Nestled in Chicago's meat-packing district, Fulton Market, and only a few hundred feet away from several other coffee roasters, there exists a cooperative warehouse space that houses many creative businesses. Passion House Coffee Roasters
is one of those creative companies and two years in, they're ready to introduce their coffee to the nation.
Passion House, as the name implies, was born out of a passion for coffee. "We love what we do, all we want to do is share that with other people," says Joshua Millman, the founder, roaster, account manager, and customer service manager of Passion House. This same passion is reflected in their coffee and approach to to customer education.
Their coffee offerings are divided into three categories: Ambient (A), Mainstream (M), and Experimental (E), collectively known as "AME." By grouping coffee into these categories, PH hopes to make coffee more accessible for the consumer. Those who are unfamiliar with their selection (or specialty coffee in general) begin at A coffees, which contain the "darker flavor notes that a lot of people want. It's kind of that gateway to get people really into coffee," explains Shannon Steele-Knuckles, roaster, green bean buyer, and brew specialist for Passion House. Mainstream coffees are the next level up, consisting of their house blend and some other coffees that make people comfortable. "You feel like you've known them your whole life, but there's something a little different about them," describes Shannon. And finally, there's Experimental, which is the ideal of how Passion House would roast if they had their way with the specialty coffee industry.
The mindset of being accessible to customers extends to their coffee bags as well. Each bag has flavor notes: a most are relatable and one is exploratory, like "vetiver," "black currant," and "basswood honey." The idea behind that is that it pushes customers to explore their palate a little bit more.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Joshua and Shannon to talk about what makes Passion House the duo that they are….
Both Shannon and Joshua got their start in coffee when they were teenagers. Their first jobs were in coffee and the passion only blossomed from there.
On their start in coffee
CK: In your whole career in coffee, did you have a defining moment where you wanted to be in coffee?
: For me, I would say that it wasn't one moment, but all moments. I started in coffee when I was 16 and it was more like a lifestyle that I related to- in the sense of community, gathering, I was always reading Alan Greensburg, Jack Kerauac, you know, that almost counter culture-esque that was always gathering at coffee shops. I assimilated. It was an interesting place to hang out. And then there's just coffees throughout my career that have sparked my interest. The people. Everyday, I get excited about coffee. I think there's a multitude of moments that continually get me excited about coffee.
CK: When you were 16 and you started in coffee, that's when you decided you wanted to make coffee a career?
: No, that's when I decided to make it part of my life. I didn't know you could make it a career until I was recruited by a roaster in San Diego to roast for them.
CK: When you talked about the community aspect of the cafe, why did you decide to go into roasting?
: [deadpans] Because I spent so much time in the community aspect of the cafe. No, because I wanted to learn every facet on what was happening in the coffee industry. I still love community, but there's a different kind of magic that happens [in roasting].
On being a startup:
CK: Getting into specifics, what was the most difficult part of starting up your own roaster?
: One thing?
CK: One or two.
: Well, I mean, raising the capital, finance, putting your vision of what you want coffee to taste like into reality. Um… delivering, roasting, packing…
: Everything. Getting customers.
CK: Was any part of that the most challenging to you? Something you didn't expect would be challenging?
: No. I didn't have any set expectation that it was going to be this, it's going to be that way. I just said, alright, go. Each one had its own challenge in itself. I love it all. Without all those challenges, we wouldn't be growing. I don't think one was more challenging than another. Maybe the biggest challenge, actually, was probably when I brought on Shannon. Trying to get everything that I did relate clearly to her. I couldn't communicate. Like if something was in my mind, how to do this, how to do that, I couldn't… Everything was a jumble in my head.
CK: Shannon, what was the most difficult part for you, being the first employee?
: I guess trying to get him to realize that I don't live in his head. That was definitely the hardest thing. Still the hardest thing. Communication.
: What's that?
: I said, communication. Always. [laughs]
(Editor's Note: We didn't edit this miscommunication exchange. It was too perfect.)
Standing out from the crowd:
CK: Three words to describe your roasting style:
: Nuanced, complex and playful.
CK: Do you want to describe the playful part?
: When we do the acidity, we really like it to jump all over your mouth and be really pinpointed. Kind of do a little hopscotch through your palate.
CK: There are a lot of roasters in Chicago, do you guys think you have a distinctive style that sets you apart?
: I definitely think our coffee is really balanced. And I think that you get the most from our coffee, as far as flavors go, compared to a lot of roasters that we have. I think our style, especially on the cupping table is very distinct. You can tell our coffees right away. Which, to me, is probably the most amazing thing to be on a cupping table and have people be able to pick your stuff out every single time, because there's a similar thread, even though all the coffees are different and have a different roast. The finish on our coffees blow everyone out of the water. I have no shame in saying that. There is not one roaster here that has the finish of our espresso or our coffees. Like, period. I know that seems ballsy to say, but I definitely think it's true. You finish drinking our coffee and you don't want to put anything else into your mouth for like 45 minutes, because you're hanging out with this awesome aroma and you feel like everyone should smell your breath.
CK: I'm not sure I've gone to that point where I want everyone to smell my breath.
: I don't know, man, we made each other coffee the other day and it was like that.
CK: You made each other smell your breaths?
: Nooo… it was really just me and John (a coworker). We were just standing really close, breathing in and out. I'm just joking.
CK: I mean, I can see that happening.
: We're weirdos, but not that weird.
CK: It's how you test coffee, right?
: I mean, honestly, like if coffee doesn't leave an awesome taste in your mouth, that means I have to go correct it in the roaster.
CK: I kinda want an image of you guys doing that now. This is how Passion House tests their coffee.
: We'll make a shirt. John's mouth and Shannon's mouth. Black and white. It can something like...
CK: "We're committed to our coffee."
: "The coffee test."
: That's how we figure out our blends. You have this one, I have this one, see how it tests together.
CK: Is there anything you want our readers to know about Passion House, in general?
: I think if there's one thing I was going to say about Passion House, it's [that] we try to connect with people on a one-on-one basis. You can call us, you can email us with questions and one of us is going to answer you. And we're going to be concerned and care about you doing a great job. For me, [that conversation] doesn't stop at roasting great coffee. I want you to be able to enjoy the amount of hard work that I put into it. So I'm going to walk you step by step on how to brew coffee. And be there to answer any questions you might have. Be an open door. I never want to lose that.
: The open door?
: The personal connection.
: Yeah. I would say that we invite people to take this coffee journey with us. And if they are looking for a different perspective, then we love to share with them what we're doing. I believe that our perspective is different and unique. And we love what we do, all we want to do is share that with other people.
And that is passion personified in a coffee. As with any craft industry, the specialty coffee industry is filled with people who are passionate about what they do for a living and Passion House is no exception.
For a limited time, until 1/28, use code "PH10" at checkout to receive 10% off any Passion House coffee.
We hope you enjoy your coffee choices for Passion House.