In a city dense with specialty cafes, and in a field still mostly dominated by men, coffee roaster Juliette Simpkins and her partner, Trevor Moisen, opened Black Ring Coffee in Long Beach, California in the summer of 2017. It took them just shy of six years of work, planning, forming relationships, and learning. They opened with no outside funding.
Black Ring sits on a busy section of Long Beach Boulevard in the city’s northeast section, Virginia Village. The shop’s industrial design and dulcet vibe reflect its steady owner, who seems both unfazed by her newfound responsibilities and determined to will her cafe’s success.
She tells me she’s plenty fazed, that she gets very little sleep, and that she’s taken very few days off.
Then again, six years ago Simpkins quit her job as a therapist for a mental hospital in nearby Orange County. “It was tough,” she says. “You’re seeing people at the worst parts of their lives. A lot of times you help them get better and then you see them back.”
Coffee offered an escape—”It makes me happy, and I was not happy working in that hospital”—so she moved to Long Beach and set out to learn roasting. Primarily self-taught, Simpkins’ journey started humbly. She purchased a Behmor roaster, watched YouTube videos, and read The Coffee Roaster’s Companion several times. A two-year physics degree helped, but there was an unfortunate incident involving a melted air popcorn popper along the way. Eventually, she took a roasting class with Boot Coffee and talked frequently with other roasters, sometimes roasting with them. “Now my roasting is an amalgam of everything I’ve ever learned from every roaster that I’ve roasted with,” she tells me. “I’ve tried their way and then kind of created my own way.”
By late 2014, her roasting dialed in, she and Moisen started supplying MADE Millworks in Long Beach. The coffee’s popularity had them roasting around the clock during the holidays. “We were taking sleeping shifts so that we could roast the coffee for all of the orders we got,” Simpkins says.
Simpkins borrowed roasting time from Heartbreak Coffee (now in Oxford, Mississippi) and rented time at Arcade Coffee Roasters in nearby Riverside. Soon, they were selling coffee to several homegrown retail shops, like Long Beach Creamery, which makes a signature coffee ice cream using Black Ring’s coffee.
A Black Ring shop was not a foregone conclusion. Long Beach has been in the throes of a massive revitalization, from its downtown corridor to its nether-reaches, and its specialty coffee scene is already getting crowded, with more than a dozen dedicated specialty shops by my count, not including multi-use cafes or large coffee chains. One of Black Ring’s baristas told me she’s opening her own cafe in downtown Long Beach, and Portola Coffee Lab, with six Orange County locations, is opening a new shop in Long Beach imminently.
In late 2016, Simpkins and Moisen identified an empty spot in north Long Beach, a 100-year-old storefront that had been vacant since 2004. It was once a courthouse, and also a jail. The city was anxious to have a tenant and north Long Beach had no specialty cafes. Together they plunged into the unknown, and Black Ring Coffee was born.
Black Ring Coffee is in elite company among Long Beach cafes in that it roasts its own coffee on premises. It lucked into a used Ambex YM10 from Augie’s Coffee, sliding just under restrictions that would have required air quality bureau approval. A BUNN grinds for FETCO-fueled batch brews and pour-overs. For its espresso drinks, Black Ring uses a Mahlkönig K30 and La Marzocco Linea Classic, the latter another hand-me-down purchased from nearby Steelhead Coffee.
First-rate equipment at second-hand prices. More bricks in this bootstrapped build-out.
Add them to those bricks adorning Black Ring’s interior walls. Simpkins, who designed Black Ring’s cafe, decided to expose that underlying bit of character in the century-old building to create a friendly, inviting spot that could also seat lots of people. It’s narrow, open design features a short countertop at the coffee bar and a thin, sturdy counter traversing the opposite wall, where customers can hang out as they drink the popular honey-oat latte (tasting notes: honey-nut cheerios).
The roaster is closed off in its own room. For now. Although Simpkins allows customers to watch, she typically roasts in solitude. When I come in one Sunday morning to watch, she is zoned in. It almost looks therapeutic.
Food partners rotate. Simpkins prefers local Long Beach suppliers, like Colossus Bread, which has no permanent home, calling itself a “community-supported bakery.” She’s also fond of Rye Goods out of Tustin, California, a company that mills its own grains and has a certified commercial kitchen in a garage. Black Ring hosts art shows in the shop, with the showcase artist, bands, and food trucks, turning the venue into a community space.
All of these little black coffee rings, they leave their mark.
Fritz Nelson is a freelance journalist based in Long Beach, CA. This is Fritz Nelson’s first feature for Sprudge Media Network.