Aaron Ultimo doesn’t just have his name on his South Philly coffee business, Ultimo Coffee. He’s all in, a not-afraid-to-get-dirty boss whether it’s coffee or machine grease. Where others in his place might have stepped back from their role at some point—after a decade of judging barista competitions on the national and international stage, after opening a second cafe, after having a couple of kids with wife and co-owner, Elizabeth Ultimo—Aaron Ultimo remains just as involved in his seven-year-old South Philly coffee company as ever, from running the show to repairing equipment to pulling bar shifts. And now that the business has begun roasting its own coffee? Yeah. He’s doing that part, too.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m a doer, I like to get my hands on things. This is something that’s very visceral and crafty, I like learning it,” said Ultimo from the airy second-story roasting space he recently inhabited a few scant blocks from his first cafe in Newbold, and a block from his own house. Ultimo—the company—has been offering a limited selection of its own roasted beans since April, out of the unusual upstairs space they split with a brewery.
For Philadelphia, another artisan roaster, or the expansion of an existing one, may not seem like headline news today. The city’s seen huge growth in its specialty coffee community since early pioneers like Ultimo Coffee and Spruce Street (may it rest in power) first established their craft in the late aughts. The early comers are now joined by a slew of quality shops, roasters, and multi-roaster cafes, like Elixr, Menagerie, ReAnimator, and Rival Bros., to name only a few. And, of course, there’s that other little company in town—as impossible to overlook as the crack in the Liberty Bell, the nationwide coffee behemoth that La Colombe has become, with its 11,000-square-foot Fishtown outlet dwarfing any American cafe short of Seattle’s Starbucks Reserve mini-theme-park.
But what Ultimo Coffee’s transition to roasting has really done is mark a sea change in the city’s wholesale landscape, and in some ways the roaster’s late-to-the-game entry actually feels like Philly coffee’s true coming of age. In 2009, when Ultimo started out, this town was ruled by Counter Culture Coffee, a North Carolina-based roaster beloved for quality coffees at remarkably reasonable wholesale prices, a successful model of intensive retailer training via satellite labs around the country, and a close-knit feeling of loyalty among those who use, and continue to use them, despite industry gravity pulling small companies towards roasting their own. Ultimo’s been on board with Counter Culture since the beginning, and while its beans still fill the majority of their hoppers and shelves for now, they’ll slowly disappear from Ultimo—and from a great many Philly cups—as their own roasting gets up to full capacity.
To have watched Ultimo Coffee evolve was to have watched Philadelphia coffee itself evolve, says Erika Lee Vonie, now head of quality control and training at Variety Coffee in New York. Vonie worked as a barista for Ultimo from 2011-2014, and says that when she applied to work there—which she did twice before she was hired—the company was the city’s high water mark of quality coffee.
“If you wanted a good cup of coffee, you went to Ultimo,” said Vonie. “The attention to detail, the planning, the entire program was super by-the-book, but not in an overbearing way. In the way that ‘this is the way everything should be done in order for everything to taste great.’ I feel like Ultimo was pretty much the first specialty cafe that I was really aware of in Philly, and then there were a ton of other shops springing up inspired by what Aaron was doing,” she continued. “The scene definitely exploded, and [Ultimo] was integral in helping Philadelphia become a specialty coffee city.
The journey seemed, too, to walk in step with Counter Culture, whose Philadelphia training center is actually located directly upstairs from the second Ultimo shop on Catharine Street. The roaster has had a stronghold in Philly for years with Ultimo likely their coffees’ highest-volume purveyor. Not easy in a landscape where major roasters like Intelligentsia and Stumptown often move in to compete, as they did in nearby New York City. But while the move towards roasting his own was long planned, Aaron Ultimo explained, it wasn’t easy to separate from Counter Culture.
“Part of the reason maybe that this took so long was that it was not just a really frightening step not knowing how to do what we’re doing, but in leaving your family,” says Ultimo of the tight-knit roaster relationship he’d cultivated. It’s a relationship that’s been equally valuable to Counter Culture.
“Our focus is on wholesale and working with folks that sell coffee, so having great partners that push and pull makes us better, and hopefully it makes that customer better and hopefully the whole coffee community,” said Brett Smith, founder and president of Counter Culture Coffee, in a phone call from Durham. “I do give Aaron a lot of credit for really pushing ahead, and I think that influenced the Philly market. And on a nationwide level, people have looked to Aaron and recognized the Ultimo crew as people who are trying to raise the bar all the time,” he continued.
“While we certainly would love to continue selling coffee to Ultimo, the relationship has been more than about coffee. It’s been about, I think, two organizations that have been continuing to push. While the relationship is changing, he and all of the Ultimo crew will always be part of the Counter Culture family,” Smith assured.
Ultimo concurs, but also has his eyes set forward. “I feel like everybody including us is a little sad about it,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re really excited to be going down this route. We’re really excited to see what happens next and to see what we can learn. It is really fun to take the company to the next step.”
Today, the next step is working on the “battered green” ’90s Probat L-12 roaster Ultimo picked up online and refurbished himself—the company’s well-received first few coffee releases, from Burundi, Colombia, and Ethiopia, already reflecting the intense level of care and dedication Ultimo, the person, puts into everything labeled Ultimo, the brand.
With a slowly grown empire that’s helped rejuvenate a neighborhood, deep respect in the coffee community, and a stimulating job full of challenges he embraces, you’d think Aaron Ultimo might be pretty satisfied by now. But there’s one more thing missing, he says.
“I haven’t smelled it yet,” Ultimo says of his newest venture, with a smile.
“I want the experience of smelling coffee roasting, from my house.”
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.