Coffee roasters keep up with customers' changing tastes

If you spend enough time drinking coffee in Southwest Michigan you may come to some interesting, maybe even highly caffeinated realizations. Here's one--the growth of the state's specialty coffee industry perfectly mirrors nationwide growth trends, not just numerically but culturally and geographically as well. 

Just as we’ve seen roasting and cafe culture dawn on the nation's West Coast, in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Denver, before slowly marching eastward towards Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta, the creative coffee movement in Michigan began on the state's western shores—specifically in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo—before migrating eastward into such cities as Jackson, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Detroit.

Unexpectedly, Detroit, with more than 5.8 million metro residents, is a relative newcomer to the specialty and high-end cafe roasting scene, while the trendsetting cities of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo have fewer than 2 million residents between them.

Of course, the argument can be made that Chicago is less than three hours by car from Michigan's western shores, so clearly the Windy City’s influence would rub off on surrounding cities. The problem with that theory is coffee coming out of Southwest Michigan is anything but a carbon copy of the roasts being produced in Chicago. Not only is the clientele different, but the coffee itself is being created with its own unique taste, a taste that is distinctly Michigan.

In speaking with cafe owners and roasters, and performing plenty of on-the-ground research, it becomes apparent that the culture of Southwest Michigan coffee is not one of imitation, or of textbook re-creations, but of self-sufficiency, trial-and-error, and most importantly, personal and location-based preference.

Kurt Stauffer, who co-owns Rowster Coffee in Grand Rapids with Stephen Curtis knows how his upbringing in Michigan has affected his work. "If you wanted something good, you had to make it yourself," Stauffer says. "We did a lot of camping, hunting, fishing, boating which were always centered on or around water. There was a river in my backyard and we used to bow fish for northern pike and suckers and smoke them.... We canoed all over the place, and when we went to the cabin up north, or in Canada, the kids would always find an ancient wooden or aluminum rowboat that we could row around the lake and use to fish. That’s us—respect for the outdoors, a love for doing it ourselves from start to finish. Independent, simple, low-tech, rustic, appreciation for the things themselves without extras and without pretense."

Stauffer says what makes the coffee of the region unique and what drives the people that make it, can be seen in the bootstrap beginning of nearly every independent roaster and cafe from Traverse City down to Niles.

The story begins in 1992 in an abandoned gas station on the northwestern edge of downtown Kalamazoo. Mark Smutek, a former employee of Heritage Guitar Co., an offshoot of the famous Gibson Guitar, did not follow the company to Nashville. He was interested in coffee, but even more interested in bringing the disparate populations of Kalamazoo—the college students, the professionals, the artists, the homemakers, the business owners—together under one roof. 

That vision became the now iconic Water Street Coffee Joint.

"Coffee proved to be an amazing avenue for creating community, so that’s why coffee (survived), as opposed to other businesses that also would have suited the space," says Liz Comrie of Water Street Coffee’s original location at 315 E. Water Street. 

Coffee may have simply seemed like the best avenue for creating community at the time, but Smutek soon found out, as did the rest of Kalamazoo, just how important and life-changing good coffee can be. 

In the mid-1990s, independent coffee roasters were still rare in Michigan. Most local cafes offered a hip atmosphere, but coffee itself was still pretty generic. The only place to find actual fresh-roasted coffee was at shops supplied by the 100-year-old Paramount Roasters in Lansing, and even that was coffee produced on a near industrial scale.

"The roasting scene sucked back then," Stauffer says of those early days. "None of the other roasters cared about coffee, it seemed."

But Smutek cared—he just didn’t know how to roast coffee. So in true Michigan fashion, he got busy teaching himself the craft.

"In 2000, when we started roasting, I think there was only one other micro-roaster in Kalamazoo, and any of the handful of area coffee shops were small and local. Our timing was great. Since there weren’t any large coffee chains in Kalamazoo at the time, we really had the opportunity to introduce a lot of people to local, micro-roasted coffee simply by being around and doing what we loved," Comrie says

By introducing the public to a unique beverage, one with a taste that spoke to the passions and ethics of its creators, the public had the opportunity to learn what it meant not only to drink hand-crafted coffee but to drink hand-crafted Michigan coffee. The success of that effort, not surprisingly, inspired the second movement of independent roasters.

That next wave hit the Michigan shore about 45 minutes north in Grand Rapids, and it formed for the same reasons that gave life to Water Street: curiosity and a desire to create something new and exciting. If Water Street’s learn-on-the-fly beginnings seemed odd in the early 1990s, they were officially known as the way it was done by the early 2000s.

Even Madcap Coffee in Grand Rapids, perhaps the state’s most well-known specialty roaster, got its initial jolt of inspiration not from workshops and apprenticeships, but from co-owner Trevor Corlett's desire to replicate the cool scenes he had been a part of during his college days.

"My first attempt at coffee in Grand Rapids started in 1999. I had moved out there for college. I had dropped out of school and didn't want to do what I was pursuing. I went into the coffee business," Corlett says. "I got into it because my roommate was a musician who toured around playing coffee shop venues. I fell in love with it that way, for the culture and not necessarily for the coffee."

Over the next few years, coffee itself would become the culture that Madcap introduced to West Michigan. But that culture came with a dose of heartbreak and several hundred miles added to Corlett's odometer. 

"My attempt to open a shop in the late '90's didn't work out," Corlett recalls. "I tried to open a shop in Indianapolis. I also attempted two roasteries and cafes in Illinois and those both failed for various reasons. I had family in Grand Rapids; I married a local girl. Once your heart is there you don’t want to go away so I moved back to Grand Rapids in 2008." 

It was at that point, as he was setting his sights on a downtown location for his new roasting business, that he and his partner Ryan Knapp stumbled upon the humble beginnings of what would soon be Grand Rapids' other claim to coffee fame. 

"One day I saw two guys walking around the back of my shop, peering in the windows. It turned out to be Ryan and Trevor, who came from Illinois to start their own coffee company in Grand Rapids. They roasted on my roaster for a bit and we talked about business together, before they ventured off and started Madcap," Stauffer says.

The three men considering going into business together, but as it turned out, basic differences on how to run the operation ended the three-way partnership before anything serious could get off the ground.

As the two companies have grown, so too has the public's awareness of and desire for high-end, locally roasted coffee.

"In the last few years, (from what I've seen) owning a cafe, working in cafes, and roasting coffee it seems like people are really starting to be interested in a higher-quality beverage, whether it be espresso drinks or drip coffee," says Garrett Krugh. He co-owns Kalamazoo's Black Owl Cafe and Kalamazoo Coffee Company with his partner Darren Bain, and they are part of the third wave of coffee brewers to find a following in Southwest Michigan.

Customers are interested to the point that Black Owl, which opened in 2012 as Kalamazoo's first coffee bar specializing in brewed to order, single cup coffees was voted the top coffee shop in the entire state by a 2015 readers' poll.

And folks are looking to take that great cup of coffee home with them as well, as Black Owl's sister company, the Kalamazoo Coffee Company is now available for purchase in over 50 Meijer stores across the Midwest and can also be found at several smaller grocery outlets throughout Michigan. 

The success of his first two ventures, along with the area's growing interest in specialty coffee has led Krugh to begin a new project; Euphoria Coffee which will be a subscription-based coffee program specializing in hard to find, high-end coffee roasted only in small batches.

"It's all really small quantities and I think that's awesome because it will be constantly changing and people can try new coffees all the time," Krugh says.

Subscribers can sign up online for Euphoria's service and choose to receive one or two 12 oz. bags per month, delivered to their door free of charge in Kalamazoo. (Portage residents can have theirs shipped.)

"It will be roasters' choice, whatever coffee I decide to roast," Krugh says. "They will be $12.50 per bag with free delivery in Kalamazoo. Outside of the area, there will be a shipping fee."

Euphoria Coffee also will be available at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market and a deal is currently in the works for retail sales at Sawall on Oakland Drive. And Euphoria coffee will be exclusively served at the as yet to open Coexist Cafe in a storefront in the Campus Pointe Mall on the corner of Howard and West Michigan Avenue. 

But if you can't wait to try Krugh's new product, a limited amount will be given away for free to a few lucky coffee drinkers. "People want to try the coffee before purchasing, so I'm going to be running a special," Krugh says.
"If you sign up for our newsletter online you'll be in a drawing to win one of forty sample bags." 

At this point, however, it’s not just the customers that are excited about what's happening in the region's coffee scene. So are other roasters.  

Jared Field, a former warehouse worker and roaster at Water Street Coffee Joint, recently struck out on his own, taking his coffee knowledge east to Lansing where he's opening Bloom Roasters in the capital city's Old Town neighborhood.

Field says, "The west side of the state definitely set the bar pretty high—Madcap being the most influential, but also other roasters like Water Street, Kalamazoo Coffee Co., and Higher Grounds up in Traverse City. These guys were all major players in influencing what Bloom is doing.

"I think a lot of the success in the western part of the state (set the trend) for the more eastern parts of the state. We’re starting to see a lot of success in Detroit with the Roasting Plant and Great Lakes Coffee Roasters, and we’re seeing success in Ann Arbor and its surrounding areas with The Ugly Mug, RoosRoast and Mighty Good Coffee."

A byproduct of all of these new roasters and cafes—most of which are attempting to find unique voices and niches—is the way a younger generation is beginning to influence the original coffee companies that set up shop in the 1990s. 

"Over the years, we’ve adopted some of the third wave trends," says Comrie. "We offer a single-origin espresso. Several years back we made some sweeping changes to our equipment and extraction procedures for espresso." 

Of course, that doesn’t mean established shops like Water Street are making changes just simply to make changes. "Our customers don’t necessarily hop on the bandwagon with every trend that comes through the coffee industry," Comrie says, "but when we try something in the roaster or the cafes and it rings true or pleases our customers, we adopt it."

That’s what makes West Michigan coffee what it is. It’s not a trendy industry. Though some of the same techniques may be found in both Kalamazoo and Los Angeles, the final product and the reasons for making it are strikingly different.

Curtis sums up the experience: "People from West Michigan tend to be hardworking and humble, and this tends to make our quality shine. We have a long history of manufacturing, and taking pride in making something with our hands. The coffee industry has been no different. Doing something for the love of it, and satisfaction of a job well done is what Michigan thrives on."

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew and beverage writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.