Behind an espresso machine at Black Coffee and Waffle Bar in southeast Minneapolis, Kelly Nelson crafts an espresso. He carefully weighs and grinds the locally roasted beans, then tightly tamps the grounds. To the casual coffee drinker, the process might not look all that unusual. But it is.
Nelson, Black Coffee’s project manager, and co-owners Andrew and Lisa Ply recently rebranded their shop, formerly Muddsuckers Cafe, to serve the high-end craft brews, which are picking up steam in the Twin Cities.
“People get very tunnel vision about their coffee,” said Stephanie Ratanas, director of coffee for Dogwood Coffee of Minneapolis, “and people are just coming out of it here over the past few years.”
Craft coffee makers compare the shift to the surging interest in craft beer and cocktails. The shops use different beans, equipment and techniques to focus on making an artisanal product.
“It’s about a drink especially made for you,” said Lee Carter, owner of Five Watt, a new shop in south Minneapolis. “It’s a bit of the cocktail world translating to the coffee world.”
The biggest difference between craft coffee beans and, say, Starbucks beans is flavor. The Specialty Coffee Association of America ranks coffees on a 100-point “cupping” scale based on criteria such as acidity and aroma. Starbucks and other mainstream specialty shops sell coffee at about 80 points. Craft coffee ranks 86 or higher.
While it may seem like a small difference, a jump of just a few points is substantial, said Micah Svejda, a barista turned owner of Bootstrap Coffee Roasters.
One of the key components of craft coffee is lighter roasting, which, fans argue, doesn’t cover up the bean’s flavor profile or burn the bean. And it means more caffeine.
The lighter roast also allows for a range of subtle flavors. Craft coffee drinkers can taste hints of chocolate, raspberries or even floral notes.
But the differences don’t end there. In rebranding his cafe, Andrew Ply did everything from repainting to changing the direction the espresso machine faced so baristas don’t turn their backs to customers.
Lisa Ply, who is more involved in the food at Black Coffee, said the improvements have spilled over into the other products they sell. Sales have increased, and not just because the high-end beans have resulted in higher prices. The per-cup difference typically is only a few cents on the dollar.
Finding new converts
There’s a lot of work being done to convert traditional Twin Cities coffee drinkers into craft coffee apostles.
Greg Martin, a Dogwood Coffee salesman and owner of two Urban Bean locations, is reaching new customers by introducing craft coffee in restaurants — such as Bar La Grassa and Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar — that are looking to upgrade their after-dinner drinks.
He teaches restaurant staffs everything from using the high-end machines to steaming milk properly. Both Dogwood and Café Imports host classes at their locations in northeast Minneapolis for the employees, sales staff and even the coffee-drinking public.
Brewing coffee might sound simple to people who just push a button on their kitchen coffee makers, but it can get complicated very quickly.
“There’s a crazy learning curve,” said Black Coffee’s Nelson. “I had no idea. It’s a lifetime deal. You can’t just read a book and master coffee.”
A slow process
Changing local coffee habits has meant working against a lot of preconceived notions. It has come cup by cup, and customer by customer.
When Dogwood started in 2010, it didn’t make dark roast coffee, but that didn’t stop Twin Cities coffee drinkers, who are known for their love of dark roasts, from asking for it.
“There are people who like dark roasts and that’s fine, but we don’t serve that,” Ratanas said. “You don’t go into a pizza place and ask for ramen and expect them to have that, but there’s been pressure in coffee shops to be like that.”
Ratanas remembers the moment she stopped drinking French roast — a dark roast — coffee.
“In high school, I got French roast and put cream and sugar in it,” she said. “Later, I realized I was doing it because the coffee was gross and I was trying to make the coffee taste better.”
While many craft shops still offer cream and sugar, along with traditional macchiatos and lattes, people within the coffee community recommend that customers try the coffee black first.
Noah Namowicz, director of sales at Café Imports, said the industry is focusing on direct trade and highly traceable beans — even down to a micro-lot or sections of a coffee farm. This allows roasters and shops to market beans with a direct connection to a farmer and work with particular flavors.
Twin Cities gaining ground
The Twin Cities area has a long coffee history, with two of the top three national coffee franchises, Caribou Coffee and Dunn Bros, starting in Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively. However, the area is just now catching up to craft coffee, which has been around for more than a decade in some cities.
It’s unclear why the local coffee scene has been slow to embrace the artisanal movement, but there are theories. Namowicz points to the lack of shops in high-traffic areas. Highly visual stores would highlight craft coffee and help give the shift some exposure, he said.
Martin is confident that this won’t be a short-lived trend.
“This is not a mirage,” he said. “This is the new norm.”
Eric Best is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.