Snake Oil: What Fueled Us On Our Journey

Hey there, folks! Welcome to Part 4 of this Road Trip Series! I really do hope you’re enjoying it and picking up some inspiration. Barrett’s journey through the rural parts of the US would make anyone want to take a trip through the States! For all the coffee lovers out there (me included), I’m sure you’re gonna love these recommendations and insight into places to get good quality caffeine for when you travel through America! ~ David   

Any time my partner and I travel, we do research on where to stay, what to do, and sometimes we even plan out where we want to eat ahead of time.   But my job specifically is to hunt down the coffee.   Okay, it’s a job that is self-imposed. My partner doesn’t even really drink coffee himself. But it is my duty (even if only for myself) to find the best coffee in any city. I like to think I did a pretty nice job this time around between Montana and Arizona, but I’m sure I missed a few along the way. This just means I’ll have to go back some time!   Let me start off by discussing what coffee I will be covering and what I won’t be covering:

  • Hotel coffee? Nah. I won’t get into hotel coffee. Two reasons for that: I want to highlight the coffee shops I stopped at, the local roasters. Also, there was literally only one hotel with good coffee and that was the Super 8 in Kalispell. Literally every other hotel we stayed at had terrible coffee in the room, or none at all. So, props to the Kalispell Super 8, I guess!
  • Coffee purchased inside a national park at a cafeteria or gift shop? Nah, with one exception. I’m not covering park coffee that I tried because most of that coffee was like Aramark-type coffee that came from some large supplier and again, my intention here is to cover the local shops I tried. The one exception to this is Montana Coffee Traders below, which I tried at a souvenir shop at Glacier National.
  • Small shops, local shops, and coffee stands? Yes. All the yes.

  Day two in Montana, we drove from Kalispell to Polebridge for breakfast. Polebridge, if you recall, is known for this terrific little shop Polebridge Mercantile where one can try their famous huckleberry bear claws, among other things. While we picked up breakfast at the mercantile, I stepped over to try their coffee – this was a big deal for me: first coffee purchase of the trip!

Unsurprisingly, the coffee was well-balanced and fresh. Being that the “merc” is a shop known for their breakfast pastries and tourist activity suggests to me that the coffee is given proper attention when brewed. The merc uses a custom roasted Polebridge blend of coffee and offers a few different blends to choose from. I went with the classic, personally (as I tend to do).   Polebridge Mercantile, Polebridge, Montana: ★★★★★ (5/5)     The following day while exploring the shops at Glacier National, I stopped into a little coffee stand inside one of the souvenir shops. They sold Montana Coffee Traders coffee, which I’m sure is normally very good!   This day however, I can only imagine that things were a little off because I was purchasing coffee at a stand within a souvenir shop. As this was not “a coffee shop,” I’m sure the baristas, who were very kind and doing their best, are likely not as trained in coffee as folks who work in coffee shops regularly for a living. Side note: My partner wanted a ginger tea with honey and they didn’t carry honey. Not that they were out, they just fully don’t carry it. That was a little weird.   The coffee itself was a little unbalanced, which could have been because of an improper grind for the type of coffee maker they use, or it could have been a little old. As someone who drinks his coffee black, I could tell that with some adjustment the flavor could really be there. I can’t necessarily hold MCT accountable for this one, I just think the kiddos at the counter aren’t experienced baristas, and that’s okay. All in all, it did still wake me up and get me through the day. And it didn’t taste bad, either!   Montana Coffee Traders, Glacier National Park: ★★★ (3/5)     We soon got our first taste of the Mountain West’s apparent favorite setup for coffee shops: Drive-through coffee stands. These are everywhere up in the Mountain West. I’ve never seen these before, or at least not with such frequency. In this area however, these coffee stands are on basically every other corner. And practically all coffee shops are drive-through coffee stands. Not all of them of course – there are plenty of brick-and-mortar coffee shops up in the Mountain west, don’t get me wrong – but like… most of them are these cute little drive-through stands.

On our way out of Kalispell, we drove through Copper Mountain Coffee. This was some decent bean juice! Even my partner got in on it, though of course he ordered something sugary and sweet with like one shot of espresso in it (but that’s okay, we love him anyway). I ventured away from black coffee as I rarely do to order a latte – something to let me taste the espresso. What I should have done was order a shot by itself so I could really taste it, but a latte sufficed. Even diluted with oat milk, the doubleshot was pretty good!   Copper Mountain Coffee, Kalispell, Montana: ★★★★ (4/5)     On our way to Yellowstone, we needed a refuel. No, not the car – us. We stopped in Bozeman, Montana where we saw a little shop in the downtown area called Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot (stylized as Wild Joe*s). There are many conceptions of what Montana may or may not be like (conservative, white, small-town, etc), but Wild Joe’s just plain warmed my heart by defying all of those ideals which, while not expectations, were preconceived notions.

Posted on the door when you enter is a sign that unequivocally proclaims that all people are welcome in that shop. Inside, as this was before the United States presidential election, there was a voter registration booth. The staff was plenty friendly and COVID-19 precautions were in place all around the shop.   Wild Joe’s was serving their own Chocolate Lab blend that day, a smooth medium roast blend with notes of citrus and chocolate. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and Wild Joe’s quickly became my favorite coffee stop so far.   Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot, Bozeman, Montana: ★★★★★ (5/5)     During our stay at Yellowstone, we spent the night at Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone, Montana. While the attached restaurant was not a coffee shop, I do want to include it here as the coffee they served with breakfast was exceptional. Not the perfect cup if I’m being completely transparent, but worth it to say that they definitely serve coffee above par, compared to other restaurants and cafes that don’t specialize in coffee. At a gift shop in West Yellowstone, I picked up a 4-oz. can of Huckleberry Haven huckleberry flavored coffee grounds. Huckleberry Haven roasts their coffee up closer to Glacier National, actually, but I came across this can of their coffee in this gift shop outside of Yellowstone. It came in a little aluminum can and held two pots of coffee* inside.   *By two pots of coffee, I mean that my coffee pot at home is small and makes about 2.5 mugs of coffee per pot. There were enough grounds in the can to make two pots, roughly 5 mugs of coffee. The amount of coffee you get out of a can like this may vary depending on your pot and consumption.   I didn’t actually try the huckleberry coffee grounds until I returned home, but I’ll throw them in here because this is when I bought them. I don’t usually go for flavored coffee, as coffee beans themselves are plenty rich with flavor on their own. But being that I was in Montana, which is in love with huckleberry, I thought I would give it a try. Much to my surprise, these grounds were actually very tasty! A little novelty and probably not something I’d drink on the daily, but quite good. The balance of coffee and huckleberry flavors was just about perfect; neither was overpowering.   Three Bear Restaurant, West Yellowstone, Montana: ★★★★ (4/5) Huckleberry Haven: ★★★★ (4/5)     By the time we got to Moab, Utah, we were ready for more local coffee. Because we passed through Dinosaur National and Horseshoe Bend so quickly (all in one day!), we didn’t have time for coffee in those areas. I don’t think we even tried “park coffee” there!   Moab was home to a lot of goodies, though. I’m sure you saw in the blog about the cities we stayed in, that Moab was unique in its opportunities as far as food and experiences go. It was in Moab that I tried Snake Oil Coffee Co., which was another one of those drive-through coffee stands. This was a really neat shop, and definitely another one of my favorites.   To sign the check, they pass you a medical quackery book with the receipt inside, which I thought was a cute touch considering the theme and name of the shop. The shop itself, by the way, also appears to look like some kind of traveling medical snake oil salesman’s carriage (minus wheels), which I’m sure was easy to accomplish with the whole shop being but a small stand off the side of the road.  

I broke from my typical black coffee order once again, but for good reason. Considering the theme of the shop, I had to try the Vin Mariani, a blend of espresso, chocolate and hazelnut. My partner tried the Golden Specific Elixir, a mix of organic turmeric, ceylon cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, honey, and espresso. Both drinks came with a “snake egg” on top of the cup (a malted milk ball candy colored like a snake’s egg).   Snake Oil Coffee Co., Moab, Utah: ★★★★★ (5/5)     The last local shop we hit up was in Flagstaff while we stayed there for our Grand Canyon leg of the journey. It was a strong finish, too: Stronghold Coffee Company impressed us so much that we tried to go back the second day, but they were closed (which was a bummer because I was going to buy a shirt). Stronghold, which recently rebranded from their old name, Single Speed Cafe (as you’ll notice in their URL), offered an excellent walk-up coffee experience for serving folks in the age of COVID-19.   The coffee I had during my visit (Medium Harvest Blend) was an excellent blend of Ethiopian and Columbian coffees, which is terrific because I generally love Ethiopian coffee, which balanced the typically stronger Columbian flavor notes so well. I also consider Costa Rican coffees among my favorites, which they also carry, but were out of that day.   Like I said, I wanted to cop a baseball tee with this sweet portafilter/desert design on the back, but they were unfortunately closed the following morning.   Stronghold Coffee Company, Flagstaff, Arizona: ★★★★★ (5/5)     Looking back, I do wish I had stopped for more coffee along the way, but even with that in mind, I don’t regret any of the stops we did make. This is how I travel. I’m not a souvenir person, I’m an experience and food person. I want the local flavor, something that I can’t get back at home, and, preferably, something I can’t get outside of wherever I am. Part of this means trying the local coffee.   Here in Houston, I’m a regular at Blacksmith, Antidote, Black Hole, and Slowpokes. When I travel to New York City, I have my favorite spots like Irving Farm, Third Rail, Devoción, Felix Roasting, etc. Now, I think it’s time that I add some of these Mountain West and desert state coffee shops to my list of best in the nation.    

Barrett White is a journalist based in Houston. He runs The Common Grounds Collective blog, which he updates when he feels like it. His byline has appeared in the Houston Press, OutSmart Magazine, and Spectrum South – to name a few.​   He has lived the life of a starving writer in a 1930s downtown studio, enjoyed crepes on the banks of the Seine, camped in his Ford Focus while traversing the United States, and almost learned rudimentary algebra in college.   He’s exceptionally talented at navigating public transit and lives for the noise and the bustle of the city. ​His love of adventure and breadth of experience informs and directs his style.   Barrett is a proud Associate Member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @ebearw.

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