Cultivar Coffee has long been one of the driving forces in Dallas specialty coffee. Back in early 2011 when owners Nathan Shelton and Jonathan Meadows opened the East Dallas storefront for their roastery, a coffee “scene” didn’t really exist—there was a micro-roaster or two and a handful of baristas immersing themselves in coffee culture, but they were scattered throughout the Metroplex, and there was no centralized location for these fledgling forces to catalyze. Cultivar became that focal point: a tiny enclave for third-wave acolytes to nerd out on the newfound phenomenon of really good coffee. Jump ahead four years and the Dallas coffee scene is flourishing. Now, Shelton, along with Meadows—the first-ever Dallas barista to make it to the national stage of the U.S. Barista Championship—are looking to expand their influence and invigorate another boom 40 miles north in Denton, Texas, with this month's opening of a second Cultivar location.
Though it creates the northernmost border of the DFW Metroplex, Denton is much more spiritually akin to Austin than it is to Dallas—home to both the University of North Texas and Texas Women’s University, Denton is a college town, it has a bustling live music scene, and it’s a liberal “blueberry in the tomato soup.” But the coffee scene is more reminiscent of late '90s or early 2000s Austin, where quirky design and comfy couches for late night cram-sessions were more important than the quality of the beverage providing that desperately needed caffeine jolt. Denton is turning a corner, though: shops are beginning to serve local specialty roasters like Oak Cliff Coffee and Avoca Coffee, and big name roasters like Intelligentsia and Stumptown are popping up sporadically on bars around town.
Meadows tells me it reminds him of Dallas not too long ago. “When we opened our first shop, we quickly found ourselves standing in the gap between a culture submerged in automatic machines and artificial syrups and people who knew there was better coffee to be had. We wanted people to have a better coffee experience, and we wanted to be welcoming to those who never experienced coffee in that way. We feel like Denton is in the beginning stages of the same movement and we wanted to be a part of it.”
Located on 235 W. Hickory, just off the Square, Cultivar is operating out of a shared space, a move that served them well at their East Dallas shop, where they paired up with Good2Go Tacos. This time, they are splitting residence with another East-Dallas-turned-Dentonite, Hypnotic Donuts & Biscuits. On their inclination for shared spaces, Shelton stated, “Jon and I are coffee people, so all of our focus is on coffee. We want everything we do to be really, really good, so it just made sense for us to pair with businesses that have the same passion for food as we do for coffee. And having good food helps us be more approachable to the average person that hasn't been exposed to specialty coffee.”
The interior expresses the dichotomy of two separate businesses sharing the same space. On one side is Hypnotic, who imported the cozier feel commonly associated with Denton establishments, implementing vintage furniture and 60’s era tri-tone striping on the walls. Standing in contrast on the other side is Cultivar with a more modern aesthetic- it’s all clean whites and wood tones. The stark white tile covering the wall behind the bar juxtaposes the softer eggshell off-whites of the rest of the building, sharply defining the coffee space. Meadows and Shelton introduce some warmth to the coffee station with the addition of the beautiful pecan slab counter tops wrapping around the L-shaped bar. “Nathan said he’s quitting coffee if anyone scratches that counter,” Meadows said, half-joking.
The clean design continues behind the bar with Cultivar’s choice in espresso machine, a white three-group La Marzocco GB/5. Stationed to its left are black Mazzer Robur-E and Nuova Simonelli Mythos One Clima Pro espresso grinders. During my visit, Cultivar was serving their El Salvador Malacara Red Bourbon, one of three coffees they acquired through their direct trade relationship with the Dumont Family at Finca Malacara near Santa Ana. With this second location, Meadows and Shelton designed the bar to be almost completely forward-facing, promoting communication between customer and barista. “There has been a lot of industry talk about improving interaction through bar design, so we wanted to put some of that talk into action,” Meadows told me. “The two big functional design changes we made were taking the menu off the wall and not building a huge back bar. We are subtly pushing customers to engage our baristas more with the end goal being that they ask questions, allowing us to make suggestions. So far, it’s working really well.”
Around the bend in the coffee bar is Cultivar’s manual brew station, a luxury they didn’t have the room for at their more scaled-back East Dallas location. Armed with the black Mahlkönig EK-43 abutted against the back wall, Cultivar brews their coffees through a Kalita Wave, Clever Dripper, or AeroPress, with the Wave being their primary method. Like with the espresso, they were offering the El Salvador Malacara Red Bourbon on the brew bar. Though they have up to eight single origins available for retail at a given time, the Denton shop will primarily serve the same coffee for both espresso and brew bar in order to highlight the myriad flavors inherent to each roast and how varying methods pronounce different characteristics.
There is little doubt that Denton is primed and ready for its own thriving coffee scene. Cultivar Denton is looking to help grow the excitement that is already teeming under the surface. But Denton can be a pretty insular city, where outsiders (read: Dallasites) aren’t often able to break through and gain a following, so success isn’t guaranteed. The shop is off to a strong start, though; during the soft open, lines went out the door and around the block, a parade of Dentonites looking to get their first glimpse at the Square’s newest hangout spot. With other new shops opening soon and existing shops recalibrating their coffee programs, the opening of Cultivar’s second location should help ignite the Denton coffee scene, looking to match, and maybe even surpass, some of the cool things happening 40 miles south.
Photos by Cara Michelle Smith for Sprudge.com.