Twenty miles south of Amarillo lies Canyon, Texas, a town of around 13,000 inhabitants that in many ways feels like a holdover from frontier times. The terrain is harsh and unforgiving, but ruggedly beautiful. Thanks to the onslaught of dust storms, the sky in Canyon is perpetually fading from blue to golden brown as it nears the horizon.
Tumbleweeds intersect your path regularly. And then there's the heat. Oh, the heat. It takes an intrepid spirit to put down roots in Canyon, one of the last “dry” cities in Texas, but Patrick Burns of Palace Coffee Company is audacious enough to do just that. I spent the day with Patrick, visiting his shops, discussing his coffee philosophy, the town of Canyon, the Big Central and United States Barista Championships, and everything in between.
We meet at Evocation Coffee Roasters in Amarillo, where owners Roman and Amy Leal are cupping coffees for Burns to sample and potentially use at the United States Barista Championship. Evocation is a mainstay of Palace’s coffee program, and the two shops have developed a symbiotic relationship over the years.
Patrick pulls up in a matte black 2001 GMC Sierra 1500 Extended Cab pickup truck with Palace’s phoenix logo on the hood and “coffee is art” in bold type across the truck-bed door. His entrance succinctly embodies Palace’s ethos – they serve well-crafted coffee while staying firmly rooted in Panhandle culture, and they’re damn proud of it.
This cavalier Texan attitude was on full display in October, when Patrick placed 3rd in the South Central Barista Competition. His signature beverage in particular playfully eschewed what is typically accepted in coffee circles. Using Evocation’s Finca Santa Marta, a honey-processed coffee from Costa Rica, he created a take on an Old Fashioned as his signature beverage. “I love whiskey. I made a cold brew with the Santa Marta, which I then used to make ice spheres. I poured the espresso directly over the ice spheres to bring out some of the bitterness, which is generally a coffee faux pas,” Burns told me. “I then added a Gum Arabic syrup and soda water mixture before finishing it all off with a ginger spritz.”
Back at Evocation, Burns has assembled his coffee brain trust for the cupping: Palace baristas Andrew McCaslin, Rob Reagan, and Kevin Friemel (one of my favorite Dallas baristas; Burns stole him from us…). They will be helping him select one of the eight roasts Roman and Amy Leal have prepared. Burns is quick to point out which member of his team has a better palate than his and who has a larger coffee brain. He never misses an opportunity to praise his crew, and for good reason. In 2013, Palace won second place in America’s Best Coffeehouse Competition put on by Coffee Fest Chicago, a competition testing the quality and efficiency of a shop’s customer service. Baristas Andrew McCaslin and Rob Reagan also placed fourth and fifth, respectively, in this year’s South Central Brewers Cup with Reagan posting the highest score in the compulsory round.
This will be a truly blind cupping; only the coffees’ four-digit identification codes are displayed. The only thing known about the coffees is that none of them are the Finca Santa Marta. On why he opted to switch, Burns stated, “I want to find the right coffee for me. I compete so I can become a better coffee person, which means learning new things and trying new coffees. I have the chance to work with Joe Marrocco of Cafe Imports, and he's super excited about some of the coffees we’re cupping today. Why should I stick with just one coffee when there is literally a whole world of coffees to choose from?”
After the grinds have settled and the echo of the last slurp faded, a winner has been chosen; the Colombia just edged out the Burundi. A professed lover of African coffees, Burns is surprised by his choice. “Joe said he was sending a really great Colombian, and I didn’t believe him, but he was right.”
Our next stop is Burn's home base, the 100+ year-old Smith Building in which Palace now resides. Located in Canyon's downtown square, the two-story historical landmark was originally a mercantile before it became home to the Palace Hotel, the shop’s namesake. The build-out is faithful to the soul of the building and the space is unapologetically Canyon. To the right of the entrance, an old leather couch sits against the eastern wall, flanked to its right by mid-century pink and yellow velour chairs running along the northern wall. In the massive windows overlooking the couch, a view of the old courthouse peeks out from behind the Palace logo.
The original dark hardwood floors are scraped and scuffed from 100 years of foot traffic. The lights hanging over the coffee bar along the northern wall are all from the original build-out as well. “I love historic buildings,” Patrick told me, “and I wanted to create a space where people are the focus. The Canyon community has a laid back charm, and people are not in a hurry, so I wanted our space to reflect that. Even with West Texas A&M University nearby, Canyon is far from a college town. I knew we could help bridge that gap and bring together the Canyon community and the university crowd in a comfortable, casual atmosphere that just so happens to serve kick ass coffee.”
The most modern part of the building is the coffee bar. A custom two-group La Marzocco Linea (also matte black, unsurprisingly) stands center mast on the solid oak counter. The machine's PID temperature control, electronic pre-infusion, and timer have been designed and installed by Marty Roe of Kansas City’s About the Coffee. To the left of the Linea are black Mazzer Major and Mini grinders, both doserless. During my stay, they were dispensing Evocation’s Mad Hatter, a single origin espresso from Costa Rica’s San Rafael region.
At the far end of the coffee bar is Palace’s manual brew station, a wide-open counter space where baristas utilize a number of brew methods, depending upon what works best with the current offering. Guest roasters from all over the country, including Handsome, Verve, Madcap, and Tweed rotate regularly into the peach colored Mahlkönig Guatemala grinder faithfully stationed at the westernmost point of the brew bar.
At the time of my visit, Burns and gang were using a Chemex to brew the naturally processed Panama Los Lajones Lot 14 from Temple Coffee Roasters in Sacramento, California. “Palace is trying to introduce specialty coffee to a very mixed market, and I have a special place in my heart for naturals,” Burns explained. “I love getting to explain the different flavor calls to a customer and then see them taste those exact things. The light bulb goes on, and they are hooked.”
The final stop on our coffee walkabout is downtown Amarillo, where Burns will be opening the second Palace location. This time, Burns has opted for a slightly newer space, the Paramount Theatre Building constructed in 1932. The lease was recently finalized, so the build-out is just getting underway. The building is completely gutted, the exposed duct work hangs perilously low, and the floors are covered in dust. The only semblance of what the space will look like comes in the form of a taped-off 2’x2’ square of concrete floor that shines from multiple coats of lacquer.
Burns tells me this space will have a more modern feel than the Canyon location. “Thirteen-thousand people work in downtown Amarillo, and we want to adapt our shop setting to be conducive to that crowd. A more modern, minimalist style seems to be the best use of this space. That being said, we will still soften the overall feel by implementing warm tones in the woods and other features.”
Once there is a bar to put it on, a matte black three-group La Marzocco GB5 with wood features (also designed by Marty Roe) will call Palace home. The as-of-yet undecided espresso grinders will follow in the footsteps of the Canyon shop by dispensing Evocation coffees. The brew bar will also mimic Canyon’s setup: various guest roasters, multiple brew methods, and a peach colored Mahlkonig Guatemala.
Beyond serving quality beverages to local coffee acolytes, Patrick is helping bolster a community of coffee professionals. In 2012, he created the Barista Throwdown League as a way of connecting shops in the Panhandle. To date, over 50 baristas from 12 different shops have taken part in the six-month long season. Burns' influence stretches past the Panhandle too. Along with Skip Finley of Dalla Corte, Burns helped organize the Latte Art Exhibition at the 2013 USBC, which has transformed into the US Latte Art Championship that will debut at this year’s USBC.
But Canyon is where Burns' heart is. He is always looking to push his community forward, and in doing so, is showing the world that great coffee and a great coffee culture can thrive outside of a sprawling metropolis. Still, progress can be slow, but with Burns and the gang at Palace surreptitiously picking up the tempo, it’ll be here before you know it.
Photos by Cara Michelle Smith (@caramsmith) for Sprudge.com.