America's Biggest Coffee Snobs Are Not In Seattle, But Wide-eyed And Alert In Alaska
You think your Starbucks cold-brew coffee is trendy? People in Anchorage were buying bottled cold brew five years ago. As for your pour-over black cup made with single-origin beans from a small farm in Africa? Yawn. Fairbanks has been doing that since the 1990s.
Little-known fact: Alaska is among the most coffee-obsessed states in the nation. Some years, the coffee-shop-to-human ratio in Anchorage has been higher than Seattle, making it the most caffeinated place in the America (at last count, in 2011, it dropped to number two, with about one coffee shop for every 2,000 souls.)
You cannot escape the coffee carts here, common as roadside moose, each with its unique brand: The Sugar Shack, Java the Hut, Fred’s Bail Bonding and Coffee Cabana. And then, there are the local coffee shops.Espresso pours at SteamDot Coffee. Photograph: Ash Adams
Anchorage-based Kaladi Brothers Coffee, the largest among half a dozen serious coffee roasters in the state, toasts 1.2m pounds of beans per year, enough for every man, woman and child in the state to brew at least five pots of strong coffee each. The biggest share goes to the oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope, where workers are on 24 hours a day, says Dale Tran, the company’s chief operating officer. Kaladi has 15 stores in Alaska and one in Seattle.
Alaskans joke that anything trendy in the Lower 48 shows up in Alaska three to five years after its popularity has crested. Taylor Swift. Cupcakes. Fro-yo. But the rule does not apply when it comes to coffee. Anchorage’s first espresso shop, Cafe Del Mundo, opened just a few years after Starbucks opened its flagship store. Alaska consumers’ relationship with coffee has a certain razor-sharp west coast attitude to it, brewers say, more discerning than you might expect.
Take Leif Sawyer, a network engineer for a communications company in Anchorage.
“I travel a bit for work and I have gone to a number of places where Starbucks is the thing,” he says. “I’m like … ‘Do you not have a local roaster?’”
Coffee engages the palate like microbrews and wine, he says. “I like a lot of different flavors and complexities. Depending on the time of day, a bright cup of coffee with lots of sweet berry flavors is preferable to a more dark, chocolatey type of coffee, which I might like later in the day.”Stephanie Williams, self-proclaimed coffee snob, sips the Rwanda blend at SteamDot Coffee. Photograph: Ash Adams
In a small private room at Kaladi Brothers recently, Jared Mockli, director of quality control, stood among shelves lined with coffee brewing apparatus, holding a small glass of brown, fizzy liquid: nitrogenated cold brew. It promises to be the next big thing. Mockli, who has worked in coffee for years, moved to Anchorage from Seattle.
“Coffee took over in Alaska the same way it took over in the Pacific north-west. There’s just the climate for it,” he says.
Mockli will manage Kaladi’s latest project, Black Cup, a rebranding of pioneer Cafe Del Mundo. The store will be dedicated to brews from around the globe, prepared with an impressive-looking Steampunk machine that uses suction to pull hot water through grounds.
“I think we have one of the most underrated coffee and food scenes in the country,” he says.
The key to growth in the coffee business for Kaladi has been to be a “big tent”. There are people who like drinks doctored with chocolate and syrups (Sarah Palin’s favorite, for example, is a skinny white chocolate mocha) and people who like black coffee made with single-origin beans.
In Fairbanks, Alaska Coffee Roasting Company owner Michael Gesser has been roasting beans grown in Africa and the Caribbean since 1993. He serves about 700 customers a day and laughed at the cold brew coffee trend, popularized by companies such as Blue Bottle.
“Everybody thinks they just invented the cold brew,” he said. “In reality it was in my friend Janet’s refrigerator in the 1960s.”Jonathan White, owner of SteamDot Coffee. Photograph: Ash Adams
Jonathan White started the roaster SteamDot in Anchorage five years ago, looking to appeal to customers interested in quality, high-end brews. His shops offer cold brew on tap and small-batch roasts from around the world, served by the cup, using the pour-over method.
SteamDot’s signature latte is 8 ounces, no hotter than 170 degrees, with an artful pour of steamed milk. You can order a skinny white chocolate mocha, but he does not carry a large selection of syrups, a fact he does not apologize for.
“Five years ago we had people turning on their heels and leaving because we didn’t make a Bob Marley mocha,” he said. “We are making coffee, love it or hate it, one cup at a time, in its purest form.”
He’s now roasting about 200,000 pounds of coffee annually and is poised to open a fourth location in a few weeks, featuring two Slayer espresso machines. Each one costs as much as a new car, he said.
“For a barista, this is like driving a Lamborghini,” he said.
The coffee shop will be located in Anchorage, he said, but could compete in any city in the country.