It was a busy Saturday night, just before St. Patrick’s Day, when MmmHmm Coffee owner Jon French drove away from Hilliard’s, a popular brewery in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. The place was filled with about 500 people playing beer pong, which you might expect; French’s brand new specialty coffee bar is physically located inside the raucous brewpub, which you might not. It made for a tense moment for French: “I went home and told my wife, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to have a business in the morning.’ Because those guys were playing beer pong two inches from my bar!”
Fortunately the just-opened business emerged unscathed; indeed, MmmHmm Coffee is building a solid reputation for itself around Seattle as one of the city’s best new cafes, and best places to drink Counter Culture Coffee, still a rarity in the Pacific Northwest. Located in the industrial/manufacturing zone of Ballard that’s become known as the neighborhood’s Brewery District, Hilliard’s has formed a partnership with MmmHmm that primes both businesses to work on collaborative projects and share space, while creating a unique cafe environment inside of a busy working brewery.
The MmmHmm brand spent much of 2014 existing in pop-up form, during which time French and business partner Jack Ellis planned to drive a packable cart around town and open up shop inside retail and event spaces. The almost four-year-old tasting room and production facility owned by Hilliard’s was an early host to MmmHmm’s mobile bar on the weekends. “[Hilliard’s] already had food trucks outside, so it made sense to have coffee there in the afternoon,” French says. “We quickly realized that being at Hilliard’s was way cooler than the other spaces we have occupied. There was a synergy between coffee and beer.”
For his part, French sees several similarities between the beverages. “They’re both very scientific,” he says. “We’re in Seattle, so uppers and downers are kind of a thing. I’m interested in how we can do something different with beer and coffee.”
Housing a coffee bar, tap room, and production facility under one roof is uncharted territory for Hilliard’s, and the flow of customers changes frequently, but French is betting on Seattleites being open to a new cafe environment. “You go to a cafe to study, meet with somebody, or to get away from yourself,” he tells me. “But here, you’re going to have to listen to people canning and brewing beer, and there might be some dude on top of a forklift.”
MmmHmm is open from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. daily, before the space shifts focus to the Hilliard’s taproom happy hour. During the day, there’s a fair chance Hilliard’s staff will be in the process of canning or brewing. “We love this manufacturing atmosphere—things are getting done, shit is happening,” French says. “People come for coffee with us and they see beer being made and canned—it’s not just theoretical.”
On the day I interviewed French, a few thousand motorcyclists were expected to fill the space for an event, and the coffee bar had to clear out quickly. “A lot of it is being flexible and malleable with a manufacturing facility and a really popular taproom,” French says. “There’s been a couple of times when they’ve been bringing pallets with a container’s worth of kegs on them and driving forklifts like three inches away while I’m pouring cappuccinos.”
Like so many professionals in his field, French “accidentally ended up in coffee.” After working at the now defunct Peet’s in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood he moved to Atlanta for a year, where he was introduced to Counter Culture’s coffee during a stint as a barista at a local cafe.
He returned to Seattle and began to dive deeper into specialty coffee, eventually managing Anchored Ship Coffee Bar (Seattle’s first Counter Culture account). At MmmHmm he’s working with a La Marzocco’s Strada EP espresso machine and Mahlkönig’s EK 43 grinder, and aiming for larger volume shots: 45 to 60 grams of brewed espresso weight. “The EK 43 Grinder and Strada EP allow us to yield more volume without overextracting,” French tells me, explaining the atypically large size of his espresso shots. “We have found this espresso style to better represent the flavors we taste on the cupping table and produce more volume for our guests to enjoy. We have gotten in the habit of calling them ‘sugar bombs’ as they taste so sweet and balanced when brewed this way.”
With consistent daily hours and a growing reputation, French has no plans to settle down, and will spend the rest of 2015 trying his hand at perfecting a “direct-to-consumer product.” Specifically, he’s working on coffee in a can and chai ginger beer. MmmHmm’s proposed single-origin canned coffee will be produced right on the spot at Hilliard’s, naturally. It could emerge on Seattle-area grocery shelves as soon as this summer, but may not be ready until next year. Before that, look for the inevitable coffee/beer collaboration between MmmHmm and Hilliard’s, due out soon.