We can't look to the future of coffee without taking a quick step back and remembering the pioneers of our local coffee scene. San Antonio Coffee Roasters launched in 1983 and still has a presence on wholesale shelves and at Pearl Farmers Market. Smaller, boutique roasters weren't found until the mid-2000s, but even then San Anto couldn't support the likes of Espuma, Ruta Maya or The Foundry and Grassroots Coffee (which shuttered in 2012).
We've obviously come a long way, with 28 thriving local coffee shops in town and more on the way (Fairview opens this week while Joseph E. Coffee and the latest Revolucion Coffee + Juice launch in September). With the growing competition, some shops are finding ways to stand out from the crowd by getting into the roasting game. We catch up with longtime roasters as well as with newbies trying to make their mark.
This past March, Local Coffee owner Robby Grubbs turned a roasting dream into a reality. After converting a 2,500-square-foot former electrical motor company at 2001 S. Presa St. (across from Freetail Brewing's Taproom), Grubbs turned to industry pros he's long admired to help nail his new roasting operation.
"We're a multi-roaster shop ... always carried five or seven at a time in our shelves. If I was ever going to roast, I was going to have to be as good or better as what was on our shelves," Grubbs said.
He enlisted the help of Scott Rao of Rao Coffee and co-author of The Professional Barrista's Handbook and The Coffee Roasters Companion. Grubbs also sought out Ben Kaminsksy, a well-connected coffee consultant and roaster, as well as Dan Streetman, CEO of Irving Farm Roasters in New York. Each provided insight into the coffee world and helped connect Grubbs with great equipment (customized for his operation) and primo green coffee sources.
The opening of Merit was a long time coming, considering the idea began percolating in Grubbs' head years after he opened the first Local Coffee in Stone Oak, of all places. After three additional locations — Alamo Heights, the Pearl and Merit's service window — Local Coffee is now poised as the most ubiquitous independently owned coffee chains in town as it readies for its latest shop, opening this fall in the Medical Center. At 2,300 square feet and with a giant patio, Medical Center will be the largest Local yet and will feature a decompression room for visiting doctors, nurses and families visiting sick loved ones in neighboring hospitals.
But let's get back to roasting. Head roaster Andrew Schulz — who previously worked with Streetman in College Station and has a storied coffee resume of his own — fires up the German Probat roaster several times a week. A blind quality control cupping session follows the next day and screenshots of that day's brewing are used as guidelines for the next batch. Always in pursuit of greatness.
Though Grubbs spent most of 2014 globetrotting in search of green coffee in Colombia, Nicaragua, and then some (fair trade is out, direct trade is in for these coffee nerds), the father of two – 11 and 14 – is delegating discovery duties to new hire Jamie Isetts. A Q-Grade cupper who grades coffee roasts from across the world, Isetts also speaks four languages and will come with connections of her own.
Grubbs was coy about news he'll be able to share within the next few months on more Local locales, but keeps Merit's mission of helping the coffee shop grow with quality beans (they're up to 15 types of roasts now, all dubbed with train-related names) in the foreground.
"I wanted to build something I can open in L.A. or New York ... but I want to stay teachable and learn as much as I can in this business. I knew more at 25 than I do at 46," Grubbs said.