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VOL. 7 | NO. 51 | Saturday, December 13, 2014

Brewing Opportunity

Coffee fuels growing number of business ventures in Memphis

By Andy Meek

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When Memphians like Jimmy Lewis are leaving established careers to remake themselves as coffee roasters, it’s one sign that coffee culture in Memphis is abundant with opportunity and steadily coming into its own.

Lewis got out of the commercial real estate business and opened Relevant Roasters, a specialty wholesale coffee roasting business in the Broad Avenue Arts District. And his venture joins a growing collection of new ventures built around the signature bean, some recently opened, some still to come.

Porcellino’s, a new butcher shop in Brookhaven Circle by Hog & Hominy owners Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, will include a bar that features a kind of high-quality coffee many Memphians may not have experienced before.

The eatery’s coffee program will include nitro cold brew coffee, which is coffee with nitrogen gas dissolved into it, so that it pours like a Guinness. The nitrogen – which doesn’t dissolve well into a warm liquid, thus the coldness of the coffee – preserves the coffee, makes it last longer and gives it a fuller feel.

City & State, as another example, is a kind of modern-day general store opening in the Broad Avenue neighborhood early next year that will be home to a craft coffee house. Then there’s Muddy’s Bake Shop, which opened a sister location in Cooper-Young earlier this year at which coffee is a signature element.

Muddy’s Grind House is built like a café, and in recent days it hosted a guided tasting of its featured December brew, Café Noel, with J. Brooks Coffee Roasters co-founder John Pitman. The emphasis on serving a quality cup of joe at Muddy’s Grind House, of course, is also right there in the name.

Speaking of J. Brooks Coffee, which has been working on building a new production room, it’s been around since 2010, when it was founded by two coffee lovers, Pitman and Ben Bondurant. Its operation includes a roaster, online store and delivery, and its coffee is available around town at places like Muddy’s, Trolley Stop Market, High Point Grocery and others.

Meanwhile, Ugly Mug in recent weeks opened a freestanding café at the corner of Poplar Avenue and Perkins Road Extended in the space once home to Poplar Perk’n. The café – with “Ugly Mug Coffee” at the top of the exterior displayed in blue lighting – includes a drive-thru and complements its locally roasted coffee with items such as a custom pound cake created by La Baguette for the shop.

Then there are coffee-preneurs like Jeremy Harris, whose Memphis-based micro roaster Reverb Coffee Co. is planning to move into its own space.

“I think it’s great for people to be drinking a higher level of coffee,” said Harris, who started Reverb in 2013 and whose website presents customers with coffee options from different countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica, among other places.

“A few years ago, I saw local, craft beer taking off and thought, ‘Yeah, coffee’s not too far behind,’” Harris continued. “I think peoples’ connection to the city is another thing, too. So many people have moved here to teach or work in a nonprofit and want to enjoy the city, and if they’re going to do that, they’re going to be trying to find local outlets where they can purchase things.”

‘A different experience’

Michael Hudman is co-owner of Porcellino's along with Andy Ticer. The two are partners in nearby Hog & Hominy.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Lewis is yet another example of how coffee culture in Memphis is clearly having a moment. His Relevant Roasters launched in September, the result of some soul-searching on a quest to “create fulfilling work for myself.” He poured that ambition and energy into launching his business in a 2,480-square-foot space at the corner of Broad and Tillman that features environmentally sensitive whole bean and ground coffee.

He’s especially eager to sell his blends to a particular kind of customer, the type of person he describes as curious, discerning and eager to try new things. And he’s constantly expanding the brand, announcing earlier this month the availability of Relevant Roasters coffee at Cosmic Coconut on Sanderlin Avenue, where customers can buy bags of Relevant’s coffee and a latte made with its espresso roast.

Relevant’s coffee also is available at other outlets around town, including on the shelves of Miss Cordelia’s in Harbor Town as well as at places like Tart Coffee Shop & Bakery.

Relevant’s beans are used for several different levels of roast, including espresso, medium roast, a house blend, a decaffeinated coffee made using the Swiss water process and single-origin coffees that will rotate. And the beans are roasted using a convection process rather than the more traditional drum-heating process.

“I’m not trying to convince you or anybody else to drink my coffee just because I roast good coffee – and we do. We roast damn good coffee,” Lewis said. “A cup of coffee can be a very pleasurable experience for a lot of different reasons. If it’s prepared lovingly, if it’s fresh, if the distance between the time when it’s roasted and the time when it’s drunk is short – then it’s a whole world of a different experience.

“As far as starting Relevant Roasters, I was on a mission to create fulfilling work for myself. And I am of the opinion that when one is doing what one is called to do, they’re serving their community in a way that’s good and totally worthwhile.”

The name of his venture speaks to the sense of purpose he imbues into his coffee. It might sound like an extraordinarily high-minded ambition for someone whose business is built around ensuring customers enjoy a premium cup of coffee, but as the name says, Lewis’ hope is to give people experiences relevant to their own lives and tastes.

“I believe in inspiring by example, and this is the best way I know how to do this at this point in my life,” Lewis said. “I’m very inspired by many people doing artisan work and interesting and unusual things and going against the grain and being unconventional. There are a lot of examples of that in Memphis – and a lot of the craft brewers are that way. So, the drive came from a desire to be fulfilled and engaged in my work.”

Roasts and relationships

Lisa Toro, a co-founder of City & State along with her husband Luis, said they want their coffee bar to celebrate the entire life cycle of coffee, from crop to cup.

The craft coffee side of the store they’re in the process of opening plans to focus on high-quality roasts and maintain a limited menu of select coffees and teas. That will complement the artisan, local maker nature of City & State, which will carry things like men’s and women’s clothing, home goods and accessories and will double as an apothecary, among other things.

Toro said the craft coffee side also will try to introduce guests to flavors they never thought could be found in a cup of joe, and help them find new favorites.

“Coffee, like wine, has nuances depending on the region, elevation, climate, roasting and preparation,” she said. “Coffee can be more than just a way to caffeinate; it can be experiential. … Coffee is becoming more of a culinary art form, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be approachable and fun. We want our guests to ask questions and talk to the baristas. We’ll have a number of brewing methods available at any given time, and want to share with guests why we use them, the type of coffee each method will produce and even how to use them at home. At the end of the day, craft coffee is about relationships. Relationships with the farmers, the roasters, the baristas and the customers.”

Muddy’s founder Kat Gordon says the thing about coffee that she loves and which inspired her to build much of her new location around it is the community aspect.

When thinking about how to branch out from the main product at Muddy’s in a new location – the baked goods, whereas she wanted to try something different in Cooper-Young – coffee stood out as being different enough but also including many of the same things that make baked goods work well for her operation. She mentions specifically the variety, possibilities for creativity and the high level of customer contact that come with coffee.

“So far, people love the idea of swapping out our drip coffees by featuring roasters for a month at a time,” Gordon said. ‘November’s ‘barista’s choice’ (was) a Brazilian Pea Berry from Zingerman’s Coffee Co. in Ann Arbor, and for December we’re doing the Café Noel blend from J. Brooks.

“A lot of folks are used to espresso from an automatic machine where the barista simply pushes a couple of buttons, but each of our shots is measured, weighed and pulled by hand, which makes a big difference. It takes a little bit longer but yields a high-quality cup, and our customers have really enjoyed the experience of their coffee through great taste as well as witnessing the care we put into their beverage.”

To her, and the rest of Memphis’ coffee connoisseurs-turned-entrepreneurs, it’s about bringing quality and community to the public, one cup at a time.

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