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Caffeine on the concourse: TPG flew across the US to find the best airport coffee

August 18 2022
11 min read
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There are a couple of things that help early morning flyers enjoy a smoother airport experience: a carry-on bag and, most importantly, a cup of coffee.

But unfortunately, the idea of "airport coffee" seems to universally elicit an image of watery, weak, bitter coffee served in a plastic foam cup.

As a traveler and coffee drinker, I recently became curious about the dearth of good airport coffee. Are there any worthy airport coffee shops out there? And if so, where are they?

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It was time to whip out my investigative journalist hat — and my suitcase. I spent the summer researching airport coffee: I combed through airport maps, spoke with airport concessions insiders and crowdsourced airport coffee tips from TPG readers. Of course, impassioned debate ensued with TPG writers and editors who know the ins and outs of U.S. airport terminals (and their coffee deserts and hot spots).

After all this, two airports shined above all the rest — no other airports even came close. So, instead of making the classic intern coffee run across the street, I jetted across the country: I visited Nashville International Airport (BNA) and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to taste-test the top contenders for my coffee contest.

Fellow caffeine-loving travelers, read on to learn more about where you can find the best airport coffee in the nation.

(Photo by Ezra Bailey/Getty Images)

Airport coffee 101

When you walk into a major airport, you're likely to see a few Starbucks and Dunkin' shops. You might encounter Peet's Coffee, Caribou Coffee, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or other big brand names.

If you're really in a coffee desert, you can usually pop into Hudson News and grab a canned or bottled cold brew (often Starbucks) from the fridge. But even the classic chain coffee brands aren't exactly "Old Reliable" in the airport. Oftentimes, the coffee tastes a little more bland and watery than their out-of-airport counterparts, offering significantly less bang — or bean — for your buck.

An early morning line for Dunkin' at John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 4 may be longer than your average security line! (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

To gain some insight into the partnerships between airports, national brands and local businesses, I spoke with Tyler Pitman, the vice president of portfolio development and brand partnerships at HMSHost of North America. The company recently cut its exclusive partnership with Starbucks in order to feature more local businesses.

"The airport is the gateway to the community," Pitman said. "It’s the first thing people see when they arrive [and] it’s the last thing people see when they leave."

Related: 10 airport restaurants so good you won’t want to leave the terminal

If a passenger was blindfolded on a flight and had no idea where they were going, Pitman says that they should be able to look around the airport and know exactly where they are. He added that airports should represent the "culinary fabric" of that destination — which includes, of course, coffee.

In Florida, you can grab local Cuban coffee at Miami International Airport (MIA), and at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY), you can get a cup of coffee fresh from the French Quarter. Coffee can boost your energy, yes, but it also creates a sense of community. Big chain brands can't achieve this in the same way.

While some major airports — like Nashville International Airport (BNA) and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) — offer myriad local coffee options, most other airports fall short. In my research for this project, I searched through terminal maps of the 100 busiest airports in the country. I found that most didn't have local coffee shops, or one at best.

TPG's favorite airport coffee shops

As a disclaimer, I'm not a coffee connoisseur — still, I know the difference between a watery Dunkin' drink and a robust house-roasted coffee. And while I had a one-off experience at each of these shops, many of them were vetted or recommended by TPG staffers who have visited more than once.

Nashville International Airport (BNA)

In BNA, I walked past my gate twice because I was so infatuated with the airport. Due to the presence of so many local businesses, a walk through BNA truly feels like a stroll down Broadway. There's even a honky-tonk restaurant with live music.

8th and Roast

8th and Roast in BNA won the coffee contest. (Photo by Halle Newman/The Points Guy)

8th and Roast takes the prize for the best airport coffee I tried. My cappuccino was velvety smooth and had a richness I'd associate with chic Soho cafes or Parisian boulangeries. The pillow of foam on top was like sipping on a cloud. My iced latte (yes, I got two drinks) was creamy, despite all the ice cubes. And the coffee was strong — a couple of sips was all it took to kick me into high gear. The coffee is also fair trade.

(Photo by Halle Newman/The Points Guy)

Where: Concourse D.

Take note: Even in the middle of a busy airport, 8th and Roast has a neighborhood coffee shop feel. The baby-blue decor and friendly vibe combined with the aroma of ground coffee are enough to coax any traveler inside. The line was 10 minutes long, but it was worth the wait.

Related: 8 underrated amenities all airports should offer

Bongo Java

(Photo by Halle Newman/The Points Guy)

If you like funky, sweet flavors, Bongo Java is the place for you. In addition to regular flavors, you can get lavender, hazelnut and matcha lattes — or even a latte with local honey and cinnamon. There are also tons of pastries and snacks to choose from, many of which are gluten-free and vegan-friendly.

Where: Concourse C.

Take note: Bongo Java is Nashville's oldest coffeehouse and has gotten a lot of press over the years.

Related: Do airport restaurants code as travel or dining purchases?

Barista Parlor

I ordered the barista's recommendation — a pour-over — along with a classic iced latte at the nautically themed Barista Parlor. Both coffees had a rich taste, much fuller and more satisfying than any Starbucks coffee could manage. It almost beat 8th and Roast.

I couldn't resist the lure of the flakey chocolate croissant in the case — I mean, just look at it.

Where: Concourse C.

Take note: Barista Parlor partners with Frothy Monkey, a local Nashville bakery, to sell delicious pastries. And Barista Parlor toasts your croissant for you.

Related: Getting your Starbucks fix before your next flight is getting ‘a latte’ more difficult

Kijiji Coffee

(Photo by Halle Newman/The Points Guy)

Similar to Bongo Java, Kijiji Coffee offers coffee on the sweeter side. My coconut milk mocha was creamy and flavorful. Several of Kijiji's specialty drinks feature coconut milk or flavoring. Although the coffee here tasted a bit weaker than the coffee at other BNA outlets, it's still a great option for an on-the-go drink. A second airport location will open soon in Concourse B.

Where: Concourse A.

Take note: Kijiji Coffee is the oldest African American-owned coffee shop in Nashville.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

Seattle's airport also partners with local businesses to offer a variety of local storefronts across the airport. And since there's only one security checkpoint for the whole airport, travelers can explore pretty much anywhere they want to, making it easy to hob between terminals. The airport itself is a destination; in fact, SEA offers day passes for non-flyers to explore the airport.

Related: Seattle-Tacoma Airport 101: The ultimate guide to SEA

All the coffee shops I visited in SEA had seating areas that resembled regular cafes; you can have your pastry and eat it, too.

Floret

This was by far the cutest cafe I visited, with neon signs, plants and a relaxing dining area that made me forget I was in an airport. Floret actually serves coffee beans roasted by Stumptown, a Portland, Oregon-based roaster. (If you go to Portland International Airport, you're sure to find Stumptown coffee.) I had to go with Floret's floral theme, so I tried the lavender fields latte — while it provided a caffeine boost, the coffee didn't taste quite as fresh as at the other cafes I'd tried. But it was still far above most insipid airport coffee choices, and its cute aesthetic compensated for the slight bitterness.

Where: Concourse A.

Take note: If you want to sit in the adorable cafe, you can't just grab and go; it's only for table service. If you've got a long layover, lunch at Floret could be a silver lining.

Caffe Vita

(Photo by Halle Newman/The Points Guy)

My iced latte was superbly creamy, which is rare when oat milk is your milk of choice. (Dairy-free, woot woot.) The coffee tasted fresh and was strong enough to deliver an energy boost just a couple of sips in. I went to another Caffe Vita location (outside the airport) and can confirm that the airport coffee is just as good.

Where: Central Terminal in Beecher's Cafe.

Take note: While Caffe Vita is based in Seattle, it has a few locations in New York City and Portland — and one location in Phoenix.

Related: TPG readers share their favorite airport restaurants

Caffe D'arte

(Photo by Halle Newman/The Points Guy)

I committed a cardinal sin at Caffe D'arte: I ordered decaf. I was so over-caffeinated that I gave in, hoping that decaf would be a worthy deviation from the experiment. Much to my chagrin, my decaf coffee tasted like mud. I went back and got an iced latte, which was delicious. I can't give Caffe D'arte five stars, though, because of the decaf debacle. I will say, though, that it was one of the best coffee shops that I visited.

Where: Concourse A.

Take note: Don't order decaf.

Related: Best airports for kids during layovers in the US

Dilettante Mocha Cafe

Chocolate lovers, listen up. Dilettante Mocha Cafe specializes in all things mocha: frappes, hot chocolates, Turkish coffee ... you name it. You place your order and then customize your drink according to how chocolatey you want it to be; I opted for a higher number on the sweetness scale. My mocha latte tasted just like hot chocolate, which was a welcome treat in the chilly air-conditioned terminal.

Where: Central Terminal.

Take note: There are tons of indulgent treats in the display case, and most of them are — you guessed it — chocolate flavored.

Caffe Ladro

While my latte from Caffe Ladro tasted fresh, it was quite sweet! The only nondairy alternative on offer was almond milk, and it tasted sweetened. If you like your coffee on the sweeter side, you'll love Caffe Ladro. There were plenty of pastries and snacks to choose from as well.

Where: Concourse A in the Capitol Hill Food Hall.

Take note: Caffe Ladro operates in 16 different Seattle neighborhoods, one of which is Capitol Hill.

Runners-up

While the coffee shops listed in this airport-by-airport guide didn't make the top 10 (I couldn't travel to every airport), they are still highly rated options (by TPG staffers and readers).

Related: Could this coffee shop seat design make business travel more productive?

Bottom line

If you want a wide variety of delicious airport coffee, plan your next layover at Nashville International Airport or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

While the 15 cups of coffee I drank between both airports made me pretty shaky, many of the drinks exceeded my expectations for coffee on the fly. It also felt good to support local businesses while traveling — and to receive an authentic taste of Nashville and Seattle in return.

If you want to keep the coffee conversation going, you can always post on the TPG Lounge Facebook group and spread the word about other unique airport coffee shops.

Image featured in graphic by Yuliya Ufimtseva/Getty Images.

Featured photo by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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