Forget The Coasts, Denver Is A Craft Coffee Magnet
Doug Stone moved to Denver from Boston for a job. That might not sound unusual – Denver is the fastest-growing city in the country – but the job he moved for wasn't in oil, or tech or health care.
Stone works in coffee, and he uprooted himself from the Northeast to the Rockies to work as a barista at Corvus Coffee, a roaster and café in South Denver. He had been working at a coffee shop in Boston, but they didn't do their own roasting, and opportunities were limited.
When he heard from a former co-worker that Denver was "a really happening scene right now with coffee," he got on the line with Corvus' owner, got hired, and moved.
He’s not the only one. Denver's craft coffee scene is exploding. While working as a barista doesn't immediately bring home the big bucks, the growth in high-end roasters and cafés is providing career opportunities for those passionate about elevating coffee to more than just a cuppa joe.
To get why someone like Stone loves coffee enough to believe he can make a career out of it, it’s helpful to understand the difference between what roasters like Corvus are doing with coffee that’s so different.
Jake Brodsky, co-founder and president of Novo Coffee, another Denver-based roaster and an early pioneer in the city’s craft coffee scene, has watched the industry transform since he started out in 2002.
He describes coffee’s evolution in waves.
“So the first wave, on the much lighter, really watery coffee, some instant coffee,” he said. Think Folgers, Nescafe and your grandmother.
“The second wave was Starbucks. Strong, dark, and with a lot of very milky espresso drinks, but also talking a lot about origin on the Starbucks side.”
Think dark, intense brews, pumpkin spice lattes, and soccer moms. “I think that opened up the market for the third wave,” Brodsky adds.
Novo, Corvus, and many of the new roasters popping up in Denver represent this era of coffee. The difference is apparent in the coffee’s flavor.
“We are definitely on the light to medium side of the coffee spectrum, where you can taste the difference between coffees from different farms, or different varieties of the bean, or different ways of drying or processing the coffee fruit,” said Brodsky.
Denver's rapid growth, strong economy and established craft beer community are making it a destination for roasters and workers
Pouring a cup of coffee from a farm he works with in Panama, Brodsky explains a way of coffee drying called honey processing.
“The cherries [coffee fruits] are picked, they are peeled, so the skin is taken off, but some of the fruit is left on and that is how they are dried,” he said.
This affects the coffee’s taste. He takes a sip.
“It does absorb some of those sugars, and the floral, citrusy notes of the fruit if you were to eat a fresh cherry.”
With this attention to bean types, farms, processing and flavor, craft coffee roasters and cafes are doing for coffee what craft brewers did for beer, said Chris Schooley, a Fort Collins-based coffee consultant and founder of the Rocky Mountain Craft Coffee Alliance who is also works in beer – he is currently starting a new malting company.
Coffee and beer are both familiar products, so consumers are less intimidated when craft entrepreneurs start playing around with flavor, said Schooley.
“Everybody has some sort of base knowledge…and they can expand upon that, and I think that is really important,” said Schooley.
While craft coffee is also taking off in other parts of the country, especially in coffee meccas like Portland, Denver’s rapid growth, strong economy and established craft beer community are making it a destination for roasters and workers like Doug Stone, the Corvus barista.
Stone said he has told friends in Boston, Texas, and even Hawaii that “if you are looking for something different, or a change of scenery, or a place where there’s really an interest and customers are educated and palates are becoming more sophisticated, Denver is really a place where that is right now.”
Making a cup of pour over coffee, Stone selects a high-end roast from Costa Rica, measuring out the precise amount of grams for a single cup. He dumps it into the grinder.
“We always grind it fresh because of the volatile gases trapped inside the coffee, those are going to dissipate in 20 to 30 minutes, so grinding fresh is super important to us here.”
He wets the paper coffee filter first “to get rid of paper debris and preheat the cup,” then pours in the grinds as he heats a pot of water up to a precise temperature – 202 degrees.
“So I made a little volcano, a divot in the dry coffee bed, because this particular method is cone shaped, and I want to make sure water penetrates through all the grinds evenly. We do this for every customer who orders one of our pour over coffees.”
Barista jobs – even at high end coffee shops – still don’t pay all that well, Stone admits, despite the precision and effort that goes into creating a delicious cup. There are growth opportunities in the business, though.
“Whether it’s brokering green coffee, sourcing for a company, finding those relationships with other coffee farmers and even down to the more obvious bits, the roasting and the training baristas, that sort of thing,” he said.
Schooley, the coffee consultant, agrees. It’s not crazy to tell your mom you’re moving across the country to work in a coffee shop, because in a few years, you could be buying beans for that business and making management decisions as it grows.
“You can come in at an entry level and work your way up all the way through that industry, or even stay at certain points,” he said.
“You can be a career roaster, you can be a career barista and get into training, and management, and consulting, all kinds of things.”
At Novo, that’s what happened with roaster Erich Rosenberg.
A free spirit with a big red beard, Rosenberg checks on roasting beans as they hit the 600 degree mark inside the Novo warehouse, explaining how, in years past he worked at Starbucks, but quit six times.
He loves coffee, though, and when he landed at Novo, “it’s the first job I’ve not quit in the first six or eight months in my life. And I’ve had it for five years.”
What’s kept him is the creativity, a direct connection with ownership and company decision making.
“There’s not 100 people ahead of me,” Rosenberg pointed out.
Novo’s 20 full time employees all get health insurance benefits, and Rosenberg, who has a wife and son, said they are comfortable enough that his wife only works 10 hours a week.
“We have a nice life, a really good life.”
Phil Goodlaxson, the owner of Corvus, who moved to Denver from Chicago, sees himself as both a job creator locally and someone who pays farmers in other countries a better price for a better bean.
“Working at a coffee shop, to the wrong person, can sound very unglamorous,” he said. “But as the specialty coffee movement has gained a lot of momentum, that has created a lot of openings.”
Goodlaxson’s got some new projects – his company sells bottled cold-brewed coffee in places like Whole Foods, is starting to broker green coffee, and expanding their wholesale business.
With all those efforts come jobs.
“I can’t do that all myself,” he said. He needs coffee-loving marketers, buyers, production roasters, brokers.
In other words, more people like Doug Stone.