You might say that Big House Beans is like other Bay Area roasting companies in the sense that it roasts, packages, and sells coffee beans sourced from a variety of locales the world over. Dig a little deeper though, and the similarities quickly stop. It’s located in Antioch, the far east of the East Bay, in a standard-issue strip mall, just a stone’s throw from a looming Costco. Its interior is sparse, but not in that hip Scandinavian way. Instead it feels fresh off the lot, the small warehouse space just bordering on empty, mostly taken up by a few tables scattered with coffee brewing equipment, a roaster, and a few prints of the stars above Yosemite National Park.
“Big House Beans is the first, and probably the last, roaster to open its doors in Antioch,” John Krause tells me. He’s the company’s owner, roaster, and one of its two full-time employees. Krause is a big man, close to six feet five inches tall, built like a firefighter with a shy, almost secretive smile. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, in a sweet, soft-spoken manner that belies his size, it’s almost entirely about three things: coffee, family, and God. He’s outrightly religious, peppering our conversations with references to God, “his path,” and phrases like, “I’m excited to see where He takes us.”
Here’s the thing: the name Big House Beans isn’t your typical irreverent coffee shop name. It isn’t a joke, or a casual, flippant nod to some forgotten part of the East Bay’s history. No, Big House Beans is an allusion to Krause’s time spent in incarceration, both mentally and physically. At the age of 4, John Krause was a passenger on a motorcycle when it crashed, killing his father and kicking off a slow downward spiral that would find him homeless and battling addiction. Altogether John Krause was in and out of prison for almost 15 years.
Then in what he describes as a “spiritual experience,” John Krause found God. Not long after he found coffee, and with the help of a pastor and part-time inventor/home coffee roaster he opened Big House Beans. Krause’s goal wasn’t just to open a quality coffee roaster, but to offer ex-convicts and recovering addicts a place to work, to have structure, and learn tactile skills that will help them re-enter society. He currently employs one full-time staffer and two interns, all with either incarceration experience or a history of addiction.
Krause is relatively new to the coffee game, but the coffee I tasted on a foggy morning in Antioch didn’t hint at any lack of experience. He roasts on a San Franciscan, a big, beautiful piece of black-and-gold machinery, and the Sumatra and Ethiopia Harar he made via pour-over were both delicious; the Sumatra earthy with a hint of wood bark, the Harar delicate and infused with a smudge of blueberry taste.
I visited Krause at his roastery in Antioch, and together we talked about the past, present, and future of Big House Beans.
What drew you into coffee?
My first “a-ha!” moment with coffee was when I had some fresh roasted coffee at my friend Ben Joyce’s house. He’d built a 1-kilo roaster from spare parts including a gyro-machine and a blender! Flavors started zipping around my mouth and there were these mini-explosions and I was literally like, “What is going on in my mouth?” From that point, I was intrigued by what the coffee world had to offer and I’ve been exploring it like a little boy trying to teach myself as much as possible.
You mention a “spiritual experience” on your website. What was that “experience”?
I felt truly that God spoke to me and told me he wanted to use my coffee business as a platform to share my story and glorify him the Creator of all things, including one of his best—COFFEE!
When did you make the decision to start bringing other ex-convicts together to roast?
A friend of mine said, “I have a guy who is looking for work and he’s had a background similar to yours.” And then he said, “Also, guess what his name is?”
How do your shared experiences affect the way you work together?
I believe that because we are open and talk about the past without condemnation and openly talk about God, there is an environment that is very free. People tend to be more open. We can appreciate the vulnerability shared by others regarding their past and their transformations.
Do you plan to expand upon the more community-driven aspects of the business?
I would love to grow Big House Beans to where we can have a large site to engage the community and have an atmosphere of true freedom where people can come have fun, hear live music on occasion, and find encouragement while having some fresh roasted coffee. All the while striving to create more jobs in the community, getting more people job skills that can be transferable, and help them to grow. Really the possibilities are endless!
What are your eventual plans for Big House?
Ultimately we would like to gain much bigger brand recognition throughout the Bay Area and eventually across the nation for our great coffee; but also for our mission as a business to make a difference in society and be a positive influence across the board.
Noah Sanders is a contributor to SF Weekly, The Bold Italic, and Sprudge.com. Read more Noah Sanders on Sprudge.
Photos by Molly Decordreaux.