Food Service & Agriculture, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

Something new brewing in coffee industry

It involves nitro brews, Central American farms and a Dirt-to-Dirt program.

May 15, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Direct Trade Coffee Club
Chad Morton, left, and Tyler Doornbos of Direct Trade Coffee have a new roaster that allowed them to process nearly 10,000 pounds of beans last year. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Until late 2013, Direct Trade Coffee Club was a nomad.

The company was using a variety of coffee roasters, including MadCap Coffee, before shipping its products to customers. Last year, owners Kirby Watson and Chad Morton found a home for the business on the south side of Grand Rapids where they are roasting their own beans and also are working on some innovative coffee projects.

The coffee company’s roots go back to a trip Morton took to Guatemala in 2006 to see the devastation resulting from the Central American country’s recent civil war. Morton’s contact there was a coffee farmer, and despite not knowing anything about coffee beans, he brought some back in his suitcase.

“I said, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll connect some of the roasters back in Michigan with a farmer here in Guatemala. That’d be good for everyone,’” Morton said.

“Essentially, they all laughed at me and said it couldn’t be done.”

So he set up a program of using medical missions that were heading to Central America to bring back coffee beans and then had local companies such as Ferris Coffee and Rowster roast the beans.

Later, Morton began working with MadCap to grow the company’s direct trade program.

It was while working the counter at MadCap that Morton met Watson, a technology industry veteran from Seattle who had recently moved to town with his wife, who works for Wolverine Worldwide.

“They walked up to get coffee one morning and I was serving them, and we started chit-chatting and hit it off,” Morton said.

“The next day, they came in and we talked some more. He was looking for something to do, and we started talking about coffee and doing something significantly different from what other people do.”

In 2009, Direct Trade Coffee Club started as an online, subscription-based program in which Direct Trade would send customers selected roasts of beans that had been purchased directly from Guatemalan farmers. Morton said the company worked with fewer than 10 farmers last year.

Now with a roaster of its own — the company roasted approximately 10,000 pounds of coffee last year — Direct Trade has expanded its offerings.

A new program is called Dirt-to-Dirt, which allows sustainably minded corporations and organizations to be transparent about where the coffee they buy comes from.

“I can come in and not only increase the transparency of the coffee portion, but increase the employee satisfaction and customer experience in what is essentially a low-hanging fruit,” Morton said.

“A business can buy 1,000 pounds of coffee from a specific piece of property, and we roast and get it to them.”

Direct Trade will even pick up the used coffee grounds and compost them, making up the second “dirt” of Dirt-to-Dirt.

Direct Trade’s pilot organizations for the program are ArtPrize and Bartertown Diner, said Tyler Doornbos, the company’s vice president of marketing. Doornbos said the program is unique in the industry, but he hopes more companies will begin offering similar programs.

“It connects a company with an individual farm so they know precisely who’s making their coffee (and) the quality of their coffee. It’s perfect supply-chain transparency,” he said.

“We have plans to expand it, but it’s not that other companies can’t do it. Frankly, the more the merrier. It’s good for farmers, it’s good for coffee and it’s good for consumers.”

Direct Trade also is placing a new product in the market. Recently, it began sending kegs of nitrogenated cold-brewed coffee to Bartertown Diner. Other bars and restaurants soon will follow, Doornbos said.

Morton began thinking about bottling cold-brewed coffee after trips to New York City and Los Angeles revealed the growing trend. At the time, bottling was too big of an investment for the company, so the idea was put on hold, but Morton continued to experiment.

To brew the coffee, he uses a 3-to-1 coffee-to-water ratio and allows it steep for approximately 20 hours. After several filtrations, he puts the coffee in a keg and combines it with nitrogen. The process creates a smoother, less acidic and less bitter product than hot-brewed coffee.

“It’s much sweeter, and the chocolate flavor is incredible,” Morton said. “The nitro adds the body and smoothness.”

A writer from Esquire magazine recently visited Direct Trade and gave the cold-brewed coffee significant praise in his subsequent article: “Direct Trade Coffee Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers the best nitro cold brew I’ve had so far,” he wrote in an article titled “Five New Ways You’re Gonna Drink Iced Coffee This Summer.”

Right now, production is limited, but Doornbos said the company eventually will have the capacity to brew a few hundred gallons a week.

Most coffee companies limit cold-brewed coffee to their own shops, Doornbos said. He only knows of one other company — Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown — that offers the coffee to a distribution network. Stumptown also offers its nitro coffee in cans.

“We’re one of the first to make it available on a wholesale basis,” Doornbos said. “We’re just in the rolling-out stage. We’re pioneering this idea and we’re playing it safe.”

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