Food Service & Agriculture and Retail

Coffee is klatching on in Grand Rapids

A great coffee culture has the potential to attract young, creative talent.

April 25, 2014
| By Pat Evans |
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Rowster Coffee
Barista Kaitlynn Broadbooks prepares a drink at Rowster’s tasting room. Photo by Matt Radick

Ordering a simple black coffee is becoming more challenging in Grand Rapids.

And according to many of the coffee shop owners and baristas around town, you can begin by thanking the craft beer movement. Still, the city’s coffee shops and roasters are helping lead a movement that, much like beer, is beginning to show the true depth of an ancient art form.

It also allows for consumers in Grand Rapids to continue their trend of buying local instead of supporting national chains.

Just like beer, a great coffee culture can attract young, creative talent, according to Justin DeWaard, director of coffee at Rowster Coffee.

“The coffee shop is like the young professionals’ office, where the brewery is like their parlor lounge,” DeWaard said. “Some way or another, we’ve come to have a wealth of a young, creative brain trust that is fueling these movements.”

The common dark roasts were made popular by grocery store brands and national chains that needed a coffee that could hide defects, have a long shelf life and be marketed as bold, he said. But the true complexity of coffee begins where it’s grown, how it’s roasted and how it’s made.

Just like beer and wine, each type of coffee offers nuances and flavors that can make taste buds dance, DeWaard said.

Customers at Rowster’s tasting room, 632 Wealthy St. SE, are increasingly open to the idea of trying different kinds of coffee, he said, as the coffee culture has grown in sophistication alongside the city’s culinary and beer industries.

“It’s definitely similar,” DeWaard said. “Obviously, you’ll be limited by the amount of people you can get through the door and how much coffee they can throw down, but to the people that go to a bunch of different breweries to try a ton of different beers, coffee is sort of similar.”

MadCap has made waves at its 98 Monroe Center location. The roaster has regularly been named one of the best in the country by publications such as Thrillist, and owners Ryan Knapp and Trevor Corlett have been recognized as top baristas in the nation.

“It’s similar to what we’ve seen over the craft beer movement over the last 10 years, and the wine movement over the last 20, 30 years, and is just a realization that this thing that everyone looks at as a simple commodity can also have a lot nuance, a lot of character — a lot that goes into what a great product is,” Knapp said.

MapCap recently announced plans for a new roasting facility and eventual second retail location at 1041 E. Fulton St. That’s on top of a roasting and training facility it already has in Washington, D.C.

He said the primary goal for coffee enjoyment is to first make sure the beans are fresh. Ideally, the coffee was roasted in the last month, Knapp said.

It’s also about taking care while making the coffee to make sure to highlight the first several steps of getting the bean from the farm to cup. Knapp said sometimes the price tags on MadCap’s coffee can be a bit of a shock, but that it’s going to the farmers to make sure the great coffee growers of the world can continue to make better coffee.

Coffee freshness is at the heart of the Ferris Coffee & Nut Co.’sexpansion on the west side of Grand Rapids. The 90-year-old company is coming to the end of a six-phase project that includes an updated coffee manufacturing system that allows for faster roasting-to-shelf time. The expansion also will see its retail store at 227 Winter Ave. NW revamped to update the aesthetics. In addition, the company’s nut processing will move from its current Wyoming location to the downtown location.

Ferris sees the “third-wave” roasters such as Rowster’s and MadCap as great for the city, but shys away from that term, which can be unapproachable to novice coffee drinkers.

For context, “first-wave” roasters are large companies such as Folger’s that bring coffee into everyone’s home, and “second wave” refers to companies such as Starbucks that have brought coffee to every corner. The new — or third — wave is still somewhat undefined but generally refers to the connoisseur, specialty variety of coffee roasters.

“We shy away from the term. It’s not approachable for our coffee-drinking demographic,” said Mark Van Tongeren, director of marketing at Ferris Coffee. “We would like to ease (customers) into it, but we don’t want them to walk in the shop and turn around and walk out because they don’t know what’s going on. But we love what third wave stands for.”

Ultimately, Ferris just wants everyone to enjoy better coffee. The company views it as a social beverage that can bring a lot of people together. To do that, Ferris wants to continue to improve its coffee and change the way Grand Rapids looks at coffee, Van Tongeren said.

“It’s like turning around a cruise ship as opposed to a Sea-Doo,” he said. “They turn, but it’s a lot more difficult to turn. But we’re turning.”

The local coffee movement is cruising along, Van Tongeren said, just like the food and beer cultures.

“It’s not a big city, but it’s a city doing some pretty big things,” he said. “People in this area are looking for better food, better beer, better coffee. And that’s just cool.”

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