In June of 2020 Three Keys Coffee of Houston, TX made its first appearance on Sprudge, part of a national list of Black-owned coffee companies compiled to help facilitate an outpouring of public support. But the more we learned about Three Keys, the more we wanted to dive deeper. This is one of the most unique, distinctive, and innovative new coffee companies in America right now, whose branding we’ve explored in-depth this week on Instagram as part of our new Roaster of the Week program.
Building from a deep position of love and knowledge united the worlds of coffee and jazz, Three Keys was founded in 2019 by Tio Fallen and Kenzel Fallen, roasting coffee on a hand-built Giesen W-6 roaster. Their brand’s whole approach to coffee roasting is like a beautiful tableau of synesthesia: coffee notes mingle with music notes, blends are paired with playlists, and design evokes the iconic jazz record covers from the golden era of 20th-century jazz music.
We spoke with founders Tio and Kenzel Fallen to learn more about the company and its thought-provoking approach to coffee, music, and the endlessly chords and rhythms they create together.
For people who are unfamiliar, tell us a little more about Three Keys as a company.
Three Keys Coffee was founded in 2019 in Houston, TX and is a multi-sensory exploration of coffee. Three Keys takes its inspiration from the sounds and art of Jazz, and specifically derives its name from the keys of the trumpet—an instrument of simplicity that uses just three keys to produce notes across a creative and complex range of tonal outputs.
Many of the source elements for the company can be sourced to my [Co-Founder Tio Fallen’s] grandfather who first introduced me to coffee and also encouraged me to play the trumpet. After years of connecting with local coffee shops, traveling abroad to coffee origin regions, and learning how to roast through formal training, I began roasting on a home coffee roaster, which quickly grew into a commercial interest. Being a mechanical engineer by trade, I’m intrigued by the science of roasting but yet also drawn to the art of roasting which reminds me of the artistic freedom and creativity of playing the trumpet (which I played for over 15 years).
Our coffee company is built around the intersection of art, music (specifically Jazz), and science. We seek to explore how those worlds intersect. So, coming full circle, Three Keys is an interconnection of our life experiences.
Tell us more about Three Keys Coffee blend series—when did this coffee concept debut? How does this project feed back into your vision for Three Keys as a coffee brand?
Three Keys offers both single origins and blends. Keeping in line with our focus on “3” keys, we have three blends in our coffee lineup which include:
33 1/3 LP – Signature Blend
Jam Session – Espresso Blend
Africano Fusion – Heritage Blend
Each blend, similar to how we approach each of our single origin roasts, is inspired by various aspects of Jazz from recording formats, to improvisation, to historical impact.
The blend we debuted with was the 33 1/3 LP Signature Roast. We consider this our signature roast: balanced, structured and smooth. The “LP”—a double entendre for “Long Pour” as well as an ode to the timeless recording format introduced in the mid 20th century—is the staple of consistency that we know and expect from coffee. The nostalgia in this roast seeks to remind us to slow down and not only enjoy the coffee but appreciate being present in the moment. This blend is reminiscent of the great recordings from the Prestige, Blue Note, Columbia labels featuring artists who dared to create new sounds while remaining rooted in classical technique. This roast is intended to reflect the classic profile that my grandfather would have enjoyed but with a modern influence.
As for the other coffees in our blend series…
Jam Session is a rich, complex roast boasting a delicately delightful taste. The inspiration for this blend hearkens back to the intricate community of creatives found in the late-night jam sessions of local jazz cafes and after-hours spots. Just as musicians test the limits of imagination, synchronicity, and technique to strengthen the power of the blend, so does this espresso roast… Jam Sessions are experimental in nature and premised on creative expression and improvisation. As a roaster, this is what I had in mind. We’re continuously inventing and refining roast profiles. Don’t get me wrong, we strive for consistency but Jam Session is intended to evolve. As such, this season’s Jam Session will not be the same as next season’s and so on. We’ll use different bean combinations and roast techniques to realize our vision for each rotational offering.
Africano Fusion is what we refer to as our heritage blend, considering both coffee and Jazz music’s origins and roots in Africa. We’ve created a “fusion” roast by blending several East African coffees. Our fusion playlist will reflect the sounds of Afro-beats and fusion jazz. It’s also a tribute to Jazz heritage a la Congo Square in New Orleans. This coffee roast features a combination of African heirloom varietals originating from the likes of the Southern Highlands of Tanzania to the Sidama region of Ethiopia. It is a fusion of some of the most aromatic and flavorful coffees on the continent, perhaps even the world. This in turn produces a vibrant and eclectic roast. Like fusion sounds, this expression can’t be defined by any one source but relentlessly moves you with an alluring and savory beat.
Tell us more about the coffees chosen for this project—how are you building these blends, and how does that inform the musical choices? What does the blend building process look like for you and how does that tie in to the playlists you offer alongside each coffee?
Our coffees provide a broad spectrum of origins. We curated a selection that would distinctly highlight range within coffee from flavor notes, to body, to aroma. When tasting each of the origins and blends, you should be able pick up on the diverse characteristics within coffee. With that said, it requires a certain skill and balance to roast profiles that are consistent with people’s expectations but also deliver nuances that separate our coffee from others.
The blend process in general requires roasting and cupping of each coffee individually as well as pre-blending various ratios and cupping those. From there we determine if and how we hit our marks. With that in mind, most of our blends incorporate a form of natural processed coffees. This theoretically serves two purposes: good crema (for espressos) and lower acidity and increased level of sugars. If we’re pre-blending, there are certain measures taken to ensure uniform development, and post blending we look to create respective roast profiles that provide a balanced sum of parts.
Who designed the bags? Tell us more specifically about the jazz album cover design influence.
Our bags were designed by a local Houston design team by the name of Field of Study. They’re super awesome to work with and really helped us translate our vision into the actual designs. With the design of Three Keys we wanted to depart from the usual American heritage tropes of craft coffee and instead create something with a language that was much more inclusive, energetic, and optimistic. It helped that we mutually shared an interest in music—Jazz in particular. Working from this shared love of music, we found a well of inspiration in classic 50s/60s/70s jazz album art which attempted to render what an album or artist’s music feels like visually and capture the free thinking of the eras. We thought a similar approach would be perfect for Three Keys. Coffee, like Jazz, is both a thing and an expression or act. A noun and a verb, if you will. We wanted to project that relaxed energy that can surround enjoying a coffee on a Saturday afternoon while listening to records and thumbing through some books. Instead of being presented with what Three Keys Coffee looks like, we hope potential customers will instead get an impression of what it feels like to drink it. It’s multi-sensory experience.
Where are your coffees currently available?
Who is your ideal customer? Do you hope to turn jazz fans onto coffee for the first time, or turn coffee fans onto jazz?
Our hope is to make “specialty” coffee more inclusive and accessible to everyone. Jazz itself is uniquely unifying across all demographics and so our coffee brand has been able to resonate with people from all walks of life. Looking at the history of vinyl recordings as an analogy, that was one of the first means of bringing aspects of a live music set/club into the home. This allowed for wider audiences to listen, hear and enjoy the sounds of the time. In turn jazz was able to gain huge popularity. We intend to do the same with our coffee. We hope to connect with not only the occasional consumer but also the connoisseur. We hope to make “specialty” coffee more inclusive and accessible just like jazz recordings made music sets and concerts more inclusive and accessible. And with our accompanying playlists, we want to essentially bring the atmosphere of coffee shop or jazz cafe to your home through our curated expressions.
What are your desert island jazz records? What do you recommend for someone just starting to learn about jazz?
A Love Supreme – John Coltrane
Time Out – The Dave Brubeck Quartet
A Night at Birdland – Art Blakey Quintet
Moanin’ – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Ella and Louis / Porgy and Bess – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Mood Indigo – Duke Ellington
Anatomy of a Murder – Duke Ellington
The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings – Louis Armstrong
I Put a Spell on You – Nina Simone
Will there ever be a Three Keys cafe so we can listen to jazz and drink coffee with you at the same time?
We’ve discussed it and understand the value of having a physical presence to fully convey the vision of Three Keys and visually showcase our in-house roasting at a brick and mortar coffeeshop. However, we are currently content with bringing that experience into the home through our roasts and accompanying playlists.
Thank you so much.
Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge.
Photos courtesy Three Keys Coffee.