Editor’s note: Don Niemyer and his wife, Carissa, operated Speedboat Coffee in Portland, Ore., until not too long ago when he and his family decided to make a big change: not only were they relocating to Fort Collins, Colorado, but they were going to take their sweet time doing it. Don, his wife, and their two daughters ages 7 and 8, decided to leave Portland in their Volkswagon Rialta RV to travel around the country visiting cafes. My old pal Chrissy Hoag, who had gotten to know Don when she was in wholesale at Stumptown Coffee, put me and Don in touch originally, and we’ve been chatting about Don writing a column for the Barista Magazine Blog for a while. We got serious about it in May when he emailed saying he was ready to get rolling with it. He wrote, “Over the past year, we actually DID move into an RV just to be prepared for the trip, but haven’t gotten around to leaving town yet. We decided to go ahead and do a portion of our trip starting in June, and do the rest whenever the shop sells. In the meantime, if you happen to have an idea of how this type of trip could be used to create a story for BMAG I’d love to talk about it. I’ve been thinking of collecting “best practices” or maybe doing a “state of the nation” kind of approach or maybe coming at it from the standpoint of highlighting some lesser known folks who are out there doing great work, which might be encouraging to readers… I’ve been blogging a little to kind of experiment with finding an approach at two sites, if you care to check them out: www.rialtacoffeetour.wordpress.com, www.pdxcoffeeconsultants.wordpress.com.”
So I told Don to go for it—this is exactly the kind of story we love featuring at Barista Magazine: real stories from the field about people who love coffee so much they want to explore it in an entirely unique way.
Here is the third installment of Don’s column, The Rialta Coffee Tour. Don will be exploring different themes as he continues to write for us, so check back often to see what he and his family have been up to on this most killer cafe tour of the United States!
EXPLORING POUR-OVER BARS
By Don Niemyer
It was a dark, rainy night in Colorado Springs, Colorado. My friend and I walked purposefully down the main strip, then veered off down a side street.
Then, half way down the block we came to an alley. We exchanged quick glances and he mumbled, “This is it,” then darted down the even darker, even quieter alley. Past overflowing garbage cans and sidestepping puddles, we continued down the alley until we got to a door labeled 21A (not the real name). It had a single purple light bulb dimly glowing in the otherwise pitch black cavern. My friend reached out for the doorknob, gave it a turn, then slowly pushed it open. We stepped quickly inside into another world of mahogany, leather and gorgeous hardwoods. We had found it. The secret bar.
On another day, in San Francisco, with the sun shining brightly at 10 a.m., I slipped into a coffee shop. The customers were lined up at the register, plunking down their hard-earned cash for the go-go juice they needed to get their day started. Cappuccinos, lattes, black coffee. They were slinging it all as fast as one could imagine. I walked purposefully past the huddled masses, yearning to… well, wake up. I caught the eye of the girl at the bar, and as she cracked a knowing grin, I said, just loud enough for her, “Top Bar open?” “Right up that staircase”, she said, handing the next guy his eight-ounce latte. And up I went, joining a small handful of others who were in the know. We were there for a slower, more conversational purpose. And while it wasn’t exactly a secret, it gave us a heightened experience. One that, in truth, was available to everyone. But one not designed for caffeinating the masses. This coffee had some things it wanted to say, and we were here to let that coffee speak its mind, no matter how long it took.
As I have traveled around the nation in my tiny mansion—a 21-foot VW Rialta RV—seeking out some of the innovators who are creating interesting experiences and pushing the coffee conversation forward, it has been interesting to notice folks who are creating a special place for coffee to be taken a bit more seriously. Many of us have embraced this posture from a theoretical position, but wrestled with its viability in the real world of clearing a line of customers, each of whom have varying levels of interest in knowing the flavor notes or processing methods of the particular coffee they are about to consume.
To deal more effectively with these mutually exclusive realities, a growing number of coffee shops are creating a distinct experience option for those interested in knowing more about the coffee, taking their time to discuss it with the baristas, experience it slowly at different temperatures, or even brewed using various methods. Creating these experiences comes with some problems. They may require additional staff, equipment, or space. But we’ve seen some folks dealing with those challenges admirably, and would like to share a couple of them with you.
Sightglass Coffee Roasters in San Francisco has created a space on the mezzanine level which is called The Top Bar. It has its own espresso machine, water tower, pour-over hardware, a distinct POS for payment on the spot, and a few bar-style seats to create an inviting atmosphere. The Top Bar is open limited hours, but when it is open it has its own staff person dedicated to facilitating this enriched experience. And one more thing: IT IS GORGEOUS.
Coffee Slingers in Oklahoma City has recently carved out some real estate to create a similar experience. It is a distinct space they call The Back Bar, which is, fittingly, located at the end of the cafe. The Back Bar is open a few hours a week during which time customers are invited to taste coffees currently being roasted. The space is used strictly for pourovers, and an iPad is hooked into the main POS so staffers can ring transactions on the spot. While hours are currently limited, Coffee Slingers intends to increase operating time as customers become more knowledgeable.
Upon entering Four Barrel Coffee’s first location at 375 Valencia in San Francisco, you usually find yourself in a long line leading up to two POS stations, behind which stand two baristas on two machines slinging the good stuff at a breakneck pace. But if you look to your left, you’ll notice an attentive barista in no particular rush, making pourovers and discussing coffees with a small number of folks hanging around and enjoying their experience. As with Sightglass and Coffee Slingers, this space at Four Barrel has a dedicated POS and brew equipment so customers can be rung up on the spot, completely bypassing the rush-n-grab which typically accompanies the main line.
In addition to these three roasters who have dedicated a pile of resources to exploring their coffees in this slow-and-steady way, there were dozens of others who had less-intense versions of the same idea. Here’s a sampling of some setups we’ve seen so far:
So whether it’s an entire bar installation or just a kettle and some hot water, cafes around the country are discovering ways to stick that microphone right in their coffee’s face and see what happens. And so far, it seems like coffee is enjoying its time in the spotlight.
Thanks for joining me for another report from the Rialta Coffee Tour! I couldn’t be happier that you did, and I hope you’ll tune in again soon. Next time around, we’ll be sharing about some folks who are working those amazing competition-style specialty beverages into their cafe menus. That’s gonna be a tasty edition you’ll not want to miss! See you then!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Don and Carissa Niemyer have owned three different coffee shops in Portland, OR over the past 5 years. They are planning to relocate to Fort Collins, CO where they will continue in the coffee industry, but the opportunity to visit the nation’s finest coffee houses on the way seemed too good to pass up. In preparation for this adventure they moved into a 99 square foot, VW Rialta RV, where they currently reside full time with their two daughters, and travel around pouncing on unsuspecting baristas when they can. Read more about their adventures at www.rialtacoffeetour.wordpress.com.