Located in an area not known for its coffee scene, The Brown Coffee Company
has been pushing its San Antonio, Texas customers’ tastebuds for the last nine years. Even though Brown is an established presence and is now operating at two locations, the business is still mom-and-pop, with owner Aaron Blanco doing everything from roasting to green buying to making coffee at the cafe.
Brown Coffee takes immense care in its quality. Their cafes don’t offer a condiment bar, because they want to “hand you a finished drink […] just like when you go to a great restaurant.” Their coffee sourcing trips are well-documented through photos and stories on their blog
. And like all of our featured roasters, they want to do their farmers’ coffee justice.
We sat down with Aaron to chat about his company, views on specialty coffee’s booming years, and his favorite memories.
CK: What are 3 words to describe your roasting philosophy?
: Clean, sweet, fruit.
Coffee is a tropical fruit - we plant it in the tropics. When you’re still there and you pull a ripe coffee cherry off the tree and pop the cherry in your mouth- there’s a cleanness
to it. It’s sweet
, obviously it’s a fruit
What I often relate it to is like shopping for produce in the grocery store. Nobody buys bananas with spots on them. Nobody buys an apple with a hole in it. A pear with a bruise on it. We know what to look for as consumers. Most coffee consumers- they don’t know what to look for, produce-wise, with coffee. And of course, why would they? Because we’ve done these very violent things to the coffee before we’ve ever served it.
CK: Do you have a favorite memory that involves coffee?
: [At the brew bar] If you’ve ever wondered what an $8 cup of coffee tastes like, here’s your chance. Some people say, okay we’ll try this. A lot of them are skeptical as to what they’re going to taste. It’s that moment when they taste, but you can see it right behind their eyes. I don’t know how to categorize this, I don’t know how to process this. It’s good. It’s really good. I just don’t have a frame of reference.
I love that.
CK: Do people come back and get a second cup of $8 coffee?
: Yeah, they come back later in the week, [sometimes] buying the $32 bag. Coffee is ubiquitous. Here in Texas, there are two things that are ubiquitous: BBQ and coffee. Everybody knows BBQ in Texas. And then of course, everybody in the world knows coffee, because we all drink it.
They have a sub-target, a frame of reference, where they put any coffee experience. What’s really hard to do, is to blow up that entire model. [We do this] by saying there’s no condiment bar, and only a small menu. We’re going to hand you a finished drink, not an unfinished drink.
We want you to trust us.
: I tend to want to over-explain or over-educate. Some people just want a cup of coffee. They don’t necessarily care about the particular variety- they just want to taste it. We went from lots and lots of information on our bags and lots and lots of information in our cafes to “hey, why don’t you ask us?” You can talk to us in-person or you can go and visit our website and peruse there. Maybe that sparks some questions you can ask us.
CK: Have you thought that this approach brought on more questions than before?
It does in the sense that there’s a certain segment of our customers, who they understand the game now. They know that they can get coffee on the shelves and on the brew bar now.
It becomes a game- What am I tasting here? I remember this coffee from last year, I don’t remember the name. They taste different- why is that?
And also they ask, What has gone wrong with this coffee to not taste the same?
And that’s a good opportunity to say, “There’s nothing wrong. We celebrate the fact that this is a organic product- it’s of the earth. It’s going to change- weather changes, soil conditions.”
CK: Do you think for a cafe who’s not roasting, it would be up to the roaster who’s wholesaling to them to provide that education or would it be onto the cafe.
: It’s both. Every wholesale relationship is different. The places that we sell to, even though they care about the quality, they’re just not at the same level. I’m listening to obscure, 7” vinyl records and talking about how great the music is, and they’re just listening to plain ol’ rock and roll. We’re here to help those people provide consistently better coffee than they were before. I consider that to be a success.
On hipster baristas
CK: A lot of the roasters I’ve talked to have really emphasized the education of consumers in a non-elitist way. But between the roasters and the baristas, there seems to be a communication gap.
It is a bit of a disconnect there. Because as I see it, we’re in that boat- I’m a buyer, I’m a roaster, and I’m a barista. We’re still basically a mom-and-pop company so there’s still a lot of stuff that I still personally do. There is an [acclaim] of having a cool place. We all want lovely cafes and all of that stuff. But the barista oftentimes are handicapped in a way, especially if they’re not connected to a roasting operation, because they’re just opening bags and brewing what’s given to them.
Maybe there’s a bit of compensation there, where the barista does find out about something- they’re genuinely surprised and excited, they want to talk about it. A lot of times, it’s just keeping up the hipster cool. And again, the customer comes in and just wants a coffee that tastes good. Or, just a coffee that doesn’t taste bad. We all like to say that our customers are the most advanced of the palate, the most sophisticated and all that, when really they just want a coffee that doesn’t suck.
CK: That’s true. And you also don’t want to hear a lecture about coffee before you’ve had your coffee.
: Exactly! That’s really cruel and unusual punishment. It’s very much like people who are very into music- sort of obscure music and bands, rare, 7” vinyls- most people don’t listen to that. And if that’s all you listen to, that world becomes very big for you as you begin to think- of course everybody [listens to it]. It’s just rock and roll! Coffee is sort of the same way.
On the specialty coffee industry
CK: What is your current pet peeve with the coffee industry?
: The older I get, the more aware I am about the divide between front-line baristas and back-line buyers and roasters. It’s really evident when you go to SCAA or you go to the coffee festival, you’ve got the barista latte art smackdown and there’s nobody over 30 in that crowd. Everyone’s got tattoos and skinny jeans and right around the corner, it’s different music playing, everybody’s wearing sports coats, and they’re talking about whole containers of coffee. Warehouse and logistics issues versus who can smack down 8-level tulips. Those two groups of people are sort of not talking. they’re not communicating. But there is a gap, and I think it’s a tough gap to bridge. Everybody’s moving in different circles, even though we’re all talking about coffee.
CK: Do you think that’s a byproduct of our industry getting bigger? Like the wine industry, the coffee industry is getting more established roles.
: There’s no barista [in the wine industry], for one. We’re a peculiar industry. I think where coffee is now is where wine was four or five decades ago. Where old paradigms were changing and being replaced very rapidly- it was a very [tense] time to be in wine. The gates were being blown wide open. That’s kind of what’s been happening now in coffee: things are just exploding and maybe more people are becoming aware of what specialty coffee is; what high-end, world-class coffee are.
CK: What do you think are the next trends?
: Let me back up and say that ours is an industry of rapid, early adopters. If it is new and if it is shiny, it must be awesome. To me, the new frontier is not necessarily about a piece of equipment- it’s the flow rate- flow rate of water. It’s a piece of what no one has talked about when they’re talking about brewing. Whether it’s manual or batch. We talk about every other variable and we measure every other variable- TDS, extraction yield percentage- flow rate has quite a bit to do with that.
CK: I’d love to see more people with science degrees, who also happen to love coffee, doing research studies. I don’t know if it’ll happen in five years, but maybe 10.
: Yeah, maybe 10! You know, we are an industry of early rapid adopters. We’ll have a bunch of people in lab coats running around your favorite cafe here pretty soon.
CK: The newest trend is going to be lab coats.
That’s right. Forget those hipster aprons. White lab coats.
CK: Anything else you’d like to add?
We try to do our thing here in our own corner of the forest. And as many people want to come along for the ride, so much the better.