”
Almost all of the decorations that add to The Ugly Mug’s already-quirky vibe were donations from the people who have passed through the coffee shop throughout the years. Lined along the window are the “retired” mugs that are no longer useable, but salvaged by the people who work at The Mug.
“They’ve either been broken, cracked or we can’t serve out of them anymore,” Mullins said. “But they’re still really beautiful. Think about all the hundreds of thousands of people that have probably drank out of them at some point in time. They carry a lot of character with them.”
That being said, The Ugly Mug’s greatest strength could also be viewed as a weakness. To people new to the town, the entire coffee shop could be seen as an inside joke that they will never, ever, ever understand. What’s with the cash register hanging from the wall? What stories lie behind the names of the drinks and menu items? And why is Sean Connery still staring at me?
But sometimes, you just don’t need to know all of the answers. Drop by often enough, and pretty soon the baristas will know by heart what your favorite drink is. You’ll begin to see familiar faces here and there, and The Ugly Mug could easily become a second home to even the most casual of coffee fanatics.
One thing is for certain—you won’t be alone.
“In this town, I really don’t know of too many other places where you get that ‘community vibe’ as strongly as you do here,” Mullins said. “We love being a part of the community in Ypsilanti.”
Jess’ recommended drink: Iced latte with coconut and almond flavor.
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