More than just a cup of joe

September 14, 2009
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Coffee is a bit like Alice in Wonderland to Trevor Corlett, the driving force behind MadCap Coffee Co., a coffeehouse at 98 Monroe Center in downtown Grand Rapids.

“What really sucked me in about coffee and what I really love about it is, it’s like a rabbit hole: The more you get into it, the more you realize there’s so much more,” said Corlett.

“In all my experiences to this point, I’ve realized that if you maintain the mindset that you always have something to learn, it’s kind of a humbling factor, and so we’re always playing with new brewing devices and always trying to figure out the best way to make the best cup of coffee — to do the coffee justice, in a sense.”

Corlett was in the midst of an undergraduate degree in computer information systems at Cornerstone University in 1999 when he first fell in love with coffee. Though, he’ll admit, at that point it wasn’t really about the coffee, but the coffee house atmosphere.

“I had done a lot of tech stuff for my roommate, who was a musician and did the coffeehouse tour,” he said. “I fell in love with the whole atmosphere of coffee shops. I think what happened to me was I got romanced into ‘this would be great to have one of these’ —the same reason nine out of 10 who open them open them, and that’s the reason nine out of 10 of them fail.”

Corlett put together a business plan and secured an investor and partner, but as the time drew near to make what was on paper a reality, his partner and investor backed out, leaving Corlett with $1,500 in furniture.

He continued to pursue his goal and took a position managing a large coffee shop in Indianapolis. The more experience he got, the more he began to focus on the coffee rather than the atmosphere.

 He learned that, after petroleum, coffee is the No. 2 most traded commodity. Corlett also learned that coffee has different tiers depending on the quality of the beans. In 2003, he left the Indianapolis coffee shop and began selling his own brand of beans and grinds online.

With his new experience in selecting and roasting beans, Corlett helped open and manage a few coffee shops with various investment partners. The partnerships, however, didn’t work out, as the investors wanted to focus on creating an everyday coffeehouse experience complete with paninis and every flavored syrup imaginable. Corlett wanted to focus on the coffee and the different ways of bringing out its natural flavors.

Needless to say, if you’re looking for a caramel-mocha-marshmallow frappuccino, then MadCap Coffee — with vanilla as the lone syrup flavor — is not the place to go.

“We want it to be more than a caffeine buzz,” said Corlett. “We want it to be an experience.”

Ryan Knapp, MadCap’s head roaster and barista trainer, and Laura Feldman, quality control, had been working with Corlett for three and four years, respectively, and were extensively involved in opening MadCap Coffee in January 2009. Having experienced and trusted staff, Corlett said, was essential to implementing some coffee-centered business decisions. One example was the decision to make MadCap’s “regular” coffee through a French press method rather than the drip method.

More recently, MadCap has started working in direct trade.

“From most people’s understanding of the coffee industry, it’s financially impossible for a company — especially for a startup company of our size — to import your own coffee,” said Corlett, who described direct trade as a transparent process to ensure that each party involved with cultivating the coffee beans is being treated and paid fairly.

Corlett reconnected with an old friend, Chad Morton, who was working with coffee bean farmers and importing coffee beans for a Grand Rapids nonprofit, Evo Coffee. Morton left Evo Coffee to work for MadCap as the green bean buyer and wholesale director.

To Corlett and his crew, direct trade meant more than paying the farmer a fair wage; it meant educating the farmer on ways to improve the quality of the bean. By doing so, the farmer would be able to classify the bean in a higher tier and make more money.

“Here’s this opportunity to have all these direct relationships with these farmers. Their beans were teetering on not being within our standard, but we wanted to maintain those relationships,” he said. “We decided it would be more beneficial if we could go to that farm and look at how that farmer was producing his coffee and say, ‘If you can do this, or if you can dry the beans this way or mill them this way, then we can improve the overall coffee. We realized not only can we pay the farmer well for the coffee, but we can help them achieve a higher quality standard so that they can sell their coffee in the specialty coffee market and get a higher price for it all around.”

MadCap only uses beans that rank 85 or higher on a scale of 100. It is now working with two farms in Guatemala, one in Honduras and one in Costa Rica, and has potential farms in Nicaragua and in Kenya.

Corlett said he has been learning a lot about the importing process.

“A lot of importers are really great about piggybacking off containers,” he said. “To make that financially stable, coffee is being brought in a container load at a time, which is a semi-container. In talking with importers and exporters, we found out that a lot of them are willing, if they have space, to throw coffee into their container for a really minimal fee. We’re just taking advantage of a system that’s already in place and people that are already doing it.”

On Oct. 3-4, MadCap will host a Barista Jam, a two-day seminar involving lectures and workshops on coffee. The keynote speakers will be world-renowned farmer Edwin Martinez from the Finca Vista Hermosa farm in Guatemala and MadCap’s own Ryan Knapp. The event is supported by the Great Lakes Coffee Alliance and has attracted attendance from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, as well as roasters from all over the world.

“Our hope is to continue to raise awareness,” said Corlett. “Our goal is to raise the level of what shops here are putting out.”

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