Denver’s renaissance has been turning heads nationwide thanks in part to its chefs, brewers, and distillers. Now, a growing number of passionate roasters and baristas are adding another layer of sophistication to a city on the rise. Their goal is to introduce you to coffee’s stunning depth and diversity, qualities that—until recently—have gone largely neglected. Pull up a chair, pour a cup of your favorite roast, and get to know the game changers of Colorado’s craft coffee movement.
WORDS: JOSH LOHMER IMAGES: TREVOR BROWN JR.
CONTRIBUTOR: AARON ROSENBLUTH
“Today we’re going to roast a Gesha,” said Jay DeRose, Co-Owner of MiddleState Coffee, which operates out of a charming, tidy little room in the back of Steadbrook, a men’s fashion boutique on South Broadway.
As it turns out, Gesha is a variety of the Arabica coffee plant, just like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are varieties of the one species of grapevine that produces all fine wines.
The Gesha was first developed in the highlands of Panama on a farm called Hacienda la Esmeralda, and the variety has become something of a legend, commanding in some cases upwards of $175 per pound for green (unroasted) beans. Although it thrives in the higher-altitude climates of Latin America, the Gesha originated near a town of the same name in Ethiopia, generally considered the birthplace of coffee, not far from humanity’s own origins in East Africa’s Rift Valley.
MiddleState is one of the newer kids on the coffee block in Denver. DeRose and his business partner, Dustin Pace, recently purchased a new small-batch, $30,000 roaster, which has a cast iron roasting drum to better regulate heat. The partners exude a cool but meticulous ethic, visible in everything from their company’s newly minted labels to their selvedge denim barista aprons—all crisp, clean, and precise. Pace and DeRose have been working in the coffee industry for years, but this is their first independent venture. “I’ve always been a hands-on, DIY guy,” said DeRose, “I want to make things, and when I do something, I want to do it right. There’s so much to learn about coffee. It has so much to offer. I love to see people realize that and get excited about it.”
Soon after the Gesha was dropped into the roaster, DeRose began checking intently on the beans every few seconds, monitoring their rapidly changing color and aroma; more than 1,500 chemical reactions happen during the roast. We were anticipating “first-crack,” when the beans expel their moisture and the sugars begin to caramelize. It sounds faintly like popcorn popping, and shortly thereafter, DeRose released the beans to cool. They had an attractive cinnamon-ish color and warm aroma. The whole process had taken less than 15 minutes.
DeRose explained that companies like Starbucks typically roast past “second-crack.” Depending on the bean, this can add body but also bitterness, gradually diminishing the coffee’s natural sweetness, acidity, and complexity—emphasizing instead the flavors created by the roasting itself. “We want to protect the integrity of the bean,” said DeRose. “We start by seeking out exceptional coffees, and we try to roast them properly so people can taste their distinctive characteristics. From sourcing to serving, that’s our goal.”
A few days later, we brewed the Gesha. DeRose chose the pour-over method to help preserve the coffee’s delicate characteristics and prevent any sediment from clouding the taste. He described the aromas as extraordinarily floral—like soft jasmine or honeysuckle—and noted flavors of lemongrass, passion fruit, lychee, and pear.
The approach taken by MiddleState and an ever growing number of others in Denver and nationwide has become known as coffee’s third wave. Its leaders favor trade practices, roasting styles, brewing methods, and service standards best suited to coax out a coffee’s true essence, or at least its best self.
But how did we get here—to a point where coffee descriptions read like they were written by a sommelier, and the price per ounce for beans can sometimes rival Dom Pérignon? And what does Denver have to offer a movement that is still in its adolescence—a movement that has only begun its attempt to redefine the coffee industry as a whole?
FROM SOCK SWEAT TO SECOND FIDDLE
Coffee’s popularity boomed during prohibition, and by the 1940s, most Americans were boiling it in a percolator for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Per capita consumption peaked at more than 45 gallons in 1946, but it steadily declined from there for a number of reasons, including the rise of soda.
But poor quality was the main problem. Starting in the 1950s, coffee went from mediocre to given coffee’s thin and uniformly boring flavor. “The only real differentiator in the market in those days was coupons,” said Mark Overly, who owns Kaladi Coffee near the University of Denver and has been roasting for decades. “People basically chose coffee based on who was offering the best deals.”
Things began to change in the mid-1960s when Alfred Peet, who was born in Holland, helped to popularize fresh, dark-roasted, European-style coffee. The rich cups served at Peet’s first store in Berkeley, California, inspired the Starbucks’ founders, who opened their first shop in Seattle in 1971.
In the subsequent decades, however, something strange happened. Coffee quality improved dramatically, but as Americans moved from Folgers to pumpkin-spice lattés, the bean itself slipped into the background. “People weren’t excited about coffee so much as the coffee drinks,” said Overly.
Coffee became half of a hyphenated beverage. Like the liquor in a sugary cocktail, espresso became merely the base for caffeinated milkshakes (extra whip). Propelled by chains like Peet’s, Starbucks, and Caribou, this “second wave” introduced customers to better coffees but also racks of flavored syrups and lots of steamed milk. If the second wave had a high water mark, it might be Starbucks’ recent boast that its customers can concoct more than 87,000 possible drink combinations.
BACK TO BLACK
“Nothing breaks a barista’s heart like watching someone dump cream and sugar into great coffee,” said Josh McNeilly, owner of Black Black Coffee, which started as a series of pop-up shops serving only hand-brewed black coffee. With the help of about $6,300 from Kickstarter for an espresso machine, Black Black recently took up permanent residence in Denver’s Taxi building. As we chatted, I was served a delicious pour-over Kenyan with an unmistakable stewed-tomato aroma.
About 10 years ago, McNeilly, who has a patient, soft-spoken demeanor, was working as a barista when someone from Denver’s Novo Roasters dropped off a bag of Amaro Gayo from Ethiopia. “It was the first time I tasted anything in coffee other than coffee,” he said. “It blew me away.”
With Black Black, McNeilly wants others to experience that moment of discovery, a mission that has softened his purist tendencies, a little. “I want to be graceful and show people what’s possible,” he said. “I’m going to be the nicest guy who’s not willing to budge, ever.”
McNeilly’s passion and principles align with those of many third wavers. Their insistence on brewing and serving coffee their way—don’t come looking for a 20-ounce latté here—might seem pretentious to some. But in McNeilly’s opinion, diluting coffee ultimately makes it less likely that you’ll see the light. The third wave is drawing a circle around beverages that allow the bean to shine and phasing out the rest.
The prevailing attitude at third-wave shops around Denver is one of infectious enthusiasm. No one embodies this genuine desire to share their knowledge and love of coffee more than Kevin Foth, Director of Retail Operations for Corvus Coffee Roasters, a shop that also sells beans wholesale.
Foth’s beard, spectacles, and broad, kind smile give him the look of a young friar. I wasn’t surprised to learn later that he is studying theology. It takes about 100 man-hours to produce coffee, from farm to cup, and Foth explained that Corvus’ “maker series” engages farmers directly to develop unique coffees that express their terroir. Highlighting specific farms and working closely with them to improve quality and raise single-origin coffee—versus blends that have long been the backbone of the industry—is another hallmark of many in the third wave. “As baristas, we’re the last chapter in the bean’s story,” said Foth. “But we want you to know the whole plot. And if we’re going to educate, we can’t be snobby or standoffish. People like handmade things in Denver, so they’re likely to be curious. Our quality and service have to be super high, so new customers are delighted when they try specialty coffee for the first time.”
I asked Foth if he wasn’t a barista, what he would be. “Maybe an evangelist,” he laughed. “If you think I’m passionate about coffee, you should hear me preach!” He then invited me behind the bar to learn how to pull an espresso shot. Prospective baristas at Corvus train for months before making espresso for guests. After tasting my thin, sour shot compared to Foth’s sweet, fragrant, velvety cup, I could see why.
BREWING IN DENVER
Doug and Saadia Naiman, owners of Aviano Coffee, have been at the forefront of artisan coffee in Denver since their first store opened in 2006. Along the way, Aviano has had three locations, something that helped them hone their craft. Aviano’s new Cherry Creek store is probably the most fully evolved third-wave shop in the city, but it wasn’t easy getting there. “In 2010, when we first moved to Cherry Creek, we quit serving large drinks, shrunk our menu and started offering a market-price coffee,” said Doug. “The response was mixed. Some people said, ‘Good luck charging that for coffee!’ and my baristas were asking us to reduce prices and go back to large-batch brews. I was out of my comfort zone.”
But with the help and advice of Intelligentsia, an early national leader in specialty coffee, the Naimans stayed the course. On a recent visit, the line at Aviano was out the door, and nearly every seat inside was full.
The shop—which Doug and Saadia designed and built with the help of Vega Architecture, Doug’s brother, their staff of baristas, and coffee industry experts—fairly glows, its sleek modern lines enlivened by warmth of activity. The coffee bar is set up as an island in the center of the space, with elevated bench seating along the wall, effectively putting the baristas on stage.
“We wanted the coffee to be the focal point,” said Saadia. “And we wanted there to be very few barriers between the customers and the baristas, so people can see the care and discipline that goes into their coffee—and so they would feel comfortable asking questions.” Every single detail at Aviano is calibrated in a never-ending quest
to ensure consistency and reach increasingly sophisticated levels of quality. The handles of the cups are placed at a certain angle, and pour-over grinds and doses—known as recipes—are dialed in several times daily to showcase each coffee’s fullest potential. Baristas go through rigorous training, including exams akin to a graduate-level mid-term.
But press Naiman on why he entered the industry, and you’ll find a more primal instinct. “My grandfather was European, and I think I first had coffee when I was 4 years old with him and my father,” said Doug. “Coffee is this really romantic drink. It has the power to draw us together with family and friends, and in that way it’s always there in our memories.”
There is an ongoing conversation in the coffee world when it comes preferences versus quality. Veteran purveyors like Overly bristle a bit at the idea that the third-wave’s tendencies are objectively better. “There’s a certain bias to some of what the third wave is doing,” said Overly. “But they are putting the coffee first, and that’s a good thing. It would be nice to see some healthy debate within the movement as it matures.”
Although Denver’s coffee leaders still check in with their peers on the east and west coasts, they are increasingly engaged in a conversation with each other about how to move forward. This is the same type of collaborative mindset that helped craft beer and spirits blossom here, and it seems only natural that coffee will follow suit, providing the kind of demand that will fuel further progress. Along the way, Denver is poised to make its mark on the coffee world. “I love that coffee is subjective,” said DeRose, as we sip our Gesha at MiddleState. “There are parameters for excellence, but no right or wrong answer. So there is constant freshness and progression and challenge. If we can remember this here in Denver, we can really be pioneers.”
To read the full article, please view a PDF of the published story from our winter issue.