The feeling you get from Las Vegas is a city on fast forward. A city built from nothing—literally an expanse of arid sand turned into a shining, glittering mass of consumer fantasy. A locale built on the backs of corporate interest, a city that leap-frogged the common themes of community planning, depending instead on a migratory tidal wave of tourism each year to fill its gleaming casinos and Olympic-sized pool parties. It’s a sprawling city, a loose connection of suburbs and strip malls linked by dust-covered freeways, the skyline of The Strip always looming somewhere in the distance. On the surface, community in Las Vegas seems sparse, the long distances, scorching summer temperatures, and almost mandatory automobile usage, massive detractors from what most people see as normal aspects of a city. To see beyond the Midwestern tourists and drunken fratboys, to see the burgeoning off-strip food and coffee scene still working its way up and out of the cracks, you need to depart the bright lights and face-lifts. To see the beginnings of what could be a beautiful thing, you need to visit a place like Joshua Walter’s Mothership Coffee Roasters and see just what it takes to carve out a niche of specialty coffee in the desert.
Walters, a lifelong resident of Las Vegas, didn’t grow up hanging out in coffee shops or sipping light-roasted micro-lots from South America. “Las Vegas is different than other cities,” Walters tells me one afternoon, both of us seated in Mothership’s sparkling white cafe, a freshly roasted Rwanda Gishamwana Island filling our cups. “You don’t have coffee shops on corners. Everybody drives everywhere. People don’t really go out.” Walters grew up watching his dad drink Folgers, not even trying his first sip of coffee until he was 21. When he met his wife, Juanny Romero, a New York transplant with a yen for good food, all of that changed. “We’d go out and eat food that totally blew my mind,” Walters says, “and we’d travel to LA and San Francisco and I saw something really valuable.” Which lead Walters to open his first shop, Sunrise Coffee in 2008. Sunrise isn’t a specialty coffee shop: it offers vegan food and 20-ounce beverages, and lives in the shell of a former It’s A Grind, but it still stands as one of the city’s most popular spots for a cup of joe, a haven for UNLV college students and people just wanting a place to gather and hang out. “People came there,” Walters says, “just to get coffee, but they saw people they knew.”
Walters was, and is, happy with what Sunrise has become, but Mothership is the expansion of his vision. On a trip to California, Walters had a revelation that there was “another tier” to coffee that he could bring to the coffee-deprived Las Vegas community. Walters started teaching himself about the finer points of coffee flavor profiles in his garage on a two-group Brasilia. “I was using all these weird online forums and learning that I had to like, adjust the grind,” he says, “I went from absolutely no experience to teaching myself how to modulate flavor profiles.” In 2012, in the unused drive-in space of Sunrise, Walters started roasting the beans that would become Mothership. Three years later, he opened the brick-and-mortar just a few blocks down the road past sun-faded chain restaurants and Wayne Newton’s house.
Mothership is very apparently a specialty coffee spot. It’s starkly white with a five-item menu and hip mural crawling up one wall, and stacks of pastries and a chocolates tower behind a slab of glass. There’s a gleaming, polished three-group Synesso Hydra sitting on the counter, a Mahlköng K30 grinder, and a shiny new IR-12 Diedrich roaster just out of sight. Walking from the baking desert heat, it feels like you’ve entered a different world, or maybe stepped through a portal into a new Blue Bottle. And Walters will be the first to admit that his trips to other coffee shops influenced his aesthetic, but this isn’t just an homage to other places, this is Walter’s coffee shop, and a new frontier for the local Las Vegas coffee scene. The pastries are baked in-house (try the scone with onion jam if you can), the chocolates (from Happy Ending Chocolate) are put together by one of Walter’s best friends, and the mural on the wall painted by Walter’s sister, well-known artist Amy Sol. Walter’s hung the shelves and designed the menu and even created a new form of cold brew made with hops. In San Francisco stocking your shelves with local companies and making things from scratch is the norm, in Vegas, a city that puts Starbucks on a pedestal, Mothership is almost revolutionary.
And Walters isn’t just trying to create a community amongst the nascent Las Vegas coffee scene, he’s trying to create a place where the typical Las Vegas resident can come and enjoy a drink and maybe, just maybe, push their own boundaries. “Learning to make a perfect shot of espresso off esoteric web forums has been good for me,” he says, “because now [Mothership] can be the bridge between the lay person and specialty coffee. I can relate to these people very easily. And I can help walk them over that bridge.” To Walters, coffee is a personal preference, one that isn’t going to be changed without a want to change it. “If people don’t know about good coffee,” Walter says, “you can’t convince them. We have a responsibility not to punish people for not knowing. It is up to us to get them on board.” Mothership works from the philosophy that each drink is a possible step towards the inner sanctum of specialty coffee. “You’re not going to give, say, a former Folgers drinker a shot of espresso,” he says, “but you might make them a mocha made with locally sourced chocolate. And maybe down the road you might make them a cappuccino and then maybe a macchiato. We want to work people into it.”
In its first year of business, Mothership has done well. You can find Walter’s beans in almost 20 accounts around the city and Walters and his staff have become resources for other burgeoning roasters. It isn’t easy though. Walters has found that a lot of people he knows who might be interested in increasing the presence of good coffee in the city, depart for greener pastures like San Francisco or Los Angeles. “People tell me they’re going to SF to open a coffee shop,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘Stay here, open a coffee shop here!’.”
In Las Vegas, the fight to bring good coffee isn’t going to be an easy one. Shops like Mothership are fighting years of local preference as well as fickle tourists and a city that doesn’t have much use for small businesses. But it starts with building a community in a city that’s never had one, and it starts with educating from the ground up. Quite frankly, it starts with a local like Joshua Walters, just a kid who taught himself how to make coffee in his garage, reaching out a hand.