Bohemian Rhapsody: Metro Detroit's Coffee Chemists

"No one can understand the truth until he drinks of coffee's frothy goodness."
-Sheik Abd-al-Kadir

If "Ethiopian Harrar" is an integral part of your early morning ritual, then you already know about Chazzano Coffee in Ferndale. And you also know that when first roasted this particular coffee has notes of juicy blueberry which after a week will evolve to luscious dark chocolate.

"I've created monsters!" jokes Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo, owner and roaster at Chazzano Coffee. "They want coffee that's been roasted the same day [so it still has all its flavor profiles]; they'll ask me, 'What are you roasting now?' I want people to be crazy about coffee like that and I train the staff to be crazy about coffee like that."

In Metro Detroit, the seedlings of a whole new kind of culinary culture have begun to grow.

Or, more accurately, the beans.

For decades now our understanding of "coffee" has been Maxwell House bought in bulk tubs and the high fructose corn syrup-laden espresso-tinged beverages at Starbucks. As artisanal food movements have gained strength across the country, ranging in everything from cured meats to craft beers, coffee was still just coffee the commodity, not the culinary experience. But all that is starting to change.

"I like to compare it to really fine crafted beers," says Eric Mullins, general manager at the Ugly Mug Cafe & Roastery in Ypsilanti. "Those might cost $20 for a 750ml bottle, but people are willing to invest in those moments of pure bliss in that quality."

It's the old adage of "You can take a horse to water but you can't make him drink." Only with this you can take a consumer to high-quality small-production-farm-sourced coffee and he will drink. A lot.

Until recently, would-be connoisseurs had no way of knowing coffee could be any different than the Triple Venti sugar-free, nonfat, no foam, extra caramel-caramel macchiato with whip at the Starbucks that populate every street corner. Thanks to places like the Ugly Mug, Ann Arbor's Comet Coffee, Chazzano Coffee, and Birmingham's Commonwealth, our collective palates are being re-educated to appreciate coffee.

"My favorite thing to say is, 'Wine has 750 flavor profiles; coffee has 1500', " says Lanzkron-Tamarazo.

Lanzkron-Tamarazo is not a roaster, he's a wizard. In addition to the cafe in Ferndale, he also has over 70 wholesale accounts with various restaurants and businesses in the Metro Detroit area. To Frank, coffee is an integral part of the dining experience.

"You can go to the best restaurants and have a salad you could die over, then you get to the coffee and it's stale, it's been on the burner for 40 minutes, or it was never fresh to begin with. Part of my driving force is that I really want people to have an enriching coffee experience."

Lanzkron-Tamarazo extends his own standards of excellence to his wholesale accounts, training them on how to properly brew and talk about coffee. He makes sure that after two weeks, once the coffee starts to lose its flavor, he comes back with a fresh batch and throws out anything that's leftover. "It's getting harder but I will NEVER stop... I want to be sure there's no way they can mess it up - there's so many ways to mess up a good cup of coffee."

But nowhere is his passion for palate education more evident than in his Ferndale cafe. He has 40 different coffees from all over the world, all organic and fair trade. There is no drip brewer in the cafe; every cup is brewed fresh to order using methods that best present the coffee's natural oils (French press, pour-over, and vacuum-siphoned). He conducts coffee cuppings to awaken customers to the "awesome" flavor notes in coffee - as wide-ranging as blueberry, cherry, citrus and chocolate.

Mullins echoes this witnessing of evolving customer palates, "I've seen customers over years and years who used to like the really sugary drinks because they were introduced to coffee by Starbucks and now drink only espresso and ask things like 'What are you pulling at; how many grams are you using?' I get really stoked at that, seeing people getting invested in coffee like that."

At the Ugly Mug, one of metro Detroit's first micro roasters now in its seventh year of operation, they run "coffee labs" every Thursday night at 7 p.m. where they teach people about coffees, brewing methods, and even more technical aspects like heat loss. These training programs are so popular (and thorough) that other cafes and restaurants will send their baristas over to learn from them. "We want to be invested in producing better coffee because ultimately that will help us out; education is key and there aren't a lot of resources around here that you can get educated in this area on coffee," Mullins explains.

In Birmingham, the recently-opened Commonwealth takes a slightly different approach to their coffee. "We just try to be very thoughtful about what we do," says roaster Josh Longsdorf.

For Longsdorf, as well as a growing contingency of post-third-wave roasters, the process starts at the farm where the beans are grown. He speaks of skyrocketing commodity pricing, pandemic poverty amongst small coffee bean farmers, and buying responsibly-sourced coffees. "It's really easy to be really into the coffee but once you start hearing these stories... if your only goal is to brew really good coffee I think you're missing part of it. I'd rather start at the other end and create a really good experience at the farm; then you'll get a really good product out of it."

In other words, make coffee, not war.

"A lot of people use 'organic' and 'fair trade' as a marketing tool," Eric shares. "There's a lot of misdirection going on in the coffee industry that no one's really talking about." Or, in the words of Brenda Jarvis - owner of Detroit's Thistle Coffee House (which sources from an Indiana-based company that works directly with small farms for the highest-quality beans they can find) - "If a farm can afford to be certified fair trade, they probably don't need to be."

Much like a fantastic wine begins with the grapes and the soil they're grown in, a fantastic coffee starts with the farm, and these roasters recognize that. Trevor Corlett, owner of MadCap Coffee Company in Grand Rapids, says, "Eighty percent of our farmers we know, we visit, we have a direct relationship with... We want a cup of coffee to represent that full story for people, [to tell the story] of the farmer and how it's produced; that's what we're really excited about."

One of the many obstacles these kinds of coffeehouses - some call them "third wave" but that is a point of contention - have to overcome is the internalized intimidation factor on the part of customers.

"Third wave has become synonymous with pretension," Longsdorf points out. While Commonwealth carries some truly exceptional and difficult-to-source coffees from countries like Burundi, their approach to customer palate education is a bit more hands-off. "I'll give them starting points so they can ask questions, but I'm not going to feed them a bunch of information that they don't understand," he says. "Some people just want to enjoy a good cup of coffee and realize that this cup of coffee is better than what they get at the gas station, and some realize it's a better cup and there's a reason for that and want to know the reason, and we can give them that too."

"Comet will always be about trying to take the 'fancy' out of coffee," says Jim Saborio, owner/roaster at Ann Arbor's Comet Coffee. "I spent my first 15 years as a barista in an industry that found little value in coffee itself. Everyone looked to flavored syrups, whipped cream and super-sizing as a way to conceal the taste of their key ingredient."

Comet has been described as a "back to the basics" coffee shop, but Saborio says they're only just beginning to explore the basics. "Our guests are paying for the best coffee Comet can get its hands on, not for 16 ounces of milk, mass-produced choco-corn syrup, and a sprinkled mound of aerosol whip. The fancy dessert coffee shops will continue to thrive, but like us they're just a niche in a mature and fragmenting market. We look for value in the coffee itself."

And while these artisanal coffees are indeed more expensive than what you get at the gas station, it's still more accessible than the hundreds of dollars people spend on Old World wines and barrel-aged whiskeys. "$2 for a coffee is very accessible to have something that tastes like berries or mangoes or straight chocolate and changes every day," Mullins explains. "You've got something right here that can be life-enhancing for your palate; that's something we really try to impress on people."

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