After the success of once-scrappy roasters, such as California’s Blue Bottle and Portland’s Stumptown, a new generation of small shops is reshaping America’s coffee obsession
Originally published WSJ Magazine
written by OLIVER STRAND May 22, 2015 10:08 a.m. ET
photo: Allan Gastelum
ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, a handful of small-time roasters set out to revolutionize their industry by approaching a cup of coffee with a chef’s reverence for ingredients and a bartender’s flair for presentation. They pioneered a direct-trade system, sourcing beans straight from farms around the world. Thanks to their efforts, America fell in love with flavorful, fragrant single-origin coffees and expertly crafted cappuccinos made with milk so creamy and sweet that sugar became unnecessary.
Those once-scrappy roasters—Blue Bottle, Counter Culture, Intelligentsia and Stumptown—have now grown from regional companies with cult followings to national players with global profiles.
In 2014, Google Ventures, Morgan Stanley and other investors raised $26 million for Blue Bottle.
When the company opened in Tokyo earlier this year, there was a three-hour, Apple Store–like wait to get in the door. Stumptown, meanwhile, is now sold at the Moda Center, home of the Portland Trail Blazers.
In Miami—a place not especially known for its coffee geekery—hipsters line up at Panther Coffee, founded in 2010 by Leticia and Joel Pollock (a Stumptown alum), for a taste of beans sourced from Finca Kilimanjaro, an experimental farm in El Salvador run by Aida Batlle, a fifth-generation farmer acclaimed for her ecologically aware practices.
Kathleen Pratt, co-founder of Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, started as a barista at Blue Bottle in San Francisco and eventually opened the company’s large roasting facility and coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In 2012, Pratt and her husband, Will (who had been a Blue Bottle roaster), decamped to Maine; they launched Tandem five months later in the former office of a scrap-metal yard. “We wanted it to feel like you’re walking into our home,” says Pratt, who learned at Blue Bottle “how important it is to create an overall experience.” In addition to beans sourced from Rutsiro, Rwanda, Nyeri, Kenya, and Caldono, Colombia, Tandem offers free tasting sessions each Friday to demystify its coffees’ flavors and scents and allow customers to watch the roasting process.
Last year, the Pratts opened a second shop in a converted mid-century gas station, adding a bakery. Now Tandem sells about 900 pounds of coffee per week. A return to intimate spaces and individualized attention is a distinguishing feature of coffee’s newest all-stars.
In Williamsburg, Dillon Edwards—formerly of Blue Bottle and Stumptown—opened Parlor Coffee in 2012 in the back of a barbershop. It was one of the tiniest coffee bars in the city at the time, just a single barista behind a Speedster espresso machine, and its quaint atmosphere stood in stark contrast to the jam-packed rush-hour scenes at the city’s Stumptown and Blue Bottle outposts.
Last year, Edwards became a fully operational roaster, and Parlor is now selling beans to larger destinations like Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel and Greenpoint’s Propeller cafe. One factor driving the proliferation of independent cafes and roasters is that it’s never been easier to source obscure, overlooked coffees. The supply chains that established coffee importers spent years creating—and, in many cases, jealously guarding—are now accessible to small buyers with good taste. And a group of influential wholesale roasters is supplying high-end beans to neighborhood cafes (and even selling directly to customers online).
At various coffee shops in Portage County, Wisconsin, you can now find beans hailing from Gitesi—a well-respected washing station in Rwanda, where the coffee seed is removed from its skin and dried—by way of Ruby Coffee Roasters, a local outfit started by former Intelligentsia roaster Jared Linzmeier.
But the past year’s most anticipated opening was Supersonic Coffee in Berkeley, California. The first roasting company in the U.S. to buy from Nordic Approach, a renowned Norway-based importer that sources only high-quality “green” coffees, Supersonic will light-roast in the so-called Scandinavian style used by groundbreaking roasters in Northern Europe. “We wanted to look five years ahead,” says John Laird, one of Supersonic’s founders, “and do something that would feel fresh down the line.”
PANTHER COFFEE Panther has two locations in Miami: an airy shop in Wynwood (2390 NW 2nd Ave.) and one in a converted garage in Sunset Harbour (1875 Purdy Ave.), which feels more like a local bar.
PARLOR COFFEE The coffee bar in the back of Brooklyn barbershop Persons of Interest (84 Havemeyer St.) is one of the most stylish in the city; the roastery and tasting room are open to the public on Sundays. parlorcoffee.com
SUPERSONIC COFFEE Supersonic will soon open a shop adjacent to its roasting facility in Berkeley, California (2322 Fifth St.); until then, they’re serving out of a 1965 Airstream trailer in the parking lot.
TANDEM COFFEE The Portland, Maine–based company has a tiny coffee bar at its roasting facility (122 Anderson St.) and a new bakery (742 Congress St.) in a 1960s gas station in West End. tandemcoffee.com