A short while ago we teamed up with our friends & partners at Kitchenaid USA for a dare-we-say-it truly excellent party in Atlanta, Georgia, in conjunction with the 2016 SCAA Event, North America’s largest coffee festival. There we taped a live episode of the Coffee Sprudgecast, enjoyed a gallery display of some of our favorite SprudgeLive barista competition photography over the years, and yes, ate a donut from the donut the wall. We also served some delicious beer (Cigar City, Three Taverns) and offered a delightful brew bar stocked with KitchenAid craft coffee brewers and choice offerings from roasters like Equator Coffees, Ruby Coffee, Counter Culture Coffee and Verve Coffee Roasters.
The last of those four is the focus today—our event in Atlanta was the debut of KitchenAid’s #GetSomethingBrewing video series featuring Colby Barr, co-founder and green buyer at Verve. We badly wanted to interview Barr live at the event, but he was busy opening a new cafe over in Tokyo in the planet’s busiest train station and launching Verve’s glossy new in-house coffee magazine, Farmlevel Digest.
These are decent reasons for being unavailable to attend a live event, but our interview desires remained undeterred. And so today we’re bringing you a chance to check out that video up above in partnership with KitchenAid, paired with the proper sit-down interview with Colby Barr we’ve been dreaming of since April. Below we chat about Japan, the magazine, Verve’s ongoing working LA, their upcoming new digs in San Francisco, and much more
Hey Colby Barr of Verve! Thanks for chatting with us. First let us ask about opening a cafe in Japan—how has the first few months been? How often are you going back and forth? Are you scouting to open more stuff?
Colby Barr: Japan has been great. It’s really the one place I’ve ever travelled that I want to force people to visit. It definitely under promises and over delivers in all aspects from design, style, food, service, you name it. For us, the reception has been incredible. There has been so much interest leading up to and through our opening. Our staff is amazing and so full of life, plus they’re making damn nice coffee. They truly embody “Verve”. I am back there every couple of months as far as regular visits and I never want to leave when I’m there. We are definitely looking at other areas and considering next steps to tell our story there.
Tell us more about Street Level—who shot the magazine? Who wrote it? Talk to us about the coffee that’s part of it, from Honduras. Just give us more info on the project.
Sure thing! Our Farmlevel Digest is something [fellow Verve co-founder] Ryan O’Donovan and I had been talking about for a while. He and I shot all of the photography and I did all the writing for it. We both love photography and cameras—in particular film cameras. We have been shooting a ton of stuff at origin since the early days but you really never get to share it with people. We probably have 20,000 photos from the years and have shared like 2% of them or something. Also I have thought for years how it’s interesting that there really hasn’t been a visual coffee publication centered on origin from any roasters out there. If there were, I’d buy it! I know it’s some unspoken rule that to be a green-coffee buyer you have to carry a camera. It’s kind of funny. But where do the photos live? How do we share them in a way that’s engaging? How do we create context? These are the thoughts I’ve had running through my head for years.
Once Ryan and I started talking about shooting a trip only on film and printing something, the wheels started turning. We decided on Honduras because it’s a really beautiful origin that has amazing coffees with small producers that are really being positively affected by the work we do together.
From there the project unravelled itself into what we have now which is largely a photo essay of our work in Santa Barbara, Honduras. There is some writing but I wanted to keep it image-driven, with shots of not only coffee cherries but of random stuff too—kind of a documentary / street photography approach. More of a broader stroke of that sense of place.
There’s an intro back-storying Ryan and I and Verve, and an essay in the middle about the project in Honduras, plus an appendix in the back that gives captions to all the photos plus notates which camera and which film was used and by whom. Kind of a shout-out to the film shooters and ultimately, something that I would enjoy reading and referencing. I’m always curious what gear and film people are using when I see film photos.
We had it printed at the same place that does Kinfolk, and Life & Thyme, Collective Quarterly, etc. We’re really pleased with how it turned out and the quality of the printing. Our plan is to release maybe a couple every year of these but there is no formal schedule. There is also a plan for a Streetlevel Digest as well. So much to do!
In the KitchenAid video at the top of this post you talk about making coffee at home—is that a big part of what Verve does? How has making coffee at home changed since you guys started Verve?
Making coffee at home has been a part of Verve since before Verve. When Ryan and I started the company, I did indeed sleep on his couch for a year and we had a San Franciscan 1lb sample roaster in his side yard by the BBQ. We shared the propane between the two! We cupped in his kitchen, pulled shots in his kitchen, but also just made coffee every damn day in his kitchen. Ryan was partial to the french press and I gravitated to filter methods. There was much discuss of all of this—over coffee, of course.
Since the beginning, coffee brewing has changed quite a bit. I pretty much never make coffee at home now because I just go to one of our shops. I really like my cappuccino AND brewed coffee in the morning. When I’m traveling, however, I am the Aeropress king. I have my travel kit with Porlex grinder and camp mug and rip it up in the field. Only thing is getting the hot water. Damn you hot water! I waver back and forth between carrying a kettle and not. I like to travel light but trying to explain you want boiling water and then getting delivered luke-warm water in styrofoam cups makes you think twice about that kettle.
I will say though that [brewing coffee at home] has come a long ways. You can now easily get brewers that heat water to the appropriate temperature, legitimate burr grinders, and an array of brewing methods. Also measuring and creating your brew ratio has gotten much easier and part of the norm, which I will give a shout out to KA for addressing that head on with their Precision Press. It’s legit.
You’ve had plans for a cafe in San Francisco for a while now—when is it opening, sup with it, when can we go see it?
Verve and San Francisco goes back as far as Verve since we almost opened there in the first place before the sirens of Santa Cruz lured us in. Even then, we have talked about opening a shop there. Well, now we are. We are opening a shop up on the corner of Church and Market in an old flatiron building. It’s a few blocks up from Dolores Park, on Market, and at the hub of a lot of public transportation. We’re pretty stoked. You should be able to come get an espresso there later this summer, but we can probably get you in before then. I know a guy.
Y’all opened two cafes in LA last year—on West 3rd in Beverly Grove and in West Hollywood. What’s been good, what’s gotten tweaked, what are you excited about? Where are you opening in LA next?
LA has been really good to us. It is still just the very beginning—two of the three stores aren’t even a year old yet. For being a young brand in a big, big city, we are really pleased with the reception and the adoption by the neighborhoods. There is such an interesting crowd and obviously it’s different than Santa Cruz. Though, besides the TMZ aspect of it (apparently famous people live in LA, and yes, Kanye drinks a cortado), there are also just people that live nearby and this is their spot, which is something I can relate to.
Honestly what I’m pretty excited about is just building the brand down there. It’s so cool to build regulars, to build a team, and to develop culture. It takes time but it’s why we even do what we do. Also to continue to improve and stay progressive. We have been working on some big menu things for LA that we will be unveiling soon.
As far as where next, there is nothing concrete yet but have had a lot of interesting proposals. I think there is a lot of opportunity and a lot of people that need better access to great coffee.
2015 was a wild year for some of the founding brands in third wave coffee—a lot of mergers & acquisitions. Where does Verve sit in all that? How do you maintain your identity when all this big industry stuff is happening around you?
Yeah, 2015 got pretty real! It has been fascinating (if not validating in a weird way) to watch our peers transition like they did. These are all the brands that existed before us and in many ways informed how we even looked at coffee in the very beginning. So now I guess you have to ask yourself, what does it all mean? I have my thoughts on the matter for sure. I think it clearly identifies that the “niche” industry that we have here is more than a fad—which maybe was in question, especially when we started Verve and I had to explain to banks and people this “new” thing called “thirdwave”. It reminds me of when I was a kid and I wanted to go see Beat Street and was so obsessed with hip-hop, and my mom (bless her heart!) said, “You know, this is just a fad. It won’t stick around.” She did still take me to the movie so I give her credit.
Where we sit in it all, I don’t really know. You’d have to tell me! I can say that Verve is as independent as ever and that Ryan and I drive the ship. That’s a great feeling and I do think it makes us different but I’m not knocking anybody for the decisions they make. Only they know what’s best for them. I only know the decisions we make, and why we make ours.
Also, I think the fact that we are based a little off the grid in Santa Cruz, helps to keep us grounded. It’s sort of the same spirit that we started Verve with which was that we wanted to be the best coffee company in the world even if nobody ever cared. We always made decisions towards that goal—to make ourselves and our team proud of our work. That applied not only to staff but to our customers and producers as well!
You are ultimately a green coffee buyer—that’s always seemed like your biggest passion whenever we talk. What coffee are you stoked about right now?
Ha! Is it that obvious?! OK, yeah, I’m kind of a green buyer till the day I die guy. It’s especially rad now being able to work with Amanda Juris on the buying front. She’s a real peach. I get excited about all of our coffees for different reasons but I am especially excited about our Honduran offerings, in particular our Juan Benitez pacas. It’s not only one of our highest-grown coffees from that region but Juan embodies the Cinderella story of this entire Farmlevel project and why we shot our first Digest there.
He is the dude way the hell up on the top of a mountain that you have to walk to for like 20 minutes after you drive to the end of a 4X4 road. He has just started into the specialty world and he is killing it. His coffee is absolutely beautifully tropical and complex, and you can really see the effects first-hand of working with him directly. He just built new cement fermentation tanks instead of this janky wooden box he was using. His coffees are now 5 years old and getting strong, producing amazing flavors. He wants to plant more coffee even higher up the mountain that we are helping him with. It’s all the way feel-good. But it’s also, in my opinion, our best coffee right now (or one of them). There’s no pity here. Just hustle and reward. Full circle victories and high fives. It absolutely reinforces why I do what I do and why I am and always will be so passionate about coffee.
I love to discover and develop coffees like these, and get to play a part in connecting them to a willing audience who is seeking to experience remarkable coffees. It feels like affecting people’s lives on both ends of the spectrum—from Farmlevel to Streetlevel I guess you could say.