Boom! Roasted: The explosive growth of Ann Arbor's coffee scene

Tom Isaia remembers the days when you had to "poke around" to find specialty coffee.

"It was in New York and it was in San Francisco," Isaia says. "That was it."

That was in the early '80s, when Isaia was seeking a new direction for his then Ann Arbor-based business, Coffee Express Co. Isaia, who also co-founded the Blind Pig in 1971, originally conceived of the now venerable concert venue as a "combination of European-style cafe and American bar.” The popularity of its espresso machine with patrons inspired him to start selling espresso machines through Coffee Express in 1975.

Eventually, Isaia saw an opportunity to pivot into the slightly less niche market of specialty coffee, which is generally defined as high-quality beans produced in geographical microclimates to create unique flavor profiles. At the time, Isaia recalls, specialty coffee was only available at the Big Ten Party Store (now Morgan and York), and was imported from New York.

It would take a couple of decades for the rest of Ann Arbor –and most of the nation– to catch up with Isaia's appreciation for a better bean.

Which brings us to the early 2000s. RoosRoast Coffee founder John Roos had just started to experiment with sourcing beans from around the world and roasting them in small batches in his Ann Arbor garage. Roos' customers at Dunning Subaru, where he then worked as a car salesman, had begun to return to the dealership just to buy his coffee. But, he recalls, no one paid that much attention to coffee at the time.

"You'd go to a coffee place and you're like, 'What kind of coffee is this?'" Roos says. "They'd be like, 'I don't know. I just drink tea.' Coffee was just like, 'Whatever. Put some in a thing and brew it.'"

Of course, these days coffee is big business nationwide, and the Ann Arbor area at large has finally caught up to early adopters like Roos and Isaia. Specialty coffee shops are everywhere you go, and the area is also home to a variety of roasters of differing sizes and specialties.

"Everyone plays a different role," Roos says. "People like different roasters for different reasons."

For some local roasters, accessibility is paramount. Zingerman's Coffee Co. managing partner Steve Mangigian works hard to source and roast great coffee, but he says customer engagement and education are the most important elements of his business. And that's for a company that has just a single retail outlet of its own, tucked away in the Airport Industrial Center on Ann Arbor's south side. The Coffee Co. hosts a variety of classes on making and serving great coffee, and Mangigian says Zingerman's "just can't work" with wholesale clients who don't want to undergo that training.

"Coffee is this warm, welcoming beverage," Mangigian says. "It should not isolate, but rather it should be accessible and approachable. My belief is that our industry perpetuates a message of isolation. You walk into a cafe and you feel like a piece of crap if you don't know what you're ordering. There's just that sort of attitude, and I won't stand for it here."

Other roasters put their chips on sourcing. At Hyperion Coffee Co., which opened last year in Ypsilanti, co-owner Eric Mullins says his business aims to showcase single-farm, single-producer coffees. He picks up a bag of Hyperion coffee, which is labeled with both the product's country of origin and the name of the specific farmer who produced it.

"As a roaster, you could source a lot of coffees and throw them together in a blend and make them taste like Seattle in the '90s," Mullins says. "But our goal isn't to do that. Our job is to showcase the coffee for what it is and highlight who the farmer is instead of putting some stupid name on it."

Sourcing is also a big priority for David Myers, founder and chief coffee officer of Ann Arbor's Mighty Good Coffee, who frequently travels to personally meet the producers of his company's Colombian and Costa Rican beans. But Myers says giving back to the national coffee community has also become increasingly important to him as his business has grown. He frequently gives classes in roasting and evaluating coffee around the country.

"My feeling is, if I stay here in Ann Arbor and work within my bubble of our coffee shop, you tend to believe your own story," Myers says. "I think there's a danger in that. It's easy to believe your own story when you're working within your insular environment."

If there's one thing Ann Arbor-area roasters have in common outside of their basic business, it's a more localized version of Myers' willingness to teach –and to learn from– each other. Numerous roasters interviewed for this article noted strong personal relationships with other locals who might otherwise be considered their competitors.

"I feel like we're a really strong community," says Lisa Schramm, roaster for the Ugly Mug in Ypsi. "I've received a lot of help and like to return the support for people who are opening up around here too."

It's been a heady decade for the coffee industry across the board, but local roasters predict even more seismic shifts coming down the line. One clear trend noted by multiple local roasters is that coffee customers are becoming increasingly knowledgeable and specific about what they're drinking. Mullins says more and more local coffee drinkers are demanding "clarity of understanding," and that they "want to know everything about every nuance and aspect of what's going on."

That shift has led Hyperion –previously a wholesale-only business– to rethink the traditional concept of a coffee shop with its new "tasting room," which opens this month. The new space features long tables with chairs facing each other. There are no comfy couches and –perhaps most significantly– no power outlets accessible to the public.

"We want to kind of –I don't want to say limit– but shift people's expectations of what a coffee experience is going to be when you come here," says Hyperion co-owner Dan Kubera. "It's not necessarily a cafe where you come and you camp out for five hours and study for finals, but a place where you come and you can try five different coffees or three different brewing methods of one coffee."

As with anything that becomes more mainstream, specialty coffee has attracted the interest of major investment firms. Last year the Luxembourg-based JAB Holding Company snapped up both Chicago's Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea and Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters, both considered standard-bearers for specialty coffee. Mangigian sees that as a positive for smaller roasters.

"I'd say there's going to be opportunities for my company because I believe that this move dilutes some of these bigger guys," he says. "They might argue differently, but I'm sorry. I believe that when you see these types of mergers and acquisitions, I don't see how it's possible to not be about the bottom line."

In all this discussion of industry shifts, one of the Ann Arbor area's most seasoned roasters keeps his cool, as he has for over 35 years in the business. Isaia, who now operates out of Plymouth, says that very little has changed over time in the coffee industry other than consumer awareness. The coffee itself, he says, hasn't gotten significantly better or worse as a result, and you still have to have someone who knows what they're doing to prepare it. Even the concept of "specialty coffee," he suggests, isn't as new as some might think. Isaia pulls out one of the first reference books he found on the business, "Coffee From Plantation to Cup." The thoroughly detailed examination of growing, sourcing, roasting and preparing coffee is copyrighted 1881.

"Could it be that what interests everybody so much about this stuff is its timelessness?" Isaia asks. He smiles, but he isn't waiting for an answer.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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