Jason Burton of The LAB talks to us about the magic of the Kansas City coffee community on the cusp of the 80th Caffeine Crawl.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Jason Burton
As we get closer to the United States Coffee Championships in Kansas City, Mo., we turn our attention to the KC community, coffee scene, and the folks who built it. We’re spending this entire week talking to folks who made the Kansas City coffee scene what it is, and providing insights and stories that go beyond the competition. Through the end of the competition, we’re dedicating our coverage to the City of Fountains; today we talk to Jason Burton, founder of The LAB, which started the Caffeine Crawls that have explored coffee communities around the U.S.
In 2009, Jason Burton started The LAB, a Kansas City, Mo.-based marketing company focused on promoting craft- and specialty-beverage businesses. With coffee experience under his belt, Jason worked with specialty-coffee brands immediately after launching The LAB. But his coffee focus zeroed in when The LAB launched the Caffeine Crawl, a way to connect coffee consumers and coffee professionals in cities around the U.S. The rotating tour has become a hit, and the next Caffeine Crawl will be its 80th. We talked to Jason about getting started in coffee, launching the Caffeine Crawls, and what he finds special about the Kansas City coffee scene.
Chris Ryan: What did you study in school, and how did you start working in the coffee industry? What was your relationship with coffee before you started working with it?
Jason Burton: I was a graphic design major who started with an illustration focus until I realized there were some real talented illustrators that were colleagues. College is where my love for coffee developed. When I was at the University of Central Missouri, I tired of the club scene after a year or so and started studying and hanging out at Java Junction (still open and a great shop to this day). When going back to Kansas City I’d make occasional stops at Broadway Coffee; this was in 1996-97.
My first coffee gig was after moving back to Kansas City from New York in 2004. The Roasterie hired me as their marketing director, where I wore many hats and learned a ton about coffee.
Can you describe how the Caffeine Crawl concept came about, and how you’ve grown that into nationwide events?
Like anything, it started as a fun idea, and I thought we’d give it a try. My business, The LAB, at the time was producing marketing and branding solutions for clients with a focus on specialty / craft beverages. I was traveling to many coffee, beer, wine, and cocktail events around the country, and I noticed that the coffee events in particular were guarded to other coffee professionals.
There really seemed to be a big gap between us coffee pros and coffee consumers. I wanted to work within the industry to close that gap, plus foster more respect from consumers toward those involved in the craft of coffee. So we came up with the Caffeine Crawl concept, where attendees—who would be primarily coffee consumers/enthusiasts but could also be coffee professionals—would gather in a city and tour selected coffee businesses, taking part in a presentation or activity at each stop and sampling their product.
I didn’t really have a goal or think about Caffeine Crawl being such an industry tool or event, since it was geared largely toward consumers, but it has become that. Year after year we have added more Crawls and tested different cities, with more and more coffee businesses taking part. In 2011 we had three, with Denver being the farthest from KC. In 2012 we had five, the following year eight, and then they took off. Our next Crawl is our 80th. 8-0!
You’re a veteran of the Kansas City coffee community, but you’re also well-traveled. Can you describe what makes Kansas City’s coffee community special compared to other cities’ coffee communities?
The number-one thing is how Kansas City sticks together and supports one another. To be transparent (which I am), there’s always territorial battles and jealousy in coffee no matter what city, but for KC it has basically been always harmless. There’s respect for the roasters that started it all and the newbies gaining knowledge. Baristas in KC are amazing and super talented. Again, there’s talent everywhere, but KC shines and is deep with talent. Almost every shop is slightly different, and has its own strength.
Another important thing, which is rarely reported on, is the fact that the local coffee consumers bounce around shops, supporting many different places in a given week. This spreads the revenue, and with KC being an easy, affordable city to live in, it helps.
What does it mean to you (and the local coffee community) for Kansas City to host the U.S. Coffee Championships?
It’s a big deal, and we take a lot of pride in it. We’re not happy with our five-month winter, so we’re hoping we get some warmer temps to show off the city more to our guests