There is no cream or sugar at Brick & Mortar Coffee. There are no flavored syrups, no soy milk – there’s not even a set drink menu. But try a sip of the rich, buttery espresso, and you won’t miss those standard accoutrements. Nestled inside a former motorcycle shop in Springfield, Missouri, Brick & Mortar is the city’s first third-wave coffee roaster, a term that has come to emphasize direct relationships with farmers and artisan roasting methods.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold wrote for LA Weekly in March 2008, the third wave of coffee is a level of connoisseurship “where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
The history of coffee as a major commodity in the U.S. stretches back to the 1870s and is generally broken out into three waves. Household names like Folgers Coffee and Maxwell House ushered in the first wave, creating affordable, “ready for the pot” coffee. A more specialized approach to coffee developed in the 1960s and throughout the next few decades, as Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee & Tea began to emphasize origin stories and varying brewing methods. Finally, coffee’s third wave hit in the mid- to late 1990s, led by three major players: Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Chicago; Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, North Carolina; and Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon.
The three waves are more than just chapters in the story of coffee – they illustrate how one of the world’s biggest commodities has evolved over the past century. And as more specialty coffee shops and roasters open across the country, the demand only increases, allowing third-wave roasters like Brick & Mortar to thrive in the heartland. But the history of coffee dates back much further in Missouri – long before we were waking up with Folgers in our cups or ordering grande vanilla lattes from Starbucks, the Midwest was home to a rich and robust coffee scene.
In early October, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis acquired Coffee: The World in Your Cup, a traveling exhibit that covers about 2,000 square feet. Knowing that the museum has more space than the show required, exhibitions manager Katie Moon decided to supplement it with a bit of local history, not knowing quite how much room she’d be able to fill. Luckily, she soon found out that St. Louis has a pretty rich coffee history, after all: The local portion of the exhibit filled the rest of the 6,000-square-foot gallery.
“Because of where St. Louis is located on the Mississippi River – and also because we were founded by French immigrants – coffee was really important here from the very beginning,” Moon says. “We had pretty good access up the river from New Orleans, which was and still is a big coffee port, and then of course with railroads, it really expanded from there. Coffee has been here a lot longer than most people assume.”
Most coffee historians tend to focus on the East and West coasts, but for a while, St. Louis was the largest inland coffee distributor in the world. In 1845, there were more than 50 coffee shops in St. Louis – a city with a population of about 35,000 at the time. There were only a few roasters, but that number grew to around 80 at the turn of the century. By 1920, coffee was a $20 million industry in St. Louis, leading the local Chamber of Commerce to boast that St. Louis was a coffee capital in the U.S.
Although most of the names are unfamiliar to coffee-drinkers today, these local roasters were instrumental in building up the national coffee industry – Moon refers to one in particular, Cyrus Blanke of C. F. Blanke Tea & Coffee Co., as the “most important coffee man you’ve never heard of.” Blanke was best known for his Faust Coffee, found across the country, but he also claimed to have created one of the first versions of instant coffee in 1906 and to have perfected the drip coffeemaker.
Other big names include William Schotten, who founded William Schotten Coffee Co., and his son, Julius, who was later elected the first president of the National Coffee Roasters Association, now the National Coffee Association. James H. Forbes Tea & Coffee Co. claimed to be the first company to roast coffee west of the Mississippi. In the 1850s, Forbes introduced consumers to a whole new kind of coffee: commercially roasted and ready to be ground and brewed. Coffee had previously only been sold in whole, unroasted beans – housewives pan-roasted green beans on stove-tops, ground them and brewed the coffee themselves.
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the 1904 World’s Fair, which was held in St. Louis, proved pivotal for local roasters. J.P. and James J. O’Connor founded Ronnoco Coffee Co. (their last name spelled backward) after experiencing an innovation in coffee at the fair: imported coffee beans roasted in bulk over a gas flame. Ronnoco is still based in St. Louis, and the company supplies coffee to casinos, convenience stores, groceries and offices in more than 20 states.
St. Louis’ coffee industry continued to thrive up until the 1930s, when it took a major hit from what Moon refers to as the “perfect storm” of the Great Depression, World War II and the boom of advertising, which helped national brands carve out bigger slices in the local market.
Local coffee magnate Dana Brown used marketing and advertising to revive interest in coffee in the 1960s and ‘70s. To this day, he’s remembered as much for his Safari Coffee as he is for his television commercials, which depicted his encounters with wild lions, elephants and rhinoceros during travels to Africa and Asia.
Folgers, one of the top-selling coffee brands in the country, was founded as Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills in San Francisco in 1850, at a time when there was little demand for roasted, store-bought coffee. James A. Folger’s main competition was the pan-roasting housewife – but he had a major advantage in knowing how to blend, roast and grind coffee uniformly. In 1907, Folgers opened a roasting plant in Kansas City, thanks in part to encouragement from an ambitious salesman, Frank P. Atha. The Kansas City facility would soon grow to be one of the largest coffee-roasting plants in the world.
In 1938, Folgers’ Kansas City plant moved to Eighth Street and Broadway Boulevard Downtown. In 2012,the plant shut down after its acquisition by J.M. Smucker Co. and has since undergone a massive renovation – soon, it will be home to the “Roaster’s Block” apartments.
Two local coffee roasters were also at the forefront of the third wave of coffee, offering direct-trade, expertly roasted coffees alongside national players like Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Stumptown.
In 1993, Danny O’Neill was burnt out on corporate life. In looking for ideas for a new venture, he kept coming back to coffee – as a foreign-exchange student in high school, he spent several weeks picking coffee beans in Costa Rica. He began researching coffee and traveling around the country to visit shops and roasters, later launching The Roasterie in his basement in the Brookside neighborhood of Kansas City.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” he says. “The idea of the coffee company… nobody got it. There just wasn’t a culture in the Midwest. But I added up how much I drank and thought, ‘Wow, if I could find 50 people who drank as much coffee as me, I could make my house payment. I looked at everything out there, all over the world, and decided to buy the best coffee we could find, roast it the best way and get it to the customer as fast as humanly possible.”
He means that literally – after knocking on doors for three months, O’Neill made his first sale to the University of Kansas Medical Center and promptly delivered the coffee within the hour: He immediately drove home, roasted the coffee, packed it and delivered it – still warm – to a somewhat bewildered hospital staff.
“That was where the coffee industry was at that time – fresh bread became Wonder Bread, beer became Budweiser and coffee was commercial coffee,” O’Neill says. “What I was doing wasn’t that radically different, but I think what probably made the difference was the level of quality, consistency and service.”
Those principles still guide The Roasterie’s work today. The company has sourced its beans directly from 31 countries around the world and uses an air-roasting technique – hence the roaster’s iconic logo that depicts a DC-3 airplane in flight. Compared to conventional drum-roasting, O’Neill believes air-roasting produces a smoother, more flavorful cup of coffee.
The Roasterie’s first café didn’t open until 2005, but the company has been interacting face-to-face with customers since day one. The Roasterie was the first Kansas City coffee roaster to offer its wholesale clients the opportunity to taste and create their own custom coffee blends, and the first to offer tours of its facility, starting in 1993 in O’Neill’s basement.
“I’ve always had this mantra of ‘If people don’t understand the difference, they’re not going to pay the difference,’” O’Neill says. “To me, it’s just total Midwestern common sense – ‘Wow, what would it be like if everybody knew more about quality coffee?’”
A similar idea led Howard Lerner and Suzanne Langlois to open Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co., a small café and roaster in 1994, in the DeMun neighborhood of Clayton, Missouri. Dissatisfied with the lack of “specialty” coffee options in the St. Louis area, the pair started roasting by hand – and local cafés, grocery stores and restaurants quickly took notice.
Among the small roaster’s biggest fans were Tricia Zimmer Ferguson; her husband, Josh Ferguson; and her brother, Tyler Zimmer, who purchased half of the company in 2005 with a goal of expanding the business. In 2007, the trio bought the rest of the company, and they have since grown Kaldi’s to more than a dozen locations in St. Louis; Kansas City; Columbia, Missouri; and Atlanta. The company also jointly owns a roasting facility with Frothy Monkey coffee shop and roasters in Nashville. This past spring, Kaldi’s celebrated its first 20 years in business by unveiling a new 30,000-square-foot roasting plant.
The St. Louis plant is where all of Kaldi’s coffee is roasted, packaged and shipped, but it’s also home to a top-notch training facility. Here, Kaldi’s training staff teaches the best coffee practices to baristas and shop owners from around the region, and also invites the community in for free weekly tours and cuppings.
During cuppings, visitors can see firsthand how coffee is scored and evaluated for quality at Kaldi’s. The team will cup a coffee three times: when they get direct samples or visit the producers in the country of origin, when the coffee is imported into the U.S. and when it arrives in St. Louis. Tyler Zimmer, Kaldi’s green buyer, is the city’s only certified Q Grader, a level of certification from the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Only about 3,500 people hold the title worldwide. The certification is often likened to a sommelier in the wine industry, but Zimmer says the focus is more on internal communication among coffee professionals – the score of the coffee means more to the producer when it comes from a calibrated and certified grader.
“It’s a unique thing to have for the company, and when you’re traveling, it’s a validation within the industry that we are experts at what we do,” Zimmer says. “The fact that we’re able to buy from specific communities in Colombia, Nicaragua and Brazil and have these relationships for that long is really special. The commitment to quality, sustainability and maintaining those relationships as we’ve grown larger is a big part of what we do.”
Kaldi’s and The Roasterie helped lay the groundwork for a whole new generation of specialty coffee in Missouri. From 2011 to 2014, Kansas City, St. Louis and cities in between saw major spikes in the number of third-wave coffee roasters and shops.
“A lot of people in St. Louis and even Kansas City got their start at Kaldi’s, and that’s something we’re proud to be a part of,” Zimmer says. “It’s a ‘rising tide raises all ships’ kind of thing. We’re all focused on quality and the story of coffee.”
From 2011 to 2013, St. Louis saw the openings of Sump Coffee, Blueprint Coffee, Comet Coffee and Rise Coffee House. Blueprint, in particular, is the brainchild of six local coffee experts: Andrew Timko, Kevin Reddy, Mazi Razani, Nora Brady and Mike Marquard, who all cut their teeth at Kaldi’s, and Brian Levine, a local entrepreneur-turned-coffee aficionado.
Marquard is particularly known for bringing a progressive coffee program to Half & Half in Clayton, where he served as coffee director and general manager. Half & Half and its coffee-loving owner, Mike Randolph, introduced one of the first elevated restaurant coffee programs in the city – from the start, the breakfast and brunch spot took its coffee as seriously as its food, offering seasonal cups available in espresso, drip, pour-over and cold-brew.
“When I started working in coffee, I was probably the typical coffee shop customer – I was there mostly for the social aspect and the bottomless flavored coffee,” Marquard says. “Because of some inviting and warm people I worked with at Kaldi’s, I started tasting coffee more seriously and found that black coffee is really good when it’s done well. From 2006 to 2010 it was just heads down and hard work.
“I don’t think that era of coffee is really celebrated as much as it needs to be. During that time, what happened is an enabling of passion – some people got really excited about coffee and started sharing that with people.”
Marquard says the training program at Kaldi’s enabled both employees and customers to access good coffee and learn how to brew it correctly. As specialty roasters began to open in 2011 and 2012, featuring well-crafted roast styles that presented the coffees by origin, customers started to pay attention
“It was a slow build of people waking up to how good coffee could be,” Marquard says. “The service was focused enough that people were catching on that it’s because of the product – it’s not the added flavor, the dark roast, the vanilla syrup – it’s the raw beans. There were a lot of things happening in food at the time – the slow-food movement, farm-to-table approaches, casual dining that’s good – and those all helped coffee get to where it is now.”
At Blueprint, each cup is made to order, and the beans are roasted just steps away from the brew bar. The baristas are focused on crafting each cup to express the body, flavor and style of the specific bean – but Marquard says they won’t scoff if someone orders a vanilla latte.
“Something we’ve seen work really well is just being nice to people,” Marquard says. “We’re trying to bring a different level of service and really try to break down those barriers – they know they can ask us questions and they’re not going to get judged. As soon as people start to trust you and like you, they’ll really value your opinion. That’s how our approach has changed in 2015 versus 2006.”
Gregory Kolsto invokes a similar philosophy at Oddly Correct, which he opened in Kansas City in 2008 after roasting his own coffee out of a friend’s garage in Raytown, Missouri. Oddly Correct is the culmination of Kolsto’s diverse coffee experiences – traveling to Central and South America and Ethiopia as a buyer for Krispy Kreme’s coffee program and helping local Parisi Artisan Coffee build its roasting facility as it expanded operations from a mid-size to larger roaster. “If I couldn’t find an environment I could thrive in, I would create one,” he says.
At Oddly Correct’s coffee bar, which opened in 2012, Kolsto and his team focus on “buying fresh-off-the-harvest, freaky coffees.” He refers to the space not as a café but as a tasting room – one that acts as a platform for the product itself. Espresso-based drinks get a simple addition of local whole milk, and pour-over coffees are served sans cream, sugar or syrups.
“It was a question of ‘What would happen if we presented coffee in a different way?’” Kolsto says. “If you go to Boulevard [Brewing Co.], you can’t go in there and ask for a Michelob Ultra. There is some pushback from some new customers, but as we grow, another person is like, ‘Wow, I’ve never tasted coffee like that before.’ In specialty coffee, we’re operating in pursuit of that lightbulb moment.”
Oddly Correct is just one of a handful of specialty roasters and shops to bring coffee to the forefront in Kansas City in the past few years, alongside Parisi, Second Best Coffee, Quay Coffee, Messenger Coffee Co. and Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters. Broadway Cafe and Roasting Co., in particular, grabbed a few national headlines in 2008 for a David-and-Goliath scenario: The hometown coffeehouse outlasted its next-door neighbor, Starbucks, after nearly 10 years of competition.
National coffee buffs have started to take notice of Kansas City and St. Louis, too, and not just because of the sheer number of roasters. From the start, several local baristas and roasters have placed well in the World Coffee Events – in 2013, Pete Licata of Parisi won its World Barista Championship. The following year, as part of the U.S. Coffee Championships, Simeon Bricker of The Roasterie became the first-ever winner of the U.S. Latte Art Championship, while Tony Auger of Kaldi’s placed third in the U.S. Brewers Cup, and Nora Brady of Blueprint placed sixth in the U.S. Barista Championship. This year, the competition is coming to Kansas City – the qualifying event will be held at the Kansas City Conference Center from Feb. 2 to 5.
In addition, PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., Broadway Cafe and Kaldi’s have won coveted Good Food Awards, which recognize food-and-drink producers across the country for environmental and social responsibility, as well as for producing high-quality products.
Tooti Roe is one of the Kansas City coffee scene’s biggest cheerleaders and something of a local coffee expert – she and her husband, Marty, own three coffee-focused businesses in Kansas City: About the Coffee, a retail coffee shop; Service Call, a commercial coffee and espresso machine repair company; and Workbench Coffee Labs, the only teaching lab in Missouri certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
“When we travel outside Kansas City or people come here, they’ll say it seems like the Kansas City coffee scene was an overnight sensation,” Roe says. “[But] I’ve worked beside these people who have been banging the drum and trying to educate people for years – I’m seeing a lot of labor finally paying off. These tiny events and happenings and awards finally amassed enough for people outside of the area to say, ‘Wow, the Kansas City coffee scene is really something.’”
Anchored by movement in Kansas City and St. Louis, third-wave coffee roasters have started popping up elsewhere in the state. Two small-batch coffee roasters arrived in Columbia around the same time: Fretboard Coffee and its café landed in November 2013, followed by Shortwave Coffee in February 2014. That year, Tom Billinois started roasting in-house at Springfield, Missouri, staple The Coffee Ethic, which also features single-origin coffees and cold brew flowing from a nitro tap. Brick & Mortar’s tiny tasting room and roasting facility opened that fall, offering a carefully curated selection of coffee and espresso.
“Coffee is one of those things like beer and wine that respond to the amount of effort and time you put into it,” Brick & Mortar owner Jonathan Putnam says. “Our space is more like a brewery than a bar – there are things you can get at a bar that you can’t get at a brewery because [the brewery’s] model is to be a showcase for the product itself.”
Chances are, if you’ve visited a coffee shop in St. Louis, you’ve run into Zach Althaus.
Althaus worked at The Roasterie in his hometown of Kansas City for six years before bringing his expertise to St. Louis coffee shops and roasters including Kaldi’s, Comet Coffee, Foundation Grounds, Rise Coffee House, Goshen Coffee Co. and Sump Coffee.
That’s why some heads turned when he wound up on the staff of Matthew Daughaday’s much-anticipated restaurant, Reeds American Table, which opened in Maplewood, Missouri, this past summer. Daughaday assembled a dream team of culinary experts to lead his kitchen and he didn’t miss a beat with the beverage programs, either: In addition to two sommeliers, two Certified Specialists of Wine, a mixologist and a cicerone, he enlisted Althaus to develop a cutting-edge coffee program.
To that end, Althaus collected samples from around a dozen coffee roasters, both local and national, and held tastings with the entire staff. The initial menu featured French press and espresso offerings from Thou Mayest in Kansas City. This month, Reeds will begin a morning and afternoon café and light lunch service, featuring expanded coffee offerings like single-origin coffee and flavored lattes.
“The coffee at the restaurant will be better than 90 percent of others just depending on where it’s sourced from,” Althaus says. “You can batch-brew great coffee at a restaurant. A lot of people go to restaurants and may or may not go to that coffee shop, so it’s kind of like the restaurant is an instrument in coffee being taken seriously.”
Once considered an afterthought, chefs like Daughaday are starting to carefully curate their coffee programs – after all, coffee is often the diner’s last experience at a restaurant.
In Kansas City, popular restaurants such as Novel, Port Fonda and Voltaire all feature Oddly Correct coffee on their menus in various ways including French press, espresso or cappuccino. Aside from Reeds, a handful of restaurants in the St. Louis area are experiencing a similar shift. Coffee has always been a focus at Half & Half – the goal upon opening was “good food with good coffee” – but Mike Randolph has also put a lot of thought into the coffee service at his newly opened Público and Randolfi’s Italian Kitchen.
“The coffee should marry the philosophy of the food,” co-owner Liz Randolph says. “We look for seasonality, but also look to execute focused offerings.” Randolfi’s, a modern Italian restaurant, offers espresso alongside more creative coffee drinks – think espresso with a green Chartreuse-washed cup, or a macchia con pistacchio with espresso, Dumante pistachio liqueur and steamed milk. On the other hand, Público, a Mexican- and Latin American-inspired gastropub, uses a Bonavita immersion dripper, offering an experience somewhere between a French press and pour-over. The Randolphs source Blueprint’s single-origin coffees from the South American countries that inspire the restaurant’s seasonal fare.
Evan Jones, who’s previously worked as a cook or server at notable St. Louis-area restaurants Pastaria, Blood & Sand and Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar, brings an understanding of fine-dining service to Blueprint, where he now works as a barista, shift manager and with wholesale sales.
“Reeds is a good example of the new paradigm of coffee in restaurants,” Jones says. “There’s a lot of intentionality behind the coffee program, but the entire beverage list is focused on a complete dining experience. Coffee is absolutely part of the conversation.”
Blueprint Coffee, 6225 Delmar Blvd., University City, Missouri, 314.266.6808, blueprintcoffee.com
Brick & Mortar Coffee, 1666 E. St. Louis St., Springfield, Missouri, 417.812.6539, brickandmortarcoffee.com
Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co., multiple locations, 888.892.6333, kaldiscoffee.com
Oddly Correct, 3940 Main St., Midtown, Kansas City, Missouri, oddlycorrect.com
The Roasterie, multiple locations, 816.931.4000, theroasterie.com
Reeds American Table, 7322 Manchester Road, Maplewood, Missouri, 314.899.9821, reedsamericantable.com