When Robert Stockham joined Cleveland, Ohio’s Rising Star Coffee Roasters last fall, one of his first assignments as general manager was to find a new larger roaster location. He and coffee specialist John Johnson toured many buildings before signing a lease for space in the old power plant of the Hildebrandt Provisions Company. For lifelong Clevelanders, and their grandparents, the name Hildebrant does not evoke coffee, but rather, hot dogs.
“We saw a lot of raw industrial spaces,” Stockham told me. It was on the way back to Rising Star’s Hingetown location after a disappointing tour of a former garage that Stockham proposed an impromptu visit to the Hildebrandt building. He was familiar with it because he had toured the building in 2011 while working for Fresh Fork, a community-supported agriculture subscription business. Stockham said, “We looked in the window and we knew it was home.”
The Hildebrandt Provisions Company had its roots in a business bought by Charles Hildebrandt and his brother-in-law, August Habermann. Hildebrandt sold his interest in that first meat packing business and struck out on his own. Joined a few years later by his brother Julius, the company—then known as Hildebrandt Brothers—incorporated in 1906. It moved to the location where Rising Star now roasts coffee in 1929.
Hildebrandt, as a meat processing company, was in its heyday from 1912 through the end of the Second World War. By the middle of the 20th century, the business was in a decline. Still, when Johnson told his dad about the location they had picked, his dad asked, “Hildebrandt? Like the hot dogs?”
Yes, exactly like the hot dogs.
What is presently Rising Star’s administrative headquarters is a very utilitarian, industrial space that was once a workshop. Stockham wants to convert it to a conference space in which they can hold meetings with visitors. The expansive area, which now contains the company’s two Ambex roasters and control systems, was once a space that housed giant turbines. Those turbines pumped a coolant (compressed ammonia) to industrial-sized coolers in another building.
Rising Star is still using the same 5-kilo and 12-kilo perforated drum roasters Johnson learned on. The roasting team uses Profiling Dynamics to log data in real time. Gary Kim Jenkins, the owner of the company, is a data-driven guy. In his previous career, Jenkins worked in research and development for two defense contractors. He is named as an inventor on two patents related to target imaging systems. The truly geeky Sprudge reader will appreciate that some of the same technologies used in these inventions may also be used to create 3D images of coffee beans.
Johnson noted that in Rising Star’s early days, roasts would be under- or over-developed. It took experimentation with roast profiles to arrive at temperature and time curves that produce the flavor profiles that are winning over chefs and discerning coffee drinkers in the Greater Cleveland area.
And I do mean winning. I spoke with staff at six other area coffeehouses for an upcoming story on the downtown Cleveland coffee scene, and every time I asked what other coffee businesses I ought to pay attention to in Cleveland, Rising Star was the first or second one mentioned.
Johnson told me he is looking for roasting equipment that can handle bigger batches now that the company has more space. About half of the finished area is dedicated to roasting and packaging coffee for Rising Star retail locations and wholesale accounts. Stockham envisions creating a coffee lab and retail space in the other half.
What do Stockham and Johnson mean by “coffee lab?” They want people—area baristas or culinary tourists—to come and try out an array of equipment for making coffee. The company has become a local distributor for Synesso, Mahlköenig, Hario, and Kalita, which will make stocking the lab with demonstration models easier to facilitate. Stockham is working on adding a few more familiar brands to that list.
Johnson gets very animated talking about his desire to make an experimental playground for industry insiders and coffee lovers alike. Stockham hopes to be able to host groups of tourists by the end of summer. They both light up at the idea of being able to share the same coffee, roasted the same way, brewed three different ways with visitors.
Don’t let Johnson’s “mad scientist” smile as he pours water into the Kone Brewing System scare you off. Already, he and Stockham have had two to three small roasters and a farmer from Panama visit the new facility. Much like the burgeoning specialty coffee scene in Cleveland, this is an exciting work in process.
Jenny Neill is a Sprudge contributor based in Seattle. She writes about beverage and travel at jennyneill.com. Read more Jenny Neill on Sprudge.