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Four Craft Coffee Roasters Building Buzz in MSP

MSP’s craft beer boom continues apace, defying skeptics and industry experts who see a peak at hand. The Twin Cities also regularly appear on “top American beer cities lists,” like this one from Thrillist. So beer might be MSP’s highest-profile craft export. But it’s certainly not the only ancient consumable to benefit from our intrepid artisans’ attention. Long an under-the-radar hotbed for high-end coffee, MSP is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Unlike Seattle, it’s done so without the assistance of a ubiquitous hometown chain bent on world domination.
Actually, the buzz has been building for some time. A couple years back, the Star Tribune took a deep dive into MSP’s brewing appreciation for craft coffee, noting the proliferation of coffee shops and coffee-fueled cafes—some of which, like Black Coffee and Waffle Bar, have full menus and curate their coffees like restaurant sommeliers curate wine.
Who are the local players behind MSP’s craft coffee scene? Depends who you ask. These four local roasters, some older than all but a handful of the region’s craft breweries, are undeniably at the movement’s fore.
UP Coffee Roasters
1901 Traffic St NE, Minneapolis
Cafe open to the public, serving breakfast and lunch
UP Coffee Roasters began 12 years ago as Flamenco Organic Coffee Company. True to its name, its spiritual roots lie in Spain, where “I fell in love with gourmet food and coffee,” says founder David Chall.
Flamenco debuted in a crowded market. MSP’s coffee scene wasn’t as hip then as now, but surrounding states had plenty of coffee roasters eager to grab a share of Minnesotans’ love for hot brew. If his young company was to survive, Chall reasoned, it had to have a hook. Chall decided to take the emerging fair trade trend one step further and focus exclusively on organic coffees.
“That turned out to be perfect timing, as organic products have swept the country ever since,” he says.
Not that building a successful roastery was easy. Early on, Chall struggled to establish relationships with growers and importers, which generally favor large buyers. “Why sell your best stuff to someone who can only buy five or 10 bags of it, and then have a big buyer say they won’t buy the rest because there isn't enough of it, right?” says Chall. “The bigger you get, the easier it is to get offered better product, in bigger quantities.”
Chall eventually got into a groove with three “great importers” and “lucked into a couple direct [grower] relationships along the way.” He tries to take origin trips to growing regions at least once a year. Last year and this year, he took two.
In 2014, Flamenco rebranded as UP Coffee Roasters. “Through years of education and growth we felt that we raised the level of quality and excellence of our product 'UP' significantly,” says Chall, hence the name change.
In addition to high-quality organic coffees, UP sells an eclectic mix of brewing, grinding and cooking equipment too—more for convenience than anything else. “Anyone who tells you they do this to sell equipment is not being honest,” he says. “Coffee roasters who are in it for the coffee, don't really want to sell equipment. We simply have to do it to get our products into customers’ hands.”
Bootstrap Coffee Roasters
550 Vandalia St, St. Paul
Not open to the public
After a decade spent working his way up through the coffee business as a barista and retail manager, Micah Svejda launched Bootstrap Coffee Roasters in 2014. His small, out-of-the-way space in the Creative Enterprise Zone’s Vandalia Tower was more than adequate for his needs, considering he started out with a single six-pound roaster.
Before Svejda found his current space, he worked out of his parents’ garage—an entrepreneur to the core. “During this time, I was furiously working on all the other aspects of starting a business: getting registered, finding a space, doing some roasting training with the fine folks at Café Imports, crafting a vision for exactly the sort of company I wanted to run, purchasing equipment, talking to folks who run coffee programs who may be interested in getting some delicious coffee from me, working with some great people for logo, packaging design, website, photography and doing a million other things essential to starting a roasting company,” he wrote on his website shortly after Bootstrap’s launch.
Business took off and Svejda marked a major milestone this summer: He traded his hobby roaster for a larger, though still small-by-big-boy-standards, 25-pound machine. He’ll be celebrating the occasion at this month’s CEZ #WeMakeItHere Happy Hour. Stop by Vandalia Tower on August 25th, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. If you can’t make it, look for Bootstrap’s bags and brews at these fine local retailers.
True Stone Coffee Roasters
755 Prior Ave N, St. Paul
Suite 113
Open to the public—call ahead
True Stone Coffee Roasters has been creating exceptional coffee since 2003. Founders Bruce and Charlene Olson started out in a small cafe space on Cleveland Avenue, in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. There, they perfected the art of small-batch roasting: always the finest beans and never more than 60 pounds at a time.
They quickly learned that pedigree matters. “Our green-buying team sources exclusively from the world’s finest small farms and cooperatives, allowing us to trace varietals, processing methods, labor conditions and unique ecological characteristics of every coffee we sell,” they write on their website.
Roasting science is important too. True Stone’s “Roasterie” uses Cropster roasting software to monitor and tweak the roasting process. Unlike some competitors, the Roasterie roasts at least four days a week, so its finished coffees are rarely more than 48 hours old at delivery.
True Stone isn’t exclusively organic, but the company does commit to paying more than the fair trade minimum, every time. “[Producers’] increased revenues are provide a basis for commercial and ecological sustainability, and improve the standard of living throughout an entire community,” they write. “Our philosophy puts more money in the hands of actual producers, resulting in a product that’s honestly better, for everyone.”
Speaking of better for everyone: True Stone hosts regular training classes for knowledgeable amateurs and professionals alike, and offers bespoke professional development consulting to boot. Perfect for coffee enthusiasts who want to know what they’re drinking.
Dogwood Coffee Co
1209 Tyler St NE, Minneapolis
Suite 150
Roastery not open to the public, but three coffee bars are
Dogwood Coffee Company launched in 2010 when a “larger coffee company” spun off its specialty operation. Despite its blue-chip origins, Dogwood started small and scrappy. “For a year, we operated inside Rustica Bakery in South Minneapolis,” says coffee buyer Stephanie Ratanas. “When the opportunity came up to break off from the larger company, Dogwood Coffee was formed.”
Later that year, Dogwood opened its first coffee bar in a small Uptown Minneapolis storefront. The company’s MSP cafe count is now up to three: the original Uptown location, another Minneapolis spot on East Lake Street, and a third on Carleton Street in St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone. Dogwood has a subscription service for office drones and homebound enthusiasts, and makes comprehensive brew guides for dedicated home craftspeople.
Dogwood takes coffee seriously. “When Dogwood started, there was a very, very small specialty coffee scene in the Twin Cities,” says Ratanas. “There wasn’t really anyone doing the kind of roasting we wanted to do, approaching it from a detail-oriented craft approach that highlighted the actual coffee more than roast flavor.”
Inspired by “third wave” coffee scenes in Portland, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and elsewhere, but keenly aware that most coffee consumers respond poorly to haughty pronouncements from on high, Dogwood’s founders sought to thread the needle between excellence and accessibility.
“We try to approach specialty coffee as something that can be for everyone and try our best not to be pretentious or exclusive about it,” says Ratanas. “We’re all super normal people at Dogwood and we try to maintain a sense of balance about coffee and life that we hope comes across through our interactions with customers, our branding and our mission.”
Dogwood recently launched a Canadian affiliate in Winnipeg, making it the only international roaster on this list. “In so many ways, Manitoba and Minnesota are more like each other than the rest of the countries they’re a part of. We’ve got the same weather, we’re culturally similar, and we’re both part of emerging coffee markets,” says Ratanas. “We’ve gotten wholesale inquiries from Canadian shops in the past, but the time and cost of shipping coffee across the border made it a frustrating experience for both sides.”
Dogwood’s Canadian outpost opens up an entirely new market. (The company offers express shipping from coast to coast, Canada style.) Its coffees are already in close to 20 shops in the Winnipeg area. Though the weak Canadian dollar makes it more expensive to import coffee into Canada, Dogwood Canada’s buying power allows the company to source more of the finest coffees around, for less.
“Expanding our operation also allows us to buy more coffee from the same people we’re buying coffee from now and hopefully grow our sourcing program,” says Ratanas. “It’s also been quite a learning experience managing quality control and talking about roasting the same coffees long-distance: a catalyst for the evolution of how we talk about roasting and tasting.”
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