Our Conversation with Colby Barr continues from the October + November 2017 issue of Barista Magazine.
BY KENNETH R. OLSON
I was happy to interview Colby Barr, co-founder of Verve Coffee, for our “Master Q+A” feature in the October + November 2017 issue of Barista Magazine. But as often happens with these pieces, we had more good stuff than we could fit on the printed page—with Verve celebrating 10 years of business this year, Colby had a lot to say.
Keep reading to learn a little more about Colby and see what else is coming up in Santa Cruz, Calif., and beyond with Verve.
Barista Mag: Can you tell us a little about your family and background? Where did you get your education? What did you think/hope you would do as an occupation?
Colby Barr: OK, to go even further back into my life, I grew up in Northern California, a few hours north of San Francisco, in the coastal range, where my family farmed pears and wine grapes. Our house was literally in the middle of an orchard, and then later a vineyard. On the farm you work hard, but you are always working for yourself and it is just this give-it-your-all mentality. I have one younger sister and she grew up with this mentality as well. She’s tough as hell.
I went to school in Northern California for Environmental Geography with a focus in Cartography/GIS. Basically I like understanding how things work at a large scale and how they relate, interact, and change over time. Then throw in the mapping and you get to illustrate these points graphically. It’s a bit of left brain meets right brain I guess. I also studied music and played in numerous bands the entire time I was there, and that’s how I met my business partner, Ryan O’Donovan.
After college, I worked as an independent contractor for various agencies, including Homeland Security, chasing natural disasters around the country and doing mapping and analysis on-site, as well as damage assessment after. We primarily worked on huge forest fires but also hurricanes, etc. I was on call for like five years, but it was always on my mind to leave and start my own business.
BMag: How was coffee consumed in your house when you were young? Did you always feel a connection to it or interest in it? When did you start drinking coffee?
CB: Coffee was always this thing my dad drank all the time. It came from this shiny vessel (a percolator) and these metal cans (Folgers) that I used as drums. It was always brewing, and the house always smelled like coffee (and cigars). I never felt a connection to it growing up. It wasn’t until I experienced coffeehouse culture in my last few years of high school playing jazz there that I had my first coffee drink: a mocha with whipped cream. I didn’t really care for the coffee part but loved the vibe of the place. In college I of course spent countless hours in coffeehouses and became a cappuccino drinker, which I didn’t know was cool but always got the nod from the cool-kid baristas when I ordered one. I actually just didn’t really like milk!
BMag: Do you have any particular types of coffees that you enjoy? And how do you like your coffee prepared? Do you brew your own?
CB: It’s like the music question in that I like all types of coffees, but yes, I do have some favorites. In the end, intrinsically clean, sweet, and vibrant are my foundational elements. Aromatics, complexity, and finish are the differentiators. I love washed Ethiopians from south of Yirgacheffe, specific Pacamaras we buy, and almost any of our Honduran offerings. These are the coffees I always seem to reach for when I want to taste the rainbow, literally.
That said, a great, high-elevation Bourbon, Caturra, or Catuai from Central/South America can make me smile as an everyday drinker, and is a nice counterpoint. It’s kinda like tropical juice versus chocolate/caramel sweetness.
I drink my coffee black, and prefer a filtered brew. I just love the cleanliness and accentuated acidity and aromatics from these methods. As far as preparation, I only make coffee for myself when I’m on the road. I actually have no way to brew coffee at my house, which was a decision early on to make sure that I go to our cafés every day. It really works!
BMag: What is your role at Verve and has it changed over the years? Do you plan on staying in your current role indefinitely or is there something else you’d like to do in the future?
CB: My role at Verve per my business card is co-founder. I am also a coffee buyer, alongside our badass director of coffee, Amanda Juris. Ryan and I manage the company alongside our CEO, Mike Eyre, who has been with us for nine of our 10 years. He’s super talented and smart and comes from finance, so the three of us make a pretty diverse management team. This has almost always been the dynamic at Verve, but what has changed over time is the depth and talent of our team, which only continues to get stronger. This has really enabled myself (as well as Ryan) to focus on higher-level projects and strategic decision-making. In all honesty, I feel like I am doing exactly what it is I want to be doing, and also what I am good at. I feel pretty lucky.
BMag: What drew you to Santa Cruz? How have you seen the coffee scene there evolve since you’ve been there and opened Verve?
CB: I have always lived in California, but it wasn’t until Verve that I lived in Santa Cruz. Ryan grew up coming down here surfing his whole life, so when he and I decided to open a roasting company together, we knew it would be in the Bay Area. We almost opened in San Francisco or Berkley/Oakland, but at the last minute, Ryan told me he was moving to Santa Cruz. One thing led to another, and voila, here we are.
The coffee scene has definitely changed since we have been here. This year marks our 10-year anniversary, which is crazy! Since we opened in November 2007 in Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz, the community has definitely embraced us in a way that is really heartfelt. I always felt like you can’t consider yourself a local until you live somewhere for 10 years so maybe that’s part of it, but I really feel like a part of the fabric here with Verve.
We serve lighter-roasted, single-origin coffees on tap and have for a decade, and I think that has had an effect on the coffee-drinking community. The idea that coffee is a fruit and that there is more than just roast flavor in coffee is something I like to think we have shared here. Santa Cruz has always been progressive, and the community here appreciates food and where that food comes from. I think we have helped share the story of coffee with them in a way I am very proud of.
BMag: What are the most popular drinks at your cafés? Have they changed over the years Verve has been open?
CB: You know, I was just looking at this, and our most popular drink is our drip coffee. This is followed in a close second place by our latte. From there, it’s the usual suspects. I think our drip coffee sales have actually increased over time as more people have become familiar with our approach to coffee, and now really appreciate and look forward to those coffee flavors. In fact, the best/worst review we ever had was our first year in business when somebody one-starred us on Yelp and wrote something like, “If you prefer aromatic, fruit flavors and minerality in your coffee, this is your place. If you want a robust, deep, roast flavor like I do, steer clear.” I was so excited. We almost put it on a shirt but that’s not really our style. I guess it goes to show you can’t please everybody, but that at least we had a distinguishable point of view!
BMag: Are there coffee origins or farms that you particularly look forward to visiting? Are there producing countries you haven’t been to yet that you’d like to travel to?
CB: Man, this is a tough question. I love travel, so I really like all of them for different reasons, and our relationships are so great I look forward to hanging out with everybody as often as I can make it there.
I think overall, Ethiopia is the most tough-love country I like to visit. The potential is obviously so amazing, as is the culture, but it is also just so hard sometimes both from a travel and logistics point of view. I love Honduras because our relationships there are so personal. In fact, all of Central America feels like returning home to me now whenever I get to visit our friends there. Colombia is basically like a 5,000-page book that you can never get to the end of, and I love it for that reason.
As far as new places, there are a few, but I would really like to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo. We recently featured a single-origin espresso from there and it was amazing. I have been to Rwanda and Burundi, but never there. That place fascinates me on so many levels beyond coffee, being one of the largest and most resource-rich countries in Africa, yet also the most remote and undeveloped. So yeah, the DRC.
BMag: Can you tell us what you find particularly rewarding about your work at Verve and working in coffee in general? Is there something unique about coffee that draws you to it?
CB: Why I work in coffee now is much different then why I got into it in the first place. In the beginning it was all of the classic reasons people get into coffee: coffeehouse culture, barista culture, etc., which are great reasons to get involved for sure! For me it was that, plus I wanted to start my own company. Now I am in it for some additional reasons. Our goal at Verve is to elevate lives from Farmlevel to Streetlevel with a focus on quality as the lever for that change. This is why I do what I do. Whether it’s wanting retail customers to feel their day is better because of their morning Verve coffee experience, or younger staff feeling like they could “actually” develop and have a career in coffee, or for our producer partners to feel like what they are doing is worth it and that they are coming along for the ride, I really believe we can make a difference across the entire spectrum if we all focus on quality. That’s what we do anyway, and why I do what I do.
BMag: Finally, do you have any advice for someone starting a career in coffee today?
CB: I think it depends where you are in your life and career path. Many of the greatest minds in coffee started off as baristas in college, so there’s no question that if you think you might like coffee that is one obvious start. That said, there are many other paths with importers and such you could look at as well. No matter what, I would say to find the company and culture that you most click with and try to work there.
Culture is everything, and it will make you and them more successful if the fit is right.
Also, just ask people in coffee you respect what they think and if they have any specific pointers for you.
Beyond that, just learn. Check out some of the great books on coffee that have come out the past few years, visit cafés in different cities, read all of the great online content, stalk Instagram, look at the SCA educational Pathways and camps, and ultimately just broaden your perspective as much as possible to what coffee can be and how you relate to it. Stay curious. Oh, and of course subscribe to Barista Magazine! 😉