Imagine a non-Tim Hortons, anti-Bob Evans, un-Dunkin’ Donuts sort of dark coffee cave, and you’ll be on the right track toward Ypsilanti’s Ugly Mug Cafe and Roastery. Dozens of little spotlights and lamps with funky shades mellow the cement-floored interior of the odd little building that used to be a bus terminal. Long shelves of books (comic and other) and a brushed-metal checkout counter stand out in the eclectic decor. A gleaming giant espresso machine shines like an altar up front–and let’s not even get started on sacrilegious statuary groupings sprinkled throughout the place.
Holding forth (froth?) since 2004 on Cross Street near Eastern Michigan’s campus, Ugly Mug is a one-off enterprise rich in terroir, the flavor of its time and place. My husband challenged me to write this review without using the word “hipster,” and I’m caving in the second paragraph–but not without qualification. Several visits and frightening amounts of caffeine consumption leave me pondering the best and worst of youth culture and counterculture, authenticity and pretension, brand and anti-brand.
Ugly Mug roasts its own beans in small batches sourced from exotic-sounding regions. You can order your drink from the three or so roasts of the day pretty much any way you want, from single-origin drip or high-octane press styles to espresso to super-creamy cappuccino or latte creations courtesy of Calder’s Dairy. Whole milk is the default choice, and while your barista will substitute skim if you wish, the intensity of the coffee here seems to call for the richer variety. While whole milk morphs to almost sinful caramel flavors, skim brings out some bitterness, IMHO. You may have a different experience: literally, not figuratively, because there’s no single corporate formula at Ugly Mug in how the beans are mixed, roasted, packaged, or prepared. There’s not much corporate anything–I saw at least five different renditions of the logo on signs and labels, and that’s just the ones that weren’t handwritten.
For people so serious about coffee, Mugsters I talked to had a generosity of spirit. Sidle up if you can to Miro (first-name currency preferred here), the intense but friendly chief roaster who hovers around his gear in the back of the shop, and he’ll probably welcome an exchange on the fruit tones and aggression level you perceive in his latest batch of Brazilian Serra Negra, or the brightness and aroma of the organic Mexican Altura. At the Mug, people talk about coffee as others elsewhere do about wine. The cafe culture extends to hosting readings, performances, and art shows–and tasting seminars complete with fearsome checklist grids.
Oh yeah, there’s some food: bagel sandwiches mostly. Many are described as “killer,” but that must be ironic, since they’re all relatively mundane. The patty-shaped cooked egg wasn’t very appealing in the breakfast bagel, but otherwise ingredients were fresh, as were the Bagel Time bagels themselves.
The sandwiches seem to serve primarily as fuel to keep folks going. Pastries, on the other hand, are eye-catchingly displayed up front–and tempting. Most are baked locally (exceptions being croissants and muffins from Sam’s Club, if you can believe it). I like that a buck will get you a cute mini-scone from Just Delicious out of suburban Detroit (big scones always bore me before they’re done). I really liked the chocolate chunk cookie baked by a small enterprise in Ann Arbor called Tasty Footprints. It boasted all-natural ingredients and just the right occasional hit of salt to help the chocolate pop. Perhaps that’s why it worked so well paired with the Mug’s Mexican Latte, which likewise boasted little full-flavor kernels of nutmeg and chocolate.
Vegan and gluten-free treats are available, as are juices and local cider in the cooler. Tea drinkers will find options, and there’s decaf espresso. When I ordered a decaf cap late one afternoon, the barista topped it with an intricately executed, mahogany-ivory tulip design in foamed milk. No shortcuts or disapproval when the order’s a decaf; it looked and tasted heavenly. They may be award-winning baristas and artisan roasters at Ugly Mug, but in my experience they were not disparaging of lesser coffee geekdom, nor of the homeless-looking man who came in before me one day.
If you prefer to try the coffee with no trek over Washtenaw’s miracle-mile wasteland, Ugly Mug’s beans are sold in select Ann Arbor locations, like the People’s Food Coop, and they’re the only option available for espresso drinks at Babo, which opened in December at Washington and Division (see Marketplace Changes, p. 41). The beans seem to travel well: I brought home a bag, and they brewed up with flavor and richness that made me want to toss the stuff from my pantry.
You’ll have to make a pilgrimage to the source, though, to see the beans being roasted, smell the divine aroma, and experience firsthand the Ugly Mug’s singular focus. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on what many not-so-average-Joe lovers consider ground zero locally for coffee connoisseurship. And you won’t get to read walls full of some of the wildest stickers amassable in a mere seven years. “Eat More Kale” and “Keep Ypsi Weird” are two that can be reprinted in an all-ages publication. Make the trek for the rest of the story.
Ugly Mug Cafe and Roastery
317 W. Cross, Ypsilanti
Mon.-Fri. 6 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. & Sun. 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Coffee and beverages $2-$5.25, bagels and sandwiches $3-$7.50, cookies and pastries $1-$5.