it doesn't take a doctorate in economics to comprehend why the business of selling a highly addictive, 100-percent-legal substance is such a ridiculously brilliant idea. For evidence that the coffee business is performing remarkably well and showing no signs of slowing down, look no further than the 47 new Starbucks stores that opened in the middle of the night last Tuesday in La Jolla and the 29 new ones opening in Bonita next week, not to mention that one in your neighbor's front yard and the kiosk in your spare bedroom.
For some coffee entrepreneurs, though, simply dealing the drug to their customers isn't enough. These purveyors of caffeine don't want to confine themselves to working behind the counter at the pharmacy; they want to be inside the laboratory, taking part in the actual production of their commodity. This product personalization occurs most frequently in the form of seizing the bean roasting process from the clutches of the coffee brokers and bringing it into the kitchens of the coffeehouses themselves. Acquiring control of the roasting process is akin to cultivating one's own hydroponic lab-it allows the coffee shops to customize the flavor of their product while maximizing the freshness of the brews they serve.
Several local cafés have jumped on board with this trend, installing machines capable of roasting anywhere from one pound to 50 kilos of coffee beans at a time, and creating signature flavors and blends that are available with a level of exclusivity similar to that of a Colombian drug lord. Coffee fiends have never had it so good.
Nearly 30 years ago, San Diego Coffee Tea & Spice became one of the first local roasting operations in the city. Jill Begeman, vice president of sales and marketing for SDCT&S, cites "price, freshness and control of the taste profile of the coffee" as the initial reasons for starting the business. With a retail café in Kensington positioned directly across Adams Avenue from a Starbucks, it's impossible not to draw comparisons between local roasters and the mega-corporate coffee chains. "Unfortunately," Begeman says, "the large chain coffeehouse has become so pervasive, it's hard to swing a dead cat without hitting a couple of their locations."
With Starbucks stores spreading throughout San Diego like your favorite communicable infection, one might think that the livelihood of local coffee shops is in danger. Begeman doesn't perceive a threat. "In my opinion, [large coffee chains] have become the fast-food of coffee. The experience they offer is very standardized, very corporate.... People will see the value in patronizing independent coffeehouses to get a more satisfying personal coffee experience."
Ildi Carrillo, executive manager of Chicano Perk Café y Cultura in National City, agrees. "Anyone who knows anything about coffee-even someone who knows nothing about coffee-can assure you, the closer you can get to the roasting process, the more you can enjoy that cup of coffee." Carrillo and his partner, Rene Guzman, opened Chicano Perk three years ago in Barrio Logan and started roasting their own beans soon after. They bought their own one-pound-capacity roaster and almost immediately saw a rise in foot traffic and sales in their store.
While other local roasters are roasting both for themselves and for other businesses in and around San Diego, Carrillo says he and Guzman have no interest in selling their roasts to other coffeehouses. "Really, they should all be roasting their own. [There are] so many tiny roasters in the market."
Guzman's family owns coffee plantations in Colima, Mexico, where he learned the basics of roasting. After figuring out how to merge Mexican roasting traditions with U.S. health-inspection standards, Carrillo says they were able to "bring the "gourmet' back into the coffee industry," creating a product with "originality, boldness, unique blends, interesting combinations of flavors, deep aromas, and always creativity." Chicano Perk's owners aren't worried about the explosion of major coffee chains around the city.
"Local roasting is what will take back the original coffeehouse market from the corporate chains," explains Carrillo. ""Freshly roasted' is the way [coffee] is meant to be enjoyed."
Among the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable coffee roasters in town is Arne Holt, owner of Caffé Calabria in North Park. Holt left Seattle 11 years ago with $200 in his pocket in search of a city where he could follow his passion for coffee. He secured a loan, bought a small kiosk inside Grossmont Hospital and, soon after, opened Calabria's doors. Holt considers coffee freshness his No. 1 priority. "We started roasting because we wanted to buy coffee roasted in San Diego, but we couldn't find coffee roasted locally that we liked."
The decision to start roasting his own beans nearly bankrupted Holt at first, but things started to turn around five years ago, he says. Crunching on handfuls of coffee beans roasted just moments before, Holt explained the nuances of creating a profitable business of roasting. "It's a constant learning process-both in roasting and in business. We are always striving for perfection," he says. "If the roaster knows the culinary art of roasting, they can caramelize the sugars, producing coffee that is chocolatey and rich."
Holt is so serious about the freshness and flavor of Calabria's coffee that he conducts tasting sessions, or "cuppings," with his employees-and the public-every weekday morning at 8:15. In addition to maintaining quality control and making buying decisions for Calabria's raw beans, he uses these cuppings to increase the public's awareness of the roasting process. Part of the education process for Holt includes informing people about buying coffee from farms that grow the beans in a sustainable manner so that the land can be reused time and time again.
While freshness may be Holt's priority in creating the product he serves to his customers, he also places a lot of importance in giving back to the communities from where his company purchases its beans. This year alone, he says, Caffé Calabria has provided funds to send 65 children from one of the coffee-farming communities in Nicaragua to school, and there are new plans to work closely with farmers in Nepal, where Calabria has just purchased the entirety of a unique coffee crop.
In terms of independently owned cafés, "San Diego is really catching up with the most sophisticated American cities," Holt says. "Roasting adds to the hand-crafted element, while establishing the businesses' serious attitude about coffee." As the coffee industry carries on with booming progress, we will undoubtedly see hundreds of new corporate chain stores sprouting up like weeds in every neighborhood and Starbucks baristas making espresso in bathrooms, at the post office and next to your exam chair at the dentist. Those who wish to emphasize the highest quality of flavor and freshness in their coffee, however, will continue to seek out local roasters for a quality caffeine fix.
As Caffé Calabria's owner puts it, "the proof is in the cup."