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Crafting coffee conversations: Duluth Coffee Company expands but retains focus

Owner Eric Faust stands in the Duluth Coffee Company's new Roasteria on the corner of First Avenue East and Superior Street in downtown Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 5
Barista Mayce Klein of Duluth makes an espresso drink at the Duluth Coffee Company. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 5
Coffee farmer Diego Abarca, who this year supplied Duluth Coffee Co. with beans for the first time, looks over the hillside at his farm in Costa Rica. Courtesy Duluth Coffee Co.3 / 5
The current roaster at the Duluth Coffee Company. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 5
From left, Duluth Coffee Co. director of coffee Charlie Comnick, coffee farmer Diego Abarca and Duluth Coffee owner Eric Faust on Abarca's farm in Costa Rica last winter. Courtesy Duluth Coffee Co.5 / 5

The face of Duluth Coffee Company is a 22-year-old Costa Rican farmer named Diego Abarca.

"We've been texting back and forth," said Eric Faust, showing a picture on his cellphone of a verdant Tarrazu hillside before swiping to a shot of a dozen young coffee trees. "He's planting varietals that we told him we'll buy in three years."

Standing inside his company's ambitious expansion that has added beer and cocktails, a training lab and soon a giant new roaster, this is who Faust wants to talk about.

"We're a roastery first, and we believe in education and highlighting the people that truly produce, which are the growers," he said.

It's those kinds of conversations — about origin, taste and the people coffee drinkers don't often get to meet — that led to the birth of Duluth Coffee's Roasteria on the corner of Superior Street and First Avenue East this summer. That and the fact a 70-kilogram roaster wouldn't easily fit in the cafe down the street where a 12-kilogram roaster sits today.

With the new capacity, Faust and his director of coffee, Charlie Comnick, can spend less time roasting and more time telling the stories that are at the cutting edge of the coffee world.

"Coffee is kind of a smoke and mirrors type industry, and we want to remove that and replace it with transparency so people understand what they're drinking, understand where coffee is coming from," said Comnick, who was wearing a shirt with the face of one of their farmers from Huila, Colombia. "We owe it to them. We've been taking advantage of coffee-producing regions forever."

Latte art created by barista Mayce Klein of Duluth at the Duluth Coffee Co. (Clint Austin / News Tribune)

Consciously curated

Faust first found a fondness for turning green coffee beans brown using a popcorn popper while in college. Now his 6-year-old company and 10 employees are serving customers as far away as Nashville, Tenn., and the roaster is running regularly to keep up.

"It's our wholesale business that's been growing, so the real intention of this space is to have a bigger roaster," Faust said between the brick and burnt sienna walls of the Roasteria that opened late in July and is open to customers Thursday through Saturday 4-9 p.m.. "We took prime real estate because we want to showcase it. We think the art and craft of roasting is so aesthetic and beautiful."

The addition of wine, beer and cocktails three nights a week while the roaster isn't running came as a way to keep the curtain pulled back on the marquee beverage.

"You can't drink coffee all day and all night, but it's fun to continue talking about coffee," Faust said.

Chains like Starbucks have added wine and beer to some locations in recent years to tap the evening crowd as the $48 billion U.S. coffee industry continues to mature and reach saturation.

But this isn't about following trends, the local roasters made clear.

"We want to have beers that can start a conversation about taste and the philosophy about taste and challenge the social norms around tastes," Comnick said. And just as they carefully source their coffee beans, the beers, wines and spirits will be consciously curated.

Freshly brewed espresso fills a glass at the Duluth Coffee Company. (Clint Austin / News Tribune)

Expanding coffee culture

A splash of Vikre vodka in a tomato, lemon and chili mix is Duluth Coffee Co.'s take on the chiliguaro, a Costa Rican staple and the first cocktail on the Roasteria's menu. At three shots for $3, the intention isn't to offer a quick buzz but to require a shared experience — to know who you're drinking with. To keep the conversation going.

Moreover, chiliguaro is directly tied to coffee culture, since that's what many farmers in Central America drink, as Faust and Comnick saw firsthand this winter. The pair visited Costa Rica to meet people like Abarca and trace their end product back to its source.

"It's true connectivity when you get to sit in his house, and his mom makes you coffee," Comnick said.

The company sources beans from across the coffee-growing world — Central and South America, Africa and Indonesia — and wants origin trips to become a more regular occurrence. And maybe get the farmers to the city now and then.

"I'd like to have Diego up here for a party," Faust said. "That's something the coffee industry rarely sees."

When the new roaster arrives in a few weeks, it will mean more time in the new training lab, showing baristas how to do right by Duluth Coffee Co. beans. Yet the work in the fields, willing those beans from the ancient soils, remains much the same.

Comnick, taking a break from a nine-hour day roasting, said he knows the real hard work starts at picking the coffee cherries, oftentimes on extreme inclines, and that his part of the job is just the finishing touch.

"We've been lucky enough to meet the true blue-collar, hardworking people who are not very different from the farmer from Southern Minnesota who works his or her ass off and plays just as hard. This is what we try to highlight, the people behind coffee."

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City Girl, country women

Duluth Coffee Co. isn't the only roaster in town obsessed with sourcing.

Alyza Bohbot started the City Girl Coffee brand in November 2015 as a way to support farms owned or managed by women, who often face discrimination getting loans or even owning land in coffee-growing regions.

"By empowering those women at origin, it's empowering communities," Bohbot said during a taping of the Duluth News Tribune Pressroom Podcast last week.

The brand, part of Alakef Coffee Roasters, has proven especially popular in the Twin Cities, where Bohbot said she may eventually add a second roaster. The 27-year-old company started by her parents will retain its Duluth roots, however.

With an eye to the future, Bohbot said Alakef is getting a redesign to help it stand out in a market increasingly crowded with single-origin, organic and/or fair-trade coffees.

Indeed, leading analysts say more than half the coffee market is focused on specialty brands and small shops, and consumers are increasingly drawn to quality despite increasing prices.

Listen to the full chat with Bohbot when the Pressroom Podcast comes out Wednesday at www.duluthnewstribune.com or wherever podcasts are procured.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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