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Taste test: Does Flying Machine Coffee live up to the hype?

For a café that has been open for only two weeks, downtown Urbana’s Flying Machine Coffee already has a remarkably solid reputation. I’d noticed the great press the café was getting even before it opened. This certainly indicates Urbana’s excitement about bringing a groovy new café to the downtown area at long last, but the abundant good press has nonetheless generated some high hopes for what is to come. And so it was with the highest of hopes that Food & Drink Editor Jessica Hammie and I recently visited Flying Machine. Our mission? To see the sights and taste the tastes, and to see what all the buzz was about.

Founder Josh Lucas, looking confident if a little harried, greeted us upon arrival. Lucas, a culinary school dropout who hails from Homer, Illinois, got his start with coffee in Chicago, when he became involved with Star Lounge Coffee, his friends’ café-roastery. Lucas is not necessarily a true-blue coffee fiend, but he liked how Star Lounge functioned as a community space. After burning out on life in Chicago, he was motivated to recreate that community space, this time with a less pretentious, small-town vibe. Two weeks ago Flying Machine opened its doors to the public in downtown Urbana, after a successful Indiegogo campaign headed by Lucas. He is still putting the finishing touches on the space, including constructing tables and chairs out of repurposed doors. A man of understatement, Lucas describes the learning curve that comes with opening your own café as “steep,” but seems pleased so far with how business has taken off.

Over the course of an hour, Lucas served up a generous and varied selection of coffees from Flying Machine’s well-edited collection. I was delighted to see a coffee flight on the menu: four-ounce pour-over cups of four different coffees, ranging from light and fruity to dark and rich. Oh yeah, and there’s a tiny snack pairing with each one! Jess and I were game.

Up first was the Ethiopian Kochere, featuring notes of red vine candy, vanilla, and lemon, and paired with little strips of fruit leather. “Fruity!” remarked Jess and I in unison. Fruity it was, and so light it almost felt like we were sipping tea. This is one I could see myself drinking without my usual glug of half-n-half.

Our second tasting was the Sumatra Wahana Estate, from Columbia Street’s higher-end “Black Label” collection. Sumatra, by the way, is an island in Indonesia. Describing it as “plum, cinnamon, earthy,” Lucas mentioned that some of his friends think it tastes a bit like cannabis. I did detect a more grassy acidity than the Kochere, so I suppose calling it “weed-like” might not be totally inaccurate. We had it with banana chips, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Up next was the Kenya Kieni AB, a refined coffee. Characterized as “floral, molasses, blackberry,” and paired with pecans, the molasses took center stage and added a depth that Jess and I hadn’t seen in the previous two. This is a darker roast, and might be better for a press, though you might lose the blackberry-floral notes. Jess offered that this was the “most sophisticated” of the three that we’d had. I envisioned myself sipping it in a cashmere turtleneck near a roaring fire on a gray afternoon. If that sounds like a desirable scenario, this coffee is for you.

The flight finished strong—literally—with the El Salvador Santa Petrona, the most popular so far according to Lucas. This is a lavish coffee that won’t make you think. Featuring flavors of strawberry, vanilla, and milk chocolate, and served with a delicious hunk of toffee, it was hard to find anything even remotely unpleasant about the Santa Petrona. The most prominent flavor was vanilla, which probably explains its popularity. If you’re a coffee hedonist (and really, who isn’t?), definitely give this one a shot.

Everyone should try the rosemary mocha, featuring espresso beans from Dark Matter (Unicorn Blood blend). Lucas calls it a blatant rip-off of a drink on the menu at his old café in Chicago; true or not, it’s delicious. I was anticipating an unsavory tree taste, but what I got was a light, chocolate-y, milky thing with a slight herbal bent. It was strange, yet delightful. Looking for other crazy drinks on the menu? Well, you won’t find them. Lucas is a proud minimalist and eschews the many-flavored syrups and accoutrement available to patrons of more mainstream chain coffee shops (#PSL). “People have too many choices,” he says. You can still get a little crazy, though—I noticed bottles of vanilla and hazelnut syrup lying around. Lucas also conceded that he’d probably do “something with peppermint” around the holidays.

If coffee isn’t really your thing, Jess and I recommend the “Orange and Red,” an iced drink of orange juice, cinnamon, and hibiscus tea. Think light, refreshing, fruity, and not overly sweet. It’s great.

So, does Flying Machine live up to the hype? Most definitely. I was already back two days after the tasting for a kick-ass iced coffee, and ran into a friend. People are starting to see for themselves how awesome this place actually is. And with coffee like this, who even needs good press?

Flying Machine Coffee is located at 208 W. Main Street, Urbana, at Cafeteria & Company, a space they share with Pizza M. FM Coffee is open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

All photos courtesy of Jessica Hammie. 


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