The Story of Uel Zing—An Entrepreneur Doing Cold Brew 24/7

UEL ZING coffee - bottle 4 pack snow
I was excited to cyber-meet Samuel Sveen not to long ago, when he reached out to me to tell me about his passion for cold brew, and its result: a business based on quality cold brewed coffee. He calls it Uel Zing, and the business will be one year old in March.
Uel Zing's branding is recognizable all around Bloomington, Illinois, where it's based. But Samuel is focusing attention on building wholesale and mail order right now, so get ready to see this logo in a lot more places than Bloomington!

Uel Zing’s branding is recognizable all around Bloomington, Indiana, where it’s based. But Samuel is focusing attention on building wholesale and mail order right now, so get ready to see this logo in a lot more places than Bloomington!

Samuel totally had my attention: not only do we love hearing about baristas making their way in the world with creative interpretations on coffee, but we celebrate baristas who take the leap and create their own business. That’s just what Samuel—hence, Uel—did with his company, Uel Zing, which is a cart and also a pop-up in Bloomington, Indiana.
I found his story so interesting that I thought you guys would, too…
Sarah: First of all, what does Uel Zing mean?
Samuel: Abridged: Uel is the second part of my name, Samuel, and when you’re all hyped up on my coffee, you’ll ZING!
Uel is just the second part of Samuel, my first name. I never loved the alliteration of Sam Sveen (pronounced, ‘Sven’), so I would try to use Uel sometimes; it never really worked, but now it does for the coffee biz name. When I would be on bar and all hyped up on espresso, I would say, “I’m zinging!” So that’s where that came from. Plus, Uel puns as ‘you’ll’ zing.
     That was basically how I came up with it, but a lot of people have asked me about it and told me what they thought it meant. Like Uel is like ül in German, which is close to öl, which is oil, like for a car. It also kind of looks like ‘fuel.’ The strangest one is that a very similar sounding phrase has something to do with plastic surgery and taking a lot of selfies in Korean…
     I just figure that it’s vaguely European, and I like that. My heritage is mostly Norwegian, which is cool because they happen to be big into coffee there.
The man and his cart.

The man and his cart. After debuting the Uel Zing cold brew carry in March 2013, Samuel’s cold brew gained a sizable following, even though cold brewed coffee was relatively unheard of in Bloomington before this.

Sarah: How and when did you first get the idea to put a cart together and to focus only on cold brew?
Samuel: Abridged: March 2013
Between New York City and Bloomington, I spent a few months living with my brother in Bozeman, Montana. He is a big entrepreneur and was encouraging me to start my own business the whole time, while I just worked at a coffee shop with 20 flavors of sugar (local though, not S*bucks). When I moved to Bloomington, I wanted to do something more with my English degree, but I realized that coffee is what I know and love, so I decided to start my own coffee company.
     I marched to Bloomington in the ides of March, with no idea what I’d be doing except to live with my girlfriend. Within a week or two, I decided to make some sort of coffee business and began to look into the logistics. A cart was the first thought for a couple reasons: super low overhead compared to the rent, etc., of a shop; you can choose any location you please; and food carts are just catching on here, so it’s a good time to get in on the scene.
     Over Easter, I visited my family in Minneapolis and pitched it to them. My dad and two brothers are lawyers and/or businessmen, and they thought it sounded alright, so they gave me a very small amount of capital to work with, and I started building a cart. After sorting out all the proper permits and insurance and paperwork, I began brewing at an official “commissary kitchen” (which basically just means everything is stainless steel) and paying rent by the hour. Monday, May 13, 2013, I hit the streets with the cart, and have been working to make it work ever since.
Samuel and the Uel Zing cart are mobile, and show up all over Bloomington to sell the cold brew.

Samuel and the Uel Zing cart are mobile, and show up all over Bloomington to sell the cold brew.

     Cold brew was sort of the key to the cart set up since it is so darn stable. I usually brew four 5-pound batches at a time, and then that just sits in the walk-in cooler and I take it out as needed. I carry it in gatorade-style coolers, and at the end of the day, just return it to the fridge. There is virtually no waste of coffee, and the grounds are composted.
Big gatorade coolers, ice, and plastic cups got me by for the first summer, and I was constantly figuring out better ways to do things along the way. For one, I was brewing the coffee at the kitchen, then carrying it out to the truck, then shed, then back to truck and kitchen 24 hours later to drain. Now I literally cold brew it—in the walk in cooler—because it helped with health code stuff for my bottling process, but also it just made way more sense anyway. There are many ‘ah-ha’ moments like that!
Brewing vessel: 5-gallon food-grade buckets with a nozzle I drilled out of the bottom plus huge muslin sacks I had a friend sew for a pretty easy and cheap system. Though I don’t have an additional felt filter like a Toddy, I don’t drain out of the very bottom, but instead out of the side just above where most of the silt settles anyway, so it’s still a pretty fine-free coffee.
Sarah: Why do you like this concept?
Samuel: Abridged: It’s a great brew method with little waste, and I wanted a very minimalist menu that would be easy to cart around.
Cold brew is great logistically because it’s so stable and waste-free, like I said above. But also it’s a really different and great tasting coffee, and an effective way to brew coffee. I know it’s already out of fashion in the coffee world, but it was actually pretty much unheard of in Bloomington before I arrived. I’m not totally sure on this, but supposedly there was only one other shop that had just started cold brewing that summer. The people that did know what cold brew is were very excited to finally have some in town, and the rest of the people, I had to explain it to and have them sample. They were cold brew converts on the spot.
     I’m a fan of “minimalism” in most concepts, and my menu was pretty minimal. We sold exactly one item: 16 ounces of cold brew for $3. I knew I had to pack milk, almond milk, and simple syrup to please the masses (and sure, it is pretty good with milk), but otherwise that was the only thing I sold for the first summer.
     By the way, I do not roast and have no intention of roasting any time soon. I enjoy and am good at the barista/front-of-house side of things. I have a great relationship with a local roaster who uses an electric fluid bed air roaster to roast my ZING blend of Ethiopian, Nicaraguan, and Sumatran beans. It has definitely been interesting to work with Quarrymen Roasting Co., which is small operation that is very passionate and knowledgeable. They convinced me to go with a blend for its complexity and consistency instead of a “one trick pony” single-origin, and I think we did good.
Samuel makes the cold brew in a commissary kitchen and totes it around town for sale to his happy customers.

Samuel makes the cold brew in a commissary kitchen and totes it around town for sale to his happy customers.

Sarah: What brought you from New York to Bloomington?
Samuel: Abridged: A girl.
A girl. We met in New York through music stuff (we both play a lot of music) and she was finishing her Ph.d in English Literature at Indiana University, writing her dissertation from afar. But she wasn’t getting it finished, so she moved back to Bloomington for a more academic environment and I came with (with a few months of fresh air in Montana in between).
     I was in New York via Gimme! Coffee—I got a BA in English at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., then started working at Gimme [in Ithaca] before heading to the city.
Sarah: How’s the coffee culture in Bloomington?
Samuel: Abridged: Not ‘Third Wave’ at all yet, but good potential. Definitely some travelers and students who are ready for and seeking better coffee.
There is definitely a potential, and a swelling demand for better coffee. A lot of my regulars are either well-traveled and/or students, who are more aware of “third wave” culture. Though I also have plenty of local Hoosiers who just love how smooth the cold brew is.
     There is certainly a need for education, and I do my best to engage every customer and tell them as much as they’re willing to hear. And I try to share good information on social media, too.
     I hosted three different cuppings/labs that went over really well. We dissected my blend, cupping each bean individually plus the blend to see how the different components work together. We did one with three different roast levels of the same Nicaraguan beans, and we did one comparing my Zing blend on V60, Aeropress, and French press. They were all pretty basic—not stuff we’d be doing at Gimme, but I was just trying to keep it accessible and fun. After the roast level one, some guys started home roasting because they got so excited about it, and every week I have a new customer tell me that they just got an Aeropress (that was the most popular at the lab, and my personal favorite). So that feels really cool and like some real progress, getting people excited about better coffee and brewing it themselves.
Uel Zing had a pop-up bar in Bloomington at the end of 2013, which Samuel used not only to serve manually brewed coffee, but also to host educational events for curious customers. They were a huge success.

Uel Zing had a pop-up bar in Bloomington at the end of 2013, which Samuel used not only to serve manually brewed coffee, but also to host educational events for curious customers. They were a huge success.

     Uel Zing also organized on two occasions a biking caffeine crawl to a few other shops in town. One of the most popular local shops is actually known for mediocre coffee, so we avoided them, but went to other shops that were either new or somehow trying to do something interesting.
     The local Coop has a new location with a coffee bar and the head guy there is pretty progressive. He serves my cold brew and is working a lot with his baristas on dialing-in and milk texture. If there’s a chance for a latte art throwdown any time soon, it’ll be there probably.
     One fancy restaurant serves pour-overs, with locally roasted beans. I’ve been in a few times but never caught their lead barista so I don’t know their exact approach. The baristas working didn’t seem to be super excited about coffee for coffee’s sake.
     There are plenty of Starbucks drinkers and burnt espresso with blobs for art.
     There are about 3 big roasters in town, but 1 guy has 2 brands and supplies almost every single shop and restaurant in town. He has a drum roaster and I think he’s a certified La Marzocco rep, so most of the machines in town are LM. He doesn’t seem to be big in the training side of things though.
     In conclusion, it’s an uphill battle, but I definitely feel like I’m gaining momentum and making a splash in the community with my cold brew and other coffee education/ events. And I’m sure there’s more going on than I’m giving credit for; this is just my perspective after living here for less than a year.
Sarah: What has been the response from the public to Uel Zing?
Samuel: Abridged: Pretty great. Most people now at least have seen the bright yellow bike cart, and if they’ve tried the cold brew, they love it.
My bright yellow cart made the front page of the paper for an article on the food cart scene, a bike blog did an article, and I’ve had at least 6 or 7 different students interview me or do photo projects. Hundreds of people walk by me in an afternoon and seem interested in the cart, rubbernecking their way past and/or saying ‘great idea!’ Of course a handful of folks will turn around when I tell them ‘No, I don’t have 20 flavors of sugar,’ but many will take a sample and end up buying a cup.
     The branding is pretty solid, too—people love to put my ZING bolt stickers all over, and they don’t recognize me if I’m not in yellow. My favorite time was when I was out a local bar and a random customer who I didn’t remember just shouted, “ZING!” as I walked by.
Samuel now bottles his brew and sells it in BPA-free bottles to wholesale accounts as well as via mail order.

Samuel now bottles his brew and sells it in BPA-free bottles to wholesale accounts as well as via mail order.

Sarah: You had a pop-up shop going at the end of last year. Is it still up and running?
Samuel: Abridged: Nope.
No. It was this yoga studio in an office building that was actually a pretty neat space, and had a good downtown location, but it was set back from the street by a private parking lot and just didn’t look anything like a coffee shop. It was great to have and I learned a lot, but it was ok when it was over. I had it September through the end of November. That’s where I did my cuppings. Because it was temporary, the health dept. let me run it without any sinks or proper food stuff—I was still making everything back at the commissary. Though I added Aeropress and V60 on the menu there and just brought in water and electric kettles and used a sludge bucket for grounds.
Sarah: Do you plan to open another shop?
Samuel: Abridged: Not any time soon.
We’re focusing on the bottles and getting them distributed to build up some capital. And yeah, we’ll keep doing the cart and pop-ups/education events, too.
     My girlfriend and I were all excited to open a shop, and a lot of customers want us to, but we decided to focus on the new-found bottling distribution idea for the time being. At the end of the day, it takes A LOT of coffees to pay rent, employees, etc. After doing so many projections and reports and stuff, I don’t actually understand how so many coffee shops exist!
     So our bottles of cold brew are going into the local coop in March, and we’re focusing on gaining more wholesale accounts of the bottles or the concentrate for restaurants to use for their iced coffee. We’ll keep the cart running on sunny days, and definitely more pop-up bars/education events to build the brand and the overall coffee culture in town, but the wholesale stuff is where the numbers really add up.
Sam started Uel Zing with small loans from his family, and he's learning a lot as he approaches his one-year anniversary. He's converted thousands of Bloomington residents into cold brew devotees, and he's expanding his business in a smart and financially sound direction: into wholesale.

Sam started Uel Zing with small loans from his family, and he’s learning a lot as he approaches his one-year anniversary. He’s converted thousands of Bloomington residents into cold brew devotees, and he’s expanding his business in a smart and financially sound direction: into wholesale.

Sarah: You make cold brew, hot coffee (using cold brew), and CONK, and now you have these RTDs — what other products do you intend to roll out?
Samuel: Abridged: That’s our niche for now. But we want to ramp up our online sales with subscriptions and a video series.
I like to keep it minimal, and from a business perspective, focused and ‘niched-down.’ So for now, just the cold brew. We’re starting with 12-ounce RTDs and hope to distribute the concentrate CONK in stores further down. Right now you can only get the CONK directly from me. I would like to get different beans and blends involved, but for now I think the one consistent product is important to start with, especially in a place where cold brew is still kind of new. The online sales are something that I want to push more, selling 4-packs of the RTDs and monthly/weekly subscriptions. We also have tshirts.
     Oh, importantly, I’m planning to start a video series, starting with my cold brew—how to make drinks with it, how its brewed, etc.—then go in depth on other things, too, like the Aeropress. There are a lot of videos out there, but they’re either a dude in a kitchen and terrible, or too cool and stylized and don’t explain enough. Also, have you noticed that they all say ‘this is how you do it.’ There are a million different ways to use the Aeropress, and I would like to address that! So yeah, keep an eye out for UEL ZING coffee talk :)

Sarah: All the cold brew stuff out there usually comes in glass. What made you decide to use BPA-free plastic bottles?

Samuel: Abridged: Well, they’re harder, better, faster, stronger. Lighter, resealable, and reusable, and easier to recycle. 
I initially considered plastic because of cost—they’re a bit cheaper. But then the more I thought about, the more they made sense in every other way. They’re way lighter, they won’t shatter, they’re resealable and reusable, and they’re generally easier to recycle. People gave me some flack about whether or not they’re actually more recyclable, but otherwise the BPA-ness was the only other beef, and that’s taken care of.
     They are really hard and the amber color looks great—a few people have been surprised to learn that they weren’t glass.
     For a business that is planning to expand in online sales and therefore shipping, the lighter and shatterproof properties make plastic a no-brainer—I just worry that there’s something I’m missing! I mean, I do agree that a Coke is best out of glass. But for all practical purposes, Uel Zing has gotta go plastic.
To find out more about Samuel and Uel Zing, visit his website, follow him on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook. We did!

About the Author

Sarah

Sarah Allen is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.