When Intelligentsia opened their doors in Old Town Pasadena in 2010, the location was surprising to some. This section of Pasadena is the kind of shopping destination where big stores like J. Crew, Gap, and Urban Outfitters far outweigh the mom and pop shop offerings. Would there be customers for specialty coffee?
The answer, it turns out, was a resounding yes. Intelligentsia Pasadena, as well as a previously established location for Jones Coffee Roasters, have helped spur a growing specialty coffee scene here, one that serves a thriving community of people who like wiling away the afternoon at our modern equivalent of high tea.
For proof of Pasadena’s lively scene, look no further than Copa Vida, a brand new cafe located on Raymond Avenue in Old Town Pasadena, a mere stone’s throw away from Intelligentsia. Helmed by Frank La and San Hong, formerly of Café Dulce, alongside their talented tea consultant, Do Kim, Copa Vida feels like a family operation, if your family happened to be obsessed with beverage quality.
Owner Steve Chang gave me a tour of the Copa Vida, complete with an honor bar, espresso bar, and slow bar with enough space for tastings, socializing, working and hosting events. Warm, personal touches abound, like small vessels filled with succulents, a contribution by owner Steve Chang’s father.
For Mr. Chang, a cup of coffee at the student union during his college days at Cal Poly Pomona started his coffee journey. An upper classman who was making coffee there asked Chang to taste it before he added milk and sugar. To this day, Chang remembers the sip of freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee and how the light bulb went off in his head. It was his ‘ah ha’ moment, what people in specialty coffee used to call “a God shot”, before that term fell out of favor. Most coffee professionals and enthusiasts have one, and Mr. Chang never forgot his.
After spending several years in school, Mr. Chang went to work in his family’s noodle and egg roll skin business. He never stopped being student of the world of coffee, and Copa Vida is a continuation of his coffee journey. Over a cappuccino and an excellent cup of tea, Steve Chang and I chatted more about his vision for Copa Vida, how the space is laid out, and his thoughts about the growing coffee scene in Pasadena.
How has your first month in business been going so far?
I am happy to see local baristas come into Copa Vida. I consider that a big compliment.
The space is very light and friendly. Was that the goal?
I came to the US when I was eight years old from South Korea, I’ve been in a lot of situations where I walked in and felt completely unwelcome. Our inspiration is to be approachable, to create a space for the community. We were discussing what makes something approachable and community oriented while still maintaining a high level of quality. We realized there are so many different ways people can enjoy coffee and tea as well. The challenge was to create a situation where people could interact with us at multiple levels. We do also want people to come in with their laptops. I wrote my senior thesis in a coffee shop. I wrote my masters dissertation in a coffee shop. I owe it back to these folks.
Why did you want to open a coffee bar?
Until a year and a half ago my family used to be in the food manufacturing business. We made noodles and egg roll skins. I was sitting around thinking, ‘What do a I do next?’ My wife said, ‘You always said you were going to retire with a coffee shop, why wait until you retire?’ So I spent a week in Portland, a week in Seattle, a week in Boston, and I went on the trip to Costa Rica to get an understanding about what the coffee business is like.
How did the design of Copa Vida get developed?
Sam Hong and his father, who is a carpenter, built the furniture and the menu boards. We have a lot of personal touches in here. All of us had some input into the design, how it would look, how it felt, the kind of space we wanted to create, but Sam has been the main person putting it all together.
What is the concept behind Copa Vida? How has this influenced the space’s layout?
I came up with the concept about a year and half ago when I took the trip to Costa Rica. I spent three weeks down there in a place called Coopedota, which is a coffee growing cooperative representing 800 families from more than 800 farms. I learned about the coffee business there from Roberto Mata, Coopedota’s general manager, and I also learned the phrase pura vida, which is a Costa Rican phrase for ‘everything’s good.’ I really fell in love with that phrase, but I did not want to just copy that for the name, so as I was flying back, the phrase copa vida – which means “cup of life” – came to me.
The concept I came up with is “Go, Enjoy, Experience.” Go is our honor bar. In the mornings, commute hours, we know you are busy, so we have an honor bar with coffee on Fetco and cold brew on tap for iced coffee and iced tea. I love cold brew and I wanted to be able to serve it from a beer keg. There is something about pulling the tap and seeing cold coffee come out that makes me smile. That’s my first cup every morning.
Why is having an honor bar important to you?
The idea is we trust you to put money in the basket, you trust us to make good coffee in a self serve system. This is our way of connecting with the community. We are hoping the locals will use it the most.
And the “Enjoy” bar?
“Enjoy” is our traditional barista bar. It was part of the goal to make it approachable, so we lowered the counter height so there is not much of a barrier between the customer and barista. We looked for machines with a low profile or clear tops so we could see over the machine and make eye contact. That’s where we also have an Alpha Dominche machine to make tea. For espresso we have a La Marzocco Strada, and we’ll be adding a Kees van der Westen Spirit in mid-September. I am excited to see it. It is designed after the Spirit of St. Louis with rivets, stainless steel, and airplane style controls.
What brew methods do you have at Copa Vida?
We do V60 at our Enjoy bar, but on our slow bar we let you choose a brew method. We have Chemex, siphon, and whatever we want to bring in.
What roasters are you working with?
Right now we are serving Ritual, Verve, and Forty Ninth Parallel. We went through three months of cupping. I wanted to focus on roasters with direct trade relationships, that they have a history of consistency and quality, and after that it is up to Frank La to decide. We are planning on two of the roasters staying as a regular part of our coffee program and will always be rotating a third. We will do monthly blind cuppings with our staff.
Do you plan to roast your own beans in the future?
I think every specialty coffee shop aspires to roast. You want to vertically integrate and control your quality. Even when we do go into our own roasting we will still commit to being multi-roaster. I think people like variety. Giving options is part of that approachable thing.
How did you develop the menus? Yours is pretty varied, with espresso offerings, filter brewing, freddo and shakerato drinks, as well as the tea offerings.
Frank La is in charge of our menu. He has done a great job, I love everything on the menu. He works with Do Kim, who is our tea expert. She has been studying tea for many years. We bought the Alpha Dominche just for tea, because I wanted to be able to have a tea brewing system that allows us to brew tea and hand the customer a finished drink. With tea there is temperature, time of the steep and agitation – the Steampunk allows us to agitate the tea with steam so we don’t have temperature damage. I wanted to put something out there that says we are specialty tea as much as we are specialty coffee. We serve Art of Tea, Red Blossom, and Sungarden.
What is the idea for your Experience bar?
We are hoping your will enjoy the Go and the Enjoy so much that you will come back for the Experience. The Experience side is our slow bar. Last weekend we did Tung Ting tea service on the gongfu set, which is a Chinese method of brewing tea. Last week Frank did a study in processing. He took coffees that were processed three different ways and then he did a cupping and a talk about the impact of processing on the flavor profile.
What are your thoughts on the growing coffee community in Pasadena?
We are around the corner from Intelligentsia, across the street from Amara Chocolate, and down the road from Jones. One of the things I learned when I was in Seattle, you can have a coffee shop on top of a coffee shop and they all can do well. It is the idea of the rising tide raises all ships. I love that Intelligentsia opened doors for specialty coffee by being here in Pasadena. Old Town is a great space. A lot of people come here, it is a destination spot, but also a lot of my customers live and work here. They encourage them to think of Copa Vida as a community gathering space for local businesses and events.