Kentucky Coffee Scene Wakes Up

By | April 05, 2017
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Facts are stubborn: Coffee isn’t grown in Kentucky and probably won’t ever be. And yet over the past decade our local coffee community has assumed a distinctly local personality.

“You trust Kentucky to make your whiskey,” says Michael Butterworth, director of coffee education for Quills Coffee. “Let us roast your coffee too.”

Tantalizing scents of roasting beans from Red Hot Roasters on the corner of Lexington and Payne seemed like an anomaly until relatively recently. Today, that remarkable aroma is much more commonplace. Red Hot roaster co-founder Sondra Powell explains that she began roasting in 2006 with the idea that she would be strictly a wholesale roaster. Today she operates her drive through coffee shop in a larger, more prominent location across the street from the original and is scheduled to open another shop in an 1890’s house in Butcherblock in late summer 2017. “Red Hot Roasters is our caffeinated love letter we write every day to the city of Louisville. We have always been part of Irish Hill. We plan to be a part of Butchertown as well, starting with Cured and Crafted at Copper and Kings.”

By our count there are no fewer than nine commercial roasting operations in Louisville and the Bluegrass, many of which, (including Red Hot Roasters) offer products in attractive, high-quality packaging at prominent national grocers.

Local roasters also supply local restaurants and hotels. Lexington’s A Cup of Common Wealth roasts and markets to Lock Box and the 21c Hotel. Perhaps one mark of a strong local food economy is the number and quality of local coffee roasters contributing to the local food ecosystem.

A mission of Good Folks Coffee is to educate coffee drinkers and purchasers during “cupping” sessions held every Friday morning. For those of us new to cupping, the noisy practice of loudly slurping room-temperature coffee seems decidedly exotic. Under the tutelage of the good shepherds at Good Folks, though, we all begin to discern flavors—and yes, memories—of places and times when we may have had similar experiences. We picked up an aroma and flavor that brought back memories of a tiny coffee shop in Antigua Guatemala nearly 25 years ago. Surprisingly, after a blind taste test, the reveal indicates that the coffee was indeed a blend from Guatemala.

According to Quill’s Butterworth, all of the potential flavors of a coffee are created at the farm and in the roaster. “The best chefs source the best ingredients and then use their highly developed techniques to bring out certain flavors. We’re sourcing coffee from the best producers around the world, and roasting it in such a way to maximize sweetness and acidity. We love coffees that are bright, complex and clean.”

In a maturing market, though, delightful flavors alone (as enticing as they might be) will not provide a loyal following. What is the key to differentiation within the current “third wave” of specialty coffee? Third wave coffee, a term coined in 2002, is a movement that considers coffee an artisanal foodstuff more like wine than a commodity. What are the keys to differentiation within the third wave of specialty coffee in Louisville and the Bluegrass? Again, according to Butterworth, “Specialty coffee is fairly mainstream. There’s a lot of places you can order a micro-lot coffee as a pour-over or a cappuccino with beautiful latte art. Given the fact that high-quality coffee is more readily expected, we believe hospitality has the potential to set us apart. We want to make you the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had, but we don’t think we need to be pretentious or elitist about it. We want everyone to feel welcome at our cafés.”

A Cup of Common Wealth: Product of a Dream

In Lexington, A Cup of Common Wealth has taken hospitality to the next level. According to founder Salvador Sanchez, “We’re looking to provide for everyone what draws us to the industry: the community, the culture and incredible cups of carefully crafted coffee. Hot cups of coffee have served as both teachers and friends over the years. A Cup of Common Wealth is designed to provide a place to celebrate each other, a place to share smiles and stories, conversations and banter, to make new friends and reconnect with old ones—all facilitated by fine artisan mugs of coffee. The same sense of community we find in coffee is what makes the Bluegrass State a true home.”

Ever since Sanchez was a little boy he was always surrounded by coffee. It was a part of his parents’ daily morning ritual.  His own love for coffee came from two very communal and familial experiences. 

The first: Every Saturday morning his parents would let any of their six kids have one cup of coffee if they wanted. (In the beginning it was mostly milk, but as each child grew older the ratio changed quite a bit.) Then they would spend the morning talking for hours as a family, sharing life.

The second: The occasions when one of his grandmothers who were born in Mexico would visit. Both his maternal and paternal grandmother loved their coffee and both would sit with his parents and drink cup after cup at home in Muskegon Michigan He would usually be able to steal some and listen to conversations thick with Spanish and nostalgic stories.

The people, the experiences and the community of coffee drew him in, but coffee remained a passion and hobby as he was trying to decide what he wanted to do in life. He felt compelled to open a business and he loved the service industry, so he always imagined a restaurant or a bar. At his parents urging, he began to save his money.

As he grew up he became more intrigued with the coffee industry and paid attention to the rise of Starbucks and the “third wave coffee” movement. He eventually found his way to Water Street Coffee Joint in Kalamazoo Michigan and made up his mind to open a coffee shop. He fell in love with the business, the people in it, the industry it was a part of and the culture they created. Still he knew he had to keep growing and preparing for a shop of his own someday.

And, he saved. 

By the end of college at Western Michigan University, he and one of his closest friends began to consider where to open their shop: Louisville, Detroit, Chicago and different areas in Southwest Michigan kept popping up. Nothing felt completely right and they decided against it for the time being. So, he saved.

He moved to Texas, where he worked for two different coffee related corporations, which helped round out his business acumen. It also brought him more into the coffee industry’s circle and allowed him to network and grow his own coffee family.

He saved some more.

As more time passed, he became more steadfast in his dream to create a business that was true to its mission day in and day out; a small company, but one that embraced its community, ensured service was top of mind and had the ability to create a culture. Market research began and one city made more sense than any other one. A name was created that best fit the mission.

He took the plunge and moved to Lexington, KY. 

Within a few months, they were ready to embrace community, serve others, and create culture.

A Cup of Common Wealth opened its bright blue door on July 1, 2013.

A Cup of Common Wealth: 105 Eastern Ave., Lexington, KY 40508; 859-255-0270.

Heine Brothers: Doing Well and Doing Good

An alignment of focus, energy and commitment characterize Mike Mays’ leadership of Louisville’s much beloved Heine Brothers. There are currently 15 Heine Brothers stores in the enterprise, with plans for five more soon. Mays says that his primary role during his 22 years at the helm has been to keep the organization focused on four principles:

“Heine Brothers is a locally owned and profitably managed business delivering a remarkable customer experience, providing a great place to work for its employees while trying at the same time to make a positive impact on the community by treating people and the planet with dignity,” he says. The wisdom of that approach is evident in the growth of Louisville’s largest retail coffee enterprise.

Mays is both confident and animated in a conversation about what Heine Brothers has been able to accomplish by its Fair Trade sourcing of coffee beans. While visiting farmers in their homes, he has been able to see firsthand what a few pennies more in the purchase price has meant toward providing a living wage for producers. As a member of a buying cooperative, Heine Brothers has helped to bring improvements in the green coffee bean sourcing process.

Mays speaks most enthusiastically about how much Heine Brothers has been able to contribute to the community over the years. He says it is important to give back and that there is so much more to life than making money. In March, Heine Brothers employees received an email highlighting contributions Heine Brothers made to various nonprofit organizations during 2016. Beginning with a poetry reading in 2008, Heine Brothers has been supporting efforts to stop mountaintop removal for mining coal. Matching contributions amounting to $2.50 from the customer and $2.50 from Heine Brothers for a purchase of “Mountain Dream” and “Kentucky Dream” brands are contributed to the Forecastle Festival to support conservation work being done throughout the Commonwealth.

Through donations and partnerships, Heine Brothers Coffee believes in supporting local initiatives. Here’s a glance at their impact during 2016. For more information and locations:

  • Donated 2,987 gallons of coffee to 478 local organizations.
  • In partnership with the Forecastle Foundation, $6,362 was given to Kentucky environmental projects.
  • Baristas donated $2,204 in pennies (from tips!) to Center for Women and Families.
  • $10,143 in gift cards were donated to local nonprofits
  • Roasted 189,000 pounds of fair trade coffee from Farmers Co-ops with cooperative coffees.
  • Employees and customers raised $4,552 for disaster relief in Louisiana and Gatlinburg.
  • With co-op partners On the Ground, donated $2,715 to water projects in Chiapas, Mexico.

Good Folks Coffee: A Study in Irrational Persistence

 “I love the narrow place where science meets art, and that is what roasting is all about,” says Matt Argo about his love for coffee roasting. “There is still an incredible amount of information to learn that is shaping the way we approach roasting and brewing coffee—and it is always changing! This challenge is exciting for us and keeps our interest level at a high level.”

When asked why he would take on all the risks of a roasting startup business, his answer was characteristically self-effacing and wry. “After eight years in the military, including a deployment to Iraq, my perspective on ‘risk’ had shifted. Spending 90% of my savings on starting a coffee roasting company seemed like an acceptable risk.”

Taking on that risk seems to be paying off. In fact, Argo and his wife, Lynsey, were able to grow their startup to the point where they could attract capital to expand roasting capacity. “In 2015 we received an equity investment from Access Ventures. The capital helped us leapfrog into a position that we can grow our sales exponentially. They’ve been great partners and have enabled us to grow strategically in a competitive environment. We think Louisville is a great place to do business and people are eager to get behind entrepreneurs.”

Originally from Arkansas, Argo couldn’t be happier about putting down roots in Louisville to develop the enterprise. “It’s a great place to entertain our customers who come in from all over the country. The food and hospitality here are top notch. We’re thankful to be here and are excited to be doing business in this growing city.”

As Good Folks has earned a reputation for roasting and developed a following, has Argo found a personal favorite region or roast? “Colombia, hands down. I’ve tasted more diversity in coffees from different regions and farms in Colombia than any other country. It’s a great place to go and visit, the people are great and coffee is woven throughout the fabric of the culture there. Year after year, we are surprised by the quality consistently coming out of this beautiful country.”

For more information:

Quills Coffee: Bringing a Seattle Epiphany Home to Louisville

When asked how he got started in the coffee business, Nathan Quillo recalls a moment from 2003 that reads something like an epiphany. “I remember walking into Victrola Coffee shop on Capitol Hill in Seattle and being entranced by the smell. The espresso smelled so sweet and fresh. The baristas weren’t just pushing buttons and scooping foam. They seemed more like sous chefs preparing appetizers to order. My cappuccino was beautiful and delicious, and it changed everything.”

Soon after getting married in 2004, he and his wife, Amy, started dreaming about opening a shop in Louisville, their hometown, which would serve the same kind of cappuccinos they had in Seattle.

They opened their first shop, but didn’t begin roasting in the beginning. “We all knew we wanted to roast our own coffee, but we had to figure out how to run a good coffee shop first.” A used roaster was purchased and a barista with home roasting experience jumped right in to kick things off. They found an old building across the river to begin roasting, and decided to open a café there too.

“We quickly outgrew that original roaster and bought a gently used larger model. About a year and half ago it became clear we needed more space for our roasting operation. For logistical reasons we decided to relocate our roasting back to Louisville. We looked at several warehouse spaces, but everything was either too small or too big. One of my partners also deals in real estate, after exploring properties for months one day he happened across a posting for a beautiful old firehouse. We went to have a look and it was amazing, a perfect for Quills, but I never thought we’d get it. About two weeks later my partner called to let me know we got the building. Things just worked out.”

The first floor of the firehouse will house a Quills Coffee café. A small building adjacent to the firehouse will be home to an administrative office. Behind the firehouse is a courtyard that will be used for customer seating. Just off the courtyard is a 2,500-square-foot “urban barn” that will house a new roaster and production facility. There are plans for building a training lab certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

Quills’s greatest sense of accomplishment comes from leading an organization that is maturing. “I’m proud that the hard ‘science’ work we put into our coffees continues to result in a better taste experience for our customers, and because of that we are able to pay our team, our brokers and our farmers healthy wages. It’s amazing for me to experience my employees growing up, establishing families and carving out a career in an industry they love.”

Neither Quills nor Butterworth is content to rest on their laurels. Butterworth speaks for the team at Quills: “We truly believe the moment you stop pushing yourself to improve is the moment you begin to be irrelevant. Coffee competitions have been a great opportunity to compare our product and techniques to other leaders in the specialty coffee industry. Competitions such as the US Barista Championship have pushed us to improve as roasters and baristas and earn the respect of our peers in larger markets. We’re proud that Louisville has developed a reputation of being a city that punches above its weight class when it comes to coffee.”

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