WHY SPORTS, WHY ST. LOUIS, WHY COFFEE?
Alright, here we go. Here I am writing, talking about my travels, coffee and some sports mixed in. It’s been awhile since I’ve written in this format, so pardon my rust.
Couple months ago, me and a couple of buddies made a trip to the Midwest. We went to watch our beloved San Diego Chargers open up their season in Kansas City, known as one of the best football towns in America. But before that, we made a stop just east in St. Louis to experience one of America's best baseball town.
I know what you’re thinking. Where does coffee fit into this trip? Everywhere, just like on any trip I embark on. It’s not just fuel for me, but a way to experience an often unnoticed part of the city. So what did I do? I researched. Be it baseball, sightseeing, visiting friends/family, coffee will always work itself into the equation.
I started with a quick Foursquare search, as I always do before visiting a new city. Since this was quick three-day trip, I knew I had to be super selective. If you want to know more about how I plan my coffee shop travels, you can subscribe to our newsletter here. I’ll be doing a writeup on that soon.
FINDING THE RIGHT SHOP
Anyway, Sump Coffee, located just southeast of the Tower Grove neighborhood, was one of the first shops I came across. I had read good things. But I think at the time I had read that they did not roast. For coffee lovers, we can’t help but gravitate towards the wafting aromas of fresh roasted coffee. It’s like a beer lover going to a regular bar over a brewery. Not to take anything away from the kajillion coffee shops that don’t roast, they still serve an enormous purpose in the industry. It’s just that a coffee geek like myself has more to learn, more to talk about, at more to geek out on at a café that roasts in house.
So, I kept searching. Then I saw Kaldi’s Coffee, whom I had already heard throughout my many internet coffee travels. They’ve been a household name for years in and around St. Louis, and have dozens of locations in the Midwest.
In hopes of finding a lesser-known, newer, more independent shop, I stumbled upon Blueprint Coffee. They are a local roaster in St. Louis’ “The Loop” neighborhood, right next to one of the best universities in country, Washington University.
Blueprint looked promising for three reasons. One, they roast in house. This often times guarantees good, intellectual conversation and photo opportunities. Two, their staff is well-experienced and full of all-stars. In fact, I quickly learned that many of the partners came from Kaldi’s. Three, they value their business partners. This was evident from the moment I walked through their doors. So yeah, I had made my decision. We’re going to Blueprint!
Alright alright, so here’s how it went down. From our flat in downtown, it was about a 10-minute Uber ride. We were dropped off just outside of the shop, where we quickly noticed how nice The Loop was. Wasn’t long before I thought, “shit, gentrification is everywhere.” Though I didn’t read into it much, as I try not to concern myself with that until I know a bit more about the area, and its inhabitants.
Then, I cruised through. It was a café. A real, fu***** café. People were having actual conversations. Baristas were laughing. Green coffee was roasting. Brown coffee brewing. They even had a trophy shelf to house all of the awards their baristas had won.
If it wasn’t the low coffee counter that made for genuine human-to-human coffee conversation, then it was long communal table and bar that just made you want to get to know your neighbor. All in all, this place felt like home.
Outside, the air was thick and sticky. As much as we were looking forward to an icy air conditioned coffee house, we got something completely different. It was warm. Maybe not to our sweaty bodies, but to our hearts. You know, like when you first step foot in your home after a long day? Or when you’re gathered around the fireplace with loved ones on Christmas Eve? Blueprint, and all of its charm, warmed my heart. I hadn’t even had a damn coffee yet.
In my experience, it’s not often a speciality coffee shop like this is able to capitalize on a purely wholesome feeling like this. You’re more likely to see them riddled with hipsters and college students buried behind their laptops. Blueprint was different. They had something for everyone.
KEVIN REDDY: A SPECIALTY COFFEE MASTER
After ordering my coffee and talking the baristas head off for a few minutes, I met the man of the hour, Kevin Reddy. Rich in experience and speciality coffee knowledge, Kevin is insanely passionate about coffee, and has a seriously good track record in running successful cafés. Because of his wide-ranging expertise, our conversation touched on everything from origin, to the business of running a café, all the way to the future of the speciality coffee industry (global and local).
We started with the usual: what the brand represents. Wasn’t long before I realized that Kevin and his studly team were in many ways the very embodiment of speciality coffee: welcoming of all, driven by craft, and sustained with love and education. Like I mentioned earlier, they value their partners at origin, their employees and their customers. Kevin made it a point to stress that, and their role in the future of speciality coffee.
On the relationship coffee model that so many speciality roasters are wanting to implement with their businesses today, Kevin had this and so many other things to say.
"We need to commit to farms, and invest in them and their development. It’s about working together to improve the coffee, and them knowing that their investment is going to have a return. A lot of the conversation now is how does a farm operate as a business to guarantee that they’re going to be able to pay everybody appropriately when they don’t know what the cost of the product is going to be at the end of a harvest.”
If I could say one thing about Kevin and the conversation that we had, it would be that it reaffirmed my love for coffee. Okay, if I could three more things. It, once again, reminded me of why I started this website. It deepened the coffee seed’s place in my heart. It reaffirmed my career goals of working in the coffee industry.
For example, we talked about the types of people you’ll find working behind a speciality coffee bar. Sure, they may be tattooed, have a mustache, are wearing a vest, and maybe even wearing a felt cap. But the fact of the matter is that the coffee is good. Damn good. Also, his baristas care. Call it hipster, call it whatever you want. But, like Kevin explains, here’s what a lot people don’t realize about coffee shops like Blueprint.
“The coffee is a part of our responsibility. But it’s hospitality that we do. We’re in a position where we’re fortunate enough to be proud of what we’re selling. But really what we’re doing is helping a customers through an experience.”
I don’t know about you, but I can care less what kind of facial hair you have. Or if you got your felt hat at a vintage market while drinking kombucha. I just care that you’re friendly, passionate, and serve good coffee. That’s all that matters.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case with most people. Some people need the experience that Kevin explained. I’m okay with that, and I think all of the haters should to be okay with it too.
STARBUCKS’ ROLE IN SPECIALITY COFFEE
Later we started talking about Starbucks and how the speciality coffee industry chose to accept, or reject them. For the record, as someone who is passionate about good coffee, and bringing it to the masses, I do appreciate what Starbucks has done. I really do. They carved the path for the “third-wave” of coffee shops, and got the taste buds for quality coffee jumping again. But, there is something to be said about the differences in how coffee shops sell their coffee.
"Going to Starbucks is just not the same experience. We are much more attentive and deliberate as a staff. Everyone is more committed to that seed to cup mentality, and where it comes from. We’re proud of that.”
Kevin also doesn’t really seem to care about this “third-wave” movement that everyone is talking about (click here for a fun and informative graphic on the third wave). He cares about his farmer’s product, how his company roasts it, and how his customers enjoy it. He even blew my mind with an explanation of speciality coffee that I had never heard before.
“Third wave coffee is not speciality coffee. Speciality coffee is something that you can purchase at origin. Third wave coffee is just a way to present that. I don’t necessarily feel that third wave coffee is the only way to get speciality coffee into the consumer’s hands.”
Totally true, Kev. Mad appreciation for the new perspective! It’s just unfortunate that our current speciality coffee climate has people craving a third-wave environment. It’s almost like trying to teach kid to get excited about reading without ever having taken them to a library. Sometimes, immersion is required to make the sale.
When I think of immersion, I think of myself when traveling. I’m a big fan of completely immersing myself in a culture, place, language, etc. 100%. If I’m in a new coffee shop, in a new country, I’ll likely ask for their best-selling coffee. If it appeals to me, I’ll order it. In fact, I'll probably even ask about the ritual involved. I guess part of the reason I prefer this style is because I’m learning to break away from my comfort zone. Or my taste buds are, at least. The typical Starbucks customer however may not be as okay with this.
“With a company like Starbucks, the coffee has to be consistent from Omaha to Okinawa. You sort of have to make sacrifices with the quality. And to make it consistent, you have to roast it consistently. If you don’t want the red bourbon from Colombia, then why don’t you just roast them all dark.”
WHO DRINKS BLUEPRINT?
As far as who Blueprint serves, it’s not always the hipster. Shit, it’s not even the fellow barista (the worst kind of customer baristas say). Like I mentioned earlier, there’s something for everyone at Blueprint.
"My favorite customer is the one that has no one else in their life that understands why they come here. I get the Wash U students, I get the guy from San Francisco. I get why they come here to drink coffee, and I’m happy to be somebody that can impress those people. But the person that comes in and doesn’t really understand what we do or why we’re special, and sort of falls in love with the passion and romance of what we’re doing, and understands that we’re really proud of what we’re doing, and comes back and wants to experience it and establish that trust. Those are my favorite people.”
The more I see it, the more I realize it is that person who is the key to the future of speciality coffee. The industry wants them drinking their coffee, sitting in their cafés, learning about their farms.
Again, that’s exactly how it started for me. If you don’t believe me, read my blog post on how it all started for me here. But I’ve told you before, and I will tell you again. You have to take a chance. You have to be uncomfortable. You have to open your mind.
"I know that we might be intimidating to people, there is no menu on the wall behind us. You have to talk to us, you have to show some vulnerability. We can work together to make this something special for you, and something that you can appreciate in the community. That’s where I get the most reward."
THE CITY: ST. LOUIS
This city is known for more than just Budweiser, barbecue and baseball, people. But to give you some context, the “Bud" definitely has its place in local history.
In 2008—upon the successful merger of the clydesdale powered, Anheiser-Busch, and InBev, which seated them as one of the top five consumer product companies in the world—the door for craft breweries opened. And like every other city in the world known for its beer, craft coffee followed.
Companies like Kaldi’s became a fixture in the craft bev scene. And in the last few years, more micro-roasters like Blueprint and Sump have found permanent homes in the city. So now, to say that St. Louis is ready to let craft coffee take over would be an understatement. Craft coffee has hit the Midwest. And it will likely continue to grow here, and other unassuming cities throughout the country.