Jason Burton’s job has taken him all over the country in the name of coffee.
He has spent time in Portland and Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago — all traditional powerhouses in the realm of specialty coffee — but the 36-year-old business owner insists Kansas City can hold its own against any of them.
“Every time I come back to KC, I love it more and more,” says Burton, who runs Kansas City-based beverage marketing company The Lab. “I feel like Kansas City’s coffee scene is (among the) top five in the country. We really play in that ballpark.”
The early success of major players like Broadway Cafe and The Roasterie represented a two-headed specialty coffee monster of sorts in Kansas City coffee. In recent years, however, the coffee culture has swelled with the addition of other cafes and brewers.
Parisi Artisan Coffee made a splash, for instance, when it opened at Union Station last year, and innovative shops like Oddly Correct Coffee Roasters and Quay Coffee have bolstered the city’s java appetite. Earlier this year, when Imbibe magazine detailed the emergence of Kansas City’s drinks culture, a good portion of the story was dedicated to the success of the city’s coffee roasters.
“It’s almost like what happens in really strong beer towns,” Burton says. “When you have one or two breweries, it’s OK. But when you see a bunch pop up, the culture just grows. People come out of the woodwork.”
Much like the city’s burgeoning cocktails community, the coffee camaraderie is apparent.
It’s not uncommon, Burton says, for local cafes and roasters to work with one another, and for competing baristas to become friendly in the name of their craft. Shop owners regularly recommend other venues to their customers.
“If somebody comes in here and they haven’t checked out Oddly (Correct),” says Quay Coffee co-owner Cory Stipp, “We’re like, ‘Go check it out!’ ” And local baristas get together a few times a year for “jams,” in which individuals go head-to-head in a March Madness-style tournament to see who can prepare the best drink.
“People are friends, they respect each other professionally,” says Gregory Kolsto, owner of local roaster Oddly Correct. “There’s no secrets. We want to see the coffee culture in Kansas City continue to expand.”
Many of the local coffee bigwigs will take part in this weekend’s Caffeine Crawl, a tour of some of the city’s best specialty coffeehouses.
Last year’s inaugural effort sold out in about two weeks, and this year’s version — despite adding a second day and doubling the number of available tickets — did the same.
The two-day crawl includes 14 combined stops on Saturday and Sunday.
While the Caffeine Crawl is perhaps the most public example of what the city has brewing, it’s just a sliver of the action.
Here are five buzz-worthy happenings to celebrate Kansas City’s coffee culture.
- Oddly Correct’s innovative experiments
Gregory Kolsto hasn’t forgotten what he calls his first “peak coffee experience.”
In 1993, near his hometown of Mokena, Ill., a barista wearing a mohawk and combat boots slammed down a drink, and the whole thing struck him as particularly divine.
“I’m sure the coffee was terrible,” Kolsto says, “but I loved the experience.”
Since then, the 37-year-old roaster — whose resume includes stops at Starbucks, Chicago’s Digital Java, Krispy Kreme and Kansas City’s own Parisi Artisan Coffee — has been enamored with just about every aspect of the coffee culture.
“I want to go to establishments where people are trying to move forward and not just standing still,” Kolsto says.
And as owner of Oddly Correct — a local roasterie housed in a small storefront near the intersection of Main Street and Westport Road — that’s exactly what he has attempted to do.
His approach is a lesson in innovation and experimentation. Oddly Correct’s Hop! Toddi, a cold-brewed coffee containing hops that was sold in 12-ounce bottles throughout the summer, was met with rave reviews. The shop serves single-origin espresso, employs a pour-over method not found in the city’s coffee chains and is hesitant to offer cream and sugar because Kolsto doesn’t want them to mask the flavors.
Even the shop’s business is far from ordinary. Kolsto takes pride in Oddly Correct’s lack of a sign out front, and with no easily accessible parking, it is particularly difficult for patrons to access. If you don’t know exactly where to look, it can be nearly impossible to find.
Thanks almost entirely to word of mouth, folks have found their way to the quirky cafe. On a recent weekday morning, as Oddly employees Mike Schroeder and Tyler Rovenstine worked behind the bar, Kolsto greeted a steady stream of familiar customers as he sat at the front of the shop.
Behind the counter, Schroeder and Rovenstine whipped up intricate-looking drinks that sometimes took nearly 10 minutes to prepare, chatting with customers about the particulars of the process.
It certainly wasn’t the kind of scene you’d find in a conventional coffee shop, but that’s the idea.
“There’s status quo everywhere,” Kolsto says. “But there are always people pushing the boundaries.”
“Our approach is what’s different.”
- The Roasterie renovation
What Boulevard Brewing Co. has done for local beer, The Roasterie is attempting to do for coffee.
The Kansas City roasterie recently underwent a $5 million expansion — slated to be completed in mid-October — that will turn the company’s facility at 1204 W. 27th St. into a coffee-lover’s mecca.
Among the new features will be a 3,300-square-foot cafe inside the factory, a DC-3 airplane atop the facility and event space for everything from bar/bat mitzvahs to weddings. Additionally, the space’s cupping room will be roughly four times the size of the original, and regular tours of the facility’s behind-the-scenes workings are planned.
The idea for an expansion had been percolating for a while, but parking issues — the building’s lot was in back, about 100 yards away from the front entrance — complicated things. O’Neill called in efficiency experts and layout design specialists. For five years, he tried unsuccessfully to figure out a way to make it work.
So when a building — and more important, its parking lot — opened up across the street, O’ Neill knew it was time to pounce.
The addition essentially doubled the Roasterie’s property space, giving O’Neill roughly five acres to work with and making the company’s long-awaited expansion possible.
“It’s like if you lived in a small house or apartment, and you think, ‘Oh, my God, when I move I want a larger kitchen, a detached garage, I want this and that,’ ” O’Neill says. “We had countless lists.”
In addition to the more significant renovations, the building will feature a collection of more subtle amenities. A gym and a revamped break room for will be set up for employees, plus a play area for children.
And the result, O’Neill hopes, is a facility that will become a must-see for any Kansas City coffee enthusiast.
The space is scheduled to be completed Oct. 8, and requests for use of the event space have been trickling in — with 12 reservations as of late August.
The goal, O’Neill says, is to ensure that anyone who walks through the building’s doors enjoys not just an entertaining afternoon but a full-blown experience .
“It (was) already good,” says O’Neill of the roasterie’s facility. “But it’s going to be phenomenally better. People are going to walk out of here, and we want them to leave (thinking), ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was this much to coffee.’ ”
- A one-stop shop
On its business cards, Kansas City’s About the Coffee bills itself as “a toy store for coffee geeks, fanatics, newbies (and) enthusiasts.” That’s about as apt a description as you can hope to find for the quirky, do-it-all business at 3185 Terrace St.
Part cafe, part commercial coffee-maker repair shop, About the Coffee is the Kansas City coffee enthusiast’s one-stop shop, a place in which co-owners Tooti and Marty Roe care so much about quality Joe that they brew every visitor a cup of specialty coffee.
“We’re geeks,” admits Tooti.
The shop has been open since November of 2011, and in that time, has emerged as an eclectic hot-beverage hangout.
When you walk in, you’ll immediately find a Kyoto-style brewer that looks like something out of a chemistry lab (the cold-brewing system, which stands nearly 3 feet tall, takes about five hours to make a quart of coffee).
In a side shop, everything from espresso tampers to cupping spoons to hand-held thermometers are on sale, and there’s a $15,000 espresso machine that novice coffee enthusiasts are free to experiment with.
A couple of classrooms are home to classes on things such as the pour-over method, equipment maintenance and “latte art” — the foamy leaves and hearts baristas sometimes leave atop your drink. Industry standouts, including 2012 Greek barista champion Stefanos Domatiotis, have stopped by to toy around and sign their names to an informal wall of fame.
In the back is a workshop where the husband-and-wife team repair commercial coffeemakers; an event space allows for coffee-related get-togethers, including the Caffeine Crawl’s after-party.
Many well-known figures from the local coffee scene regularly venture into the store — musical sessions have been known to break out — but it’s also a place for coffee newbies, those hoping to learn more about the brewing process or simply experiment with some state-of-the art equipment.
“We’re more than happy to work people through it,” Tooti says. “Figure out through flavor wheels what it is that they prefer in the taste of their coffee.”
And as interest builds, KC shop owners are happy to oblige the coffee-crazed.
“It’s just kind of an odd little place that we love,” Tooti says.
- Rockin’ the region
The city itself isn’t the only shining example of coffee ventures.
The culture has spilled into neighboring towns and suburbs, as well. Benetti’s has established itself in Raytown, Parisi is opening a second location in Leawood’s Park Place, and PT’s Flying Monkey — which recently opened in Topeka near the Washburn University campus — is becoming a destination day trip for the staunchest of KC’s coffee fans.
Ben Helt, who with wife Sarah co-owns Benetti’s, had watched previous shops in the Raytown area falter.
“It kind of seems (like) the downfall of suburban shops is that they want the cool atmosphere and scene, but they forget to have a good product,” Helt says.
So when he set about opening Benetti’s in 2007 at 6109 Blue Ridge Blvd. in Raytown, he worked from the assumption that it wasn’t just city folk who appreciated a cup of high-quality coffee. Though he didn’t have a deep background in coffee, he felt that there were a number of Kansas City suburbs — places like Gladstone, Grandview and Independence — that would appreciate and support a specialty coffee establishment.
Though Helt admits he’s in no danger of becoming rich anytime soon, Benetti’s has developed a strong following in the coffee community, and in May opened a second store, a drive-thru shop at 2300 S. 291 Highway in Independence.
As Helt puts it, it’s unadvisable to underestimate the Midwest pallette. And though he admits he took a bit of a risk opening up his shop on the city’s outskirts, he was confident that, in the end, people anywhere will respect a good cup of coffee.
“We knew we were kind of ahead of the curve,” Helt says. “But we felt if we concentrate on the quality of the cup, we’ll see what happens.”
- Quay Coffee’s humble approach
Coffee, like wine, can be a rather pretentious endeavor — a kind of self-important counter culture with a lexicon made up of words like “earthy,” “nutty” and “woody.”
So when Cory Stipp and Tanner Stevens purchased the space at 412 Delaware St. in the River Market and began plans for what would become Quay Coffee, one of their primary focuses was figuring out a way to take that pretentiousness out of the equation.
“Our goal is to be very down-to-earth,” Stipp says. “We want to have a quality product and know a lot about that product, but people shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask a question.”
This philosophy has helped guide the direction of the shop, right down to its interior design. The owners built the bar purposely low as a way to foster conversation. They outfitted the cafe with furniture and colors that would foster the laid-back feel of a Portland coffee bar. And the shop’s three employees make it a point to talk with customers, answering any questions they might have while simultaneously walking them through the details.
Come in for a coffee, for instance, and you might also get a tutorial on the particulars of the V60 brewing method.
“We don’t try to be snooty,” Stipp says. “At one point, it was new to us.”
The fostering of a comfortable environment, however, hasn’t come at the cost of quality.
Quay, which opened in June, brews Oddly Correct coffee, and it uses only three kinds of flavoring — mocha, vanilla and caramel — so that patrons can enjoy the taste of the coffee. They also whip up a few drinks you won’t find anywhere else in the area: The Angelino isn’t on the menu, but the specialty drink — agave nectar, four espresso shots, milk and ice — is available to those who know to ask for it.
And while Stipp and company have considered the idea of one day going into roasting, for the moment they are quite content standing behind the bar, dishing out carefully concocted drinks and talking shop with a steady stream of customers.
“There’s only three of us, and we’re open seven days a week,” Stipp says. “But we absolutely love it.”
To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816.234.4039 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.