A humble cafe can turn an impersonal city block into a village center. The best cafes – my favorite cafes – are places where people recognize one another, find comfort, and connect with each other, or simply to the single origin Guatemala they take back to their car.
The city of Santa Barbara is lucky enough to have one such city center, a cafe called The French Press, home of 2013 US Barista Championship finalist Nick Purvis. With five years of operation and two locations under their belts, The French Press team is ready to take a big leap: roasting.
Their roasting brand is going to be called Castle, a play off of a romantic tidbit shared by owners Todd Stewart and his wife Julia Mayer. “When we got married we both wanted to keep our last names,” Mr. Stewart told me. “So my wife suggested that we both just change them. She suggested Castle.” While they didn’t wind up going with the name change after all, they decided to christen their other grand endeavor with the same title.
Even with the success of their first two cafes, they refused to jump head first into roasting until they knew they could do it right. For two years, Mr. Stewart quietly perfected his skills on a small San Franciscan demo roaster, while asking their wholesale coffee partners and coastal California comrades at Verve Coffee Roasters for guidance along the way.
“There’s just something about roasting your own coffee,” Mr. Stewart told me, and an increasing number of once-wholesale coffee bars agree. From Chicago to Portland to New York City, more and more American coffee bars are shifting away from working with larger, established coffee roasters, and veering towards taking coffee roasting into their own hands. Results vary, but as we played around with his shiny new 15 kilogram Giesen roaster, Mr. Stewart extolled the virtues of roasting his own: “You can get so specific with it all — the sourcing, the profiles, and making everything high quality.”
There’s a reverence when he talks about coffee, but his focus is still very much on the end result — making the customers welcomed and happy. “My wife and I are adamant about service,” he says. “It’s the whole point. We want to give back to Santa Barbara.” When the two first started the French Press, there wasn’t a whiff of specialty coffee to be found in Santa Barbara. “Now,” he says with pride, “the city’s going to have its own roaster.”
But when I ask about the possibility of bringing Castle beans onto the wholesale market, Mr. Stewart seems wary.
“We’re not looking to dominate the world,” he said, pulling up the garage doors of the roastery to let the sunshine in, palm trees tilting with a breeze coming off the ocean just a few blocks down the way. “This is our place, that’s all it needs to be for now. There’s something about keeping our coffee in the store, just for our community.”
“When you keep coffee on a smaller scale, things open up,” he continued. “We don’t have to secure thousands of pounds of coffee, so we can really focus on micro-lots and let quality drive us rather than demand.” They’re starting off with coffee offerings from Ethiopia and Guatemala – “the classics,” Mr. Stewart says.
With the garage doors open, you get a feel for just how spacious the French Press’s corner of Santa Barbara really is. Big enough for them to be putting in a cupping lab, a second bar, a pristine roasting operation, and an expanding in-house baking and pastry program headed by a talented baker named Brian Foel. Big enough to build the French Press into a coffee operation worth the pilgrimage for any coffee connoisseur.
“Nick Purvis is in training for competition right now,” Mr. Stewart says. “This year he hopes to exclusively use Castle in competition.” That’s the same Nick Purvis who enjoyed a breakout year in 2013, delivering a cool, confident routine that carried him all the way from the open preliminary round of the US Barista Championships to a fifth place finish in the wildly competitive finals. Now, another year older and another year wiser, he’ll be competing in the US competitive coffee circuit using Castle as his weapon of choice. This little roastery, meant simply to serve a small sunshiny town off the California coast, may well find themselves under a global microscope.
These are exciting times, clearly, but the pace of life in Santa Barbara has a way of dialing things back just slightly, making all that excitement and promise feel manageable. “On Saturdays we open all this up for the farmers market,” Mr. Stewart says, as we walk out into his facility’s parking lot. “It goes for blocks and we’re sort of the town center for it all. Everyone you know is here hanging out in the parking lot, drinking coffee.”
Which, he explains, is the whole point.
Tyler Bruno is a Sprudge contributor based in southern California. His writing has appeared previously in FILTER Magazine. This is his first feature for Sprudge.