Coffee Culture in Western Michigan: The region’s microroasters and specialty cafés just might be United States specialty-coffee industry’s biggest trendsetters
By Jeremy Martin
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
Spend enough time exploring coffee culture in the state of Michigan, and you come to some interesting realizations. The outline of the Lower Peninsula resembles a mitten ”that’s obvious enough. But if you look beyond the geographic layout of the state, you just might see something unexpected: a mirror. If you’re fixated on the physical, the ˜thumb’ ”made up of Huron, Tuscola, and Sanilac counties ”are, in conjunction with a few of the fingers up in Alpena, Alcona, and Iosco, counties ”gripping Lake Huron, with water being a reflective surface, a mirror.
But that’s not what I’m seeing. What I see when I look at the state of Michigan itself, or more precisely the specialty-coffee industry in our 26th state, is a reflection of the same growth both culturally and geographically that has taken place within the broader confines of many other of our United States.
Just as we’ve seen roasting and café culture dawn in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Denver before slowly marching eastward towards Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta, the creative coffee movement in Michigan also began on the western shores ”specifically in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo ”before migrating eastward into cities such as Jackson, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Detroit.
In the case of Michigan, Detroit ”with over 5.8 million metro residents ”is a relative newcomer to the specialty and high-end café/roasting scene in the Great Lakes State. Interestingly, the trendsetting cities of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo house under 2 million residents between them.
Of course, the argument can be made that Chicago is less than three hours by car from West Michigan, so clearly the Windy City’s influence would rub off on all of the surrounding cities. The only problem with that theory is coffee coming out of West Michigan is anything but a carbon copy of the roasts being produced in Chicago. Not only is the clientele different, but the coffee itself is being created with a different voice, a voice that is distinctly Michigan.
In speaking with café owners and roasters, and performing plenty of on the ground research, it becomes apparent that the culture of West Michigan coffee is not one of imitation, or of textbook form, but of self sufficiency, trial-and-error, and most importantly of personal and location-based preference.
œIf you wanted something good, you had to make it yourself, says Kurt Stauffer, who co-owns Rowster Coffee in Grand Rapids with Stephen Curtis, of how his upbringing in Michigan has affected his work. œWe did a lot of camping, hunting, fishing, boating which were always centered on or around water. There was a river in my backyard and we used to bowfish for northern pike and suckers and smoke them…. we canoed all over the place, and when we went to the cabin up north or in Canada, the kids would always find an ancient wooden or aluminum rowboat that we could row around the lake and fish. That’s us: respect for the outdoors, a love for doing it ourselves from start to finish. Independent, simple, low-tech, rustic, appreciation for the things themselves without extras and without pretense.
Kurt says what makes the coffee of West Michigan unique and what drives the people that make it, is echoed in the bootstrap beginning of nearly every independent roaster and café from Traverse City down to Niles.
The story itself begins in 1992 in an abandoned gas station on the Northwestern edge of Kalamazoo’s downtown. A young Mark Smutek was working at Heritage Guitar Company, an offshoot of the famous Gibson Guitar, which skipped town, heading for the bright lights of Nashville beginning in the mid 1970s. Mark was interested in coffee, but even more in bringing the disparate populations of Kalamazoo ”the college students, the professionals, the artists, the homemakers, the business owners ”together under one roof, with one goal: to build community.
œCoffee proved to be an amazing avenue for creating community, so that’s why coffee [survived], as opposed to other businesses that also would have suited the space, explains Liz Comrie of Water Street Coffee’s location. Coffee may have simply seemed like the best avenue at the time, but Mark soon found out, as did the rest of Kalamazoo, just how important and life-changing good coffee can be.
But by the mid 1990s, independent coffee roasters were still a rare breed in Michigan. Most local cafés may have offered a hip atmosphere, but coffee itself was still pretty generic. The only place to find actual fresh-roasted coffee was at shops supplied by the 100-year-old Paramount Roasters in Lansing, and even that was coffee produced on a near industrial scale.
œThe roasting scene sucked back then. None of the other roasters cared about coffee, it seemed, Kurt says of those early days. But as it turns out, Mark cared ”he just didn’t know how to roast coffee. So in true Michigan fashion, he got busy teaching himself the craft.
œIn 2000, when we started roasting, I think there was only one other microroaster in Kalamazoo. And any of the handful of area coffee shops were small and local. Our timing was great. Since there weren’t any large coffee chains in Kalamazoo at the time, we really had the opportunity to introduce a lot of people to local, microroasted coffee simply by being around and doing what we loved, Liz says.
By introducing the public to a unique product, one with a voice that spoke to the passions and ethics of its creators, the public had the opportunity to learn what it meant not only to drink hand-crafted coffee, but to drink hand-crafted Michigan coffee. The success of that effort not surprisingly inspired a second movement of independent roasters in Michigan.
THE NEXT WAVE
That next wave hit the Michigan shore about 45 minutes north in Grand Rapids, and it formed for the same reasons that gave life to Water Street: curiosity and a desire to create something new and exciting. If Water Street’s learn-on-the fly beginnings seemed odd in the early 1990s, they were officially known as the way it was done by the early 2000s.
Even Madcap Coffee in Grand Rapids, perhaps the state’s most well-known microroaster got its initial jolt of inspiration not from workshops and apprenticeships, but from co-owner Trevor Corlett’s desire to replicate the cool scenes he had been a part of during his college days.
œMy first attempt at coffee in Grand Rapids started in 1999 ”I had moved out there for college. I had dropped out of school and didn’t want to do what I was pursing. I went into the coffee business, Trevor says. œI got into it because my roommate was a musician who toured around playing coffee shop venues. I fell in love with it that way, for the culture and not necessarily for the coffee.
Of course, over the next few years, coffee itself would become the culture that Madcap introduced to West Michigan. But that culture came with a dose of heartbreak and several hundred miles added to Trevor’s odometer.
œMy attempt to open a shop in the late 90s didn’t work, and I tried to open a shop in Indianapolis,” he says. “I also attempted two roasteries and cafes in Illinois, and those both failed for various reasons. I had family in Grand Rapids, I married a local girl. And once your heart is there, you don’t want to go away, so I moved back to Grand Rapids in 2008.”
Trevor says he appreciates Rowster’s historical roots and presence in Grand Rapids: œHaving another cafe that was educating people and showing people that there was something else out there…me, personally, I love that, he says.
Both Rowster and Madcap’s ability and willingness to spread roasting and coffee knowledge to customers and to others professionals hasn’t gone unnoticed in the state, as these pillars of Grand Rapids coffee have become the benchmark, both culturally and professionally, for many of the entrepreneurs who opened business afterward.
œThere is a bond between Madcap, JT’s in Howell, and Rowster in Grand Rapids, which is awesome. I can only hope for more of that happening, says Garrett Krugh, co-owner of both the Kalamazoo Coffee Company and Black Owl Cafe said.
œIn the last few years, from owning a café, working in cafés, and roasting coffee, it seems like people are really starting to be interested in a higher-quality beverage whether it be espresso drinks or drip coffee, says Garrett, who co owns the companies with Darren Bain.
At this point, however, it’s not just the customers that West Michigan roasters are influencing, it’s other roasters, as well. Jared Field, a former warehouse worker and roaster at Water Street Coffee, recently struck out on his own, taking his coffee knowledge east to Michigan’s capital city of Lansing and opening Bloom Coffee.
œThe west side of the state definitely set the bar pretty high, Madcap being the most influential, but also other roasters like Water Street, Kalamazoo Coffee Co., and Higher Grounds up in Traverse City. These guys were all major players in influencing what Bloom is doing, says Jared. œI think a lot of the success in the western part of the state [set the trend] for the more eastern parts of the state. We’re starting to see a lot of success in Detroit with the Roasting Plant and Great Lakes Coffee Roasters, and we’re seeing success in Ann Arbor and its surrounding areas with The Ugly Mug, RoosRoast, and Mighty Good Coffee.
OLD MEETS NEW
A cool byproduct of all of these new roasters and cafés ”most of which are attempting to find unique voices and niches ”is how this younger generation is beginning to influence the original coffee companies that set up shop back in the 1990s. œOver the years, we’ve adopted some of the third-wave trends, says Liz. œWe offer a single-origin espresso. Several years back we made some sweeping changes to our equipment and extraction procedures for espresso.
Of course, that doesn’t mean established shops like Water Street are making changes just simply to make changes. œOur customers don’t necessarily hop on the bandwagon with every trend that comes through the coffee industry, but when we try something in the roaster or the cafés and it rings true or pleases our customers, we adopt it, Liz says.
That’s what makes West Michigan coffee what it is: It’s not a trendy industry. Though some of the same techniques may be found in both Kalamazoo and California, the final product and the reasons for making it are strikingly different.
Stephen sums up the West Michigan coffee experience: œPeople from West Michigan tend to be hardworking and humble, and this tends to make our quality shine. We have a long history of manufacturing, and taking pride in making something with our hands. The coffee industry has been no different. Doing something for the love of it, and satisfaction of a job well done, is what Michigan thrives on.
Though Rowster and Madcap may at times find themselves competing for business, Trevor agrees with Stephen’s assessment of the industry and adds: œI would be slow to credit any one person or any one voice; just through the nature of the Michigan culture in general, its been a conglomeration of many little voices working together at the same time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy Martin is a freelance writer and photographer who has reported on coffee, craft beer, college sports, and business for a variety of publications over the past six years. A veteran of the café industry and graduate of Western Michigan University, Jeremy lives in Seattle where can often be found making sandwiches from whatever is left in the fridge and cracking wise for the amusement of his adoring wife Amanda.