Backroom Coffee in The Dispatch

That’s using  the ol’ bean

A growing roster of micro-roasters is brewing success on the coffee scene in central Ohio and beyond

By  Robin Davis

First came microbrewers, followed by micro-distillers and then micro-roasters — or small coffee roasters.

The demand for good coffee has moved beyond the mainstream coffeehouses of Starbucks to independent startups.

Stemming from the local-food movement or from do-it-yourself trends, the roasters are heating up the coffee market — sometimes in unlikely places.

Backroom Coffee Roasters operates out of a Trek Bicycle shop in Upper Arlington. Thunderkiss coffee is roasted in a home. Silver Bridge Coffee Co. is based in a small facility in Gallipolis — a step up from the days when owner Lorraine Walker roasted coffee in a popcorn popper for friends and family.

Some of the roasters — such as Cafe Brioso; Impero Coffee Roasters in the Short North; and Yeah, Me Too in the Clintonville neighborhood — have storefronts. Others — including Backroom, Thunderkiss and Silver Bridge — are found only at farmers markets; a few upscale supermarkets; and Celebrate Local, the new all-Ohio-products store at Easton Town Center.

In the past year, the Hills Market on the Far North Side has added four new locally roasted coffees.

“It’s like the food-truck scene,” said Jill Moorhead, marketing director for the Hills. “People being out of work have created a realm for people to create their own businesses. People start as a hobby, then realize it’s a simple thing to do.”

Jason Valentine began selling his roasted coffee a year ago when he thought he might lose his job in construction.

“I really admire a lot of the food scene that’s growing in Columbus,” said the owner of Thunderkiss Coffee Roaster.

So he started packaging beans he roasted in 5-pound batches and selling them from Fresh Street, a Japanese food cart on High Street in the Short North.

Today, though more secure in his construction job, he still sells beans on the side — about 5 pounds a week.

In addition to Fresh Street, his coffee is offered at the Coop food truck in Clintonville and from his website at www.thunderkisscoffee.tumblr.com.

Jeff Davis, owner and roaster of Cafe Brioso, credits the expanding palate of consumers for the boom in micro-roasters.

“The ’90s and even the 2000s were about big cups with sugar and whipped cream and everything you can do to make it palatable,” he said, “because the coffee wasn’t very good.”

Times have changed.

“Independent coffee makers are becoming more specialized.”

Chris Bishop, owner of Backroom Coffee Roasters, began roasting coffee about three years ago because he couldn’t get what he considered good coffee at grocery stores.

He expanded his home roasting into a business when an opportunity presented itself in the summer of 2010.

As the owner of Trek Bicycle stores in central Ohio, he found a space on Lane Avenue for a third outlet — with a 5,000-square-foot storeroom he didn’t need for the bike business.

“It dawned on me: Bicycling and coffee go hand in hand,” Bishop said. “It just seemed like a really natural fit.”

In addition to roasting about 500 pounds of beans a week in 18-pound batches, he delivers 90 percent of his coffee to clients such as the Hills Market and Weiland’s Gourmet Market — by bike.

“There’s a tremendous buzz,” Bishop said of his small second business.

Freshness, said Walker of Silver Bridge, is the difference between her coffee and what is found on shelves at supermarkets.

In the 1950s, she said, most grocery stores had their own coffee roasters, with customers buying what was just roasted.

These days, coffee might rest on the shelf for months before it is purchased and brewed.

“A lot of micro-roasters popped up because they want to get back to respecting the coffee,” Walker said.

A “micro-roaster,” according to Roast magazine, produces less than 100,000 pounds of coffee a year.

Some of the older Columbus-area roasters make considerably less — such as 40,000 pounds, in the case of Cafe Brioso. (By comparison, Starbucks buys more than 225 million pounds of coffee beans a year.)

Roasters in central Ohio don’t seem to mind that more people are getting into the business.

Greg Ubert, who started Crimson Cup in 1991, operates the largest coffee-roasting operation in Columbus (although he wouldn’t share numbers), selling the result not only to area coffeehouses but also to hundreds of locations east of the Rocky Mountains.

“Competition is good,” Ubert said. “People can taste different kinds, like wine or beer or any beverage. There’s opportunity. That’s great for the industry.”

Despite the new locally roasted coffees at the Hills, Crimson Cup continues to make up 10 percent of the grocery sales there.

Mark Swanson — president of Stauf’s/Cup o’Joe, the oldest coffee roaster in the area — echoes what Ubert notes.

“More choice isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “We have a lot of friends in the industry. We share what we’re doing. The community has really grown, and I like it.”

Davis of Cafe Brioso — who started his career at Stauf’s, then opened a business in 2001 — is excited to see more small roasters.

“In the end, it’s better for the coffee consumer,” he said. “I would like on my day off to not have to come here to get something that’s amazing.”

robin.davis@dispatch.com  

Chris Bishop