Congregation Coffee co-owner Ian Barrilleaux was born and raised in New Orleans. His parents taught him how to make coffee, instructing him to make it “dark and strong.” But his interest really started taking off six years ago while working as a chef at Donald Link's Cochon Butcher. Already interested in roasting from a culinary perspective, Barrilleaux was tasked with creating new sausage recipes for the shop and thought of using roasted spices for added flavor depth. No one locally was doing that, or if they were, they weren't making it available to him.
In 2014, Barrilleaux met Seattle native Eliot Guthrie, who had just moved to New Orleans and began working at Cochon Butcher. When Guthrie started missing the Pacific Northwest coffee culture he grew up with, specifically the espresso, the pair clicked over a shared perspective.
“I didn't want to be working a line when I was 50 years old,” Barrilleaux says. “I didn't know if running a full-blown restaurant was what I wanted to do. The coffee thing kept kicking around in my head, and when I met Eliot, things came together. We started talking extensively about what we would do and how we thought about coffee and roasting, and our ideas for the future of our families.”
Congregation Coffee is that idea for the future. The name reflects the community the duo is trying to create through their coffee, and also pays homage to the Bayou's alligator population (a group of alligators is called a congregation).
Once the pair decided to double down on coffee, things progressed quickly. A sample roaster was bought, and they experimented with different company's coffees and roasted different beans from online supplier Sweet Maria's—150 grams at a time in Guthrie's sister's Mid-City garage. After Guthrie bought a house, he and Barrilleaux sought out a larger roaster, bringing in a five-kilo Ambex from Dallas and putting it in Guthrie's new garage. A new learning curve was established, and they soon grew comfortable with their output.
The company went public in November 2015, adding bakeries and restaurants such as Donald Link's La Boulangerie, Cochon, Cochon Butcher, and Peche, as well as French Quarter stalwart Brennan's to their wholesale clients. Coffee is roasted three times a week. Offerings include four single origins, plus Congregation's Gallop espresso blend and High Walk filter blend, both named after different alligator walks.
“We want a coffee that is approachable,” Guthrie says. “Most of the coffees we buy, we try to find something that's going to have a little bit more of a round, traditional profile, a little bit more on the chocolaty side. That allows us to not over roast, but still offer that familiar profile. With some of our single origins, we're going more for the lighter and fruitier. We don't roast anything above a medium roast. We just want to keep really round, familiar flavors with our blends, especially for the restaurants—both [of us] being from the restaurant world, we know that a good restaurant relies on consistency.”
Barrilleaux and Guthrie were excited to share news of the next step for Congregation Coffee: a new roasting space with a 12-kilo Probat roaster, plus a cupping lab and a petite cafe slated to open late this summer. The new location, the site of a former corner store named Lafitte's, is situated across the Mississippi River in the Algiers Point neighborhood, just blocks away from the ferry dock.
So Congregation is looking to keep supporting their wholesale clients, while also gradually moving into their retail environment.
“One of the appeals of having a retail space—when we get one—is [we'll be] able to offer more progressive and modern flavors to the consumer at less risk because we will be accountable for every step of the process,” Guthrie says. “We will be able to explain it in terms of what we're doing and why we're doing it directly to the consumer. We can't rely on a server at a restaurant to do that. That's one of the exciting things, to really be able to have business-to-consumer interaction.”
Founded in 1719, Algiers Point became the second oldest neighborhood in New Orleans when it was annexed in 1870. There's a sense of new energy with Congregation Coffee opening in the neighborhood.
“In a city as old as New Orleans, you can have a little bit of a historical background and flavor to your space,” Barrilleaux says. “When people come to New Orleans, they're looking for a little bit of adventure. We're hoping [to provide some] to New Orleanians themselves as well as tourists.”
Evan C. Jones is a Sprudge.com contributor based in St. Louis. Read more Evan C. Jones on Sprudge.