Thursday, April 19, 2018
Cooking

Craft coffee scene brewing around Tampa Bay aims to broaden local tastes

LUTZ

Roasting coffee beans is a solitary pursuit. Some mornings Nate Young will walk into Tim McTague's garage, fire up the Proaster 1.5 and some Spotify, and spend hours roasting beans and filling orders all alone.

"I toured with so many dudes for so long, stuck in a bus with 12 people," Young said. "I welcome the solitude. I can pick whatever music I want to listen to. I truly love it."

As he spoke, a batch of Colombian beans tumbled and rattled in the roaster.

"You can start smelling that kind of bread, that popcorn, that hay smell," McTague said, wafting the air with his hands.

After traveling the world in successful rock bands — Young as the drummer for Anberlin, McTague as the guitarist for Underoath — the guys are happy to be off cramped, sweaty tour buses, and back in their hometown running King State Coffee, a small-batch roaster operating from McTague's home in Lutz.

Young and McTague operate King State a bit like an unsigned rock band — building buzz on social media through stylish branding, selling coffee online and through one-off popup shops. And over the last year, they've become leaders in Tampa Bay's growing craft coffee scene, an industry micro-revolution committed to broadening local tastes and palettes, one cuppa joe at a time.

Smaller than buzzing local institutions Buddy Brew and Kahwa — to say nothing of Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts — these startup shops and roasters are knitting into a supportive community eager to see the local coffee scene grow. With consumers ever more curious about the origins of what they eat and drink, it may be time for coffee's so-called third wave movement — an appreciation of coffee as an artisanal foodstuff along the lines of wine, cheese or chocolate — to sweep Tampa Bay anew.

"It's like interest on a mutual fund — it starts compounding," McTague said. "If you have two roasters, then four roasters open up next year, and then those four roasters talk to friends, and eight roasters open the next year. All of a sudden, five or 10 years from now, there's going to be a third-wave coffee shop in every neighborhood."

He smiled. "Hopefully we'll own a lot of them."

•••

Does any of this sound familiar? Think back a decade, when another community of culinary obsessives decided it was time to start diversifying what we drink.

"Just like with craft beers, everybody's going to jump into it," said Ted Skiadiotis, owner of St. Petersburg bistro, bakery and coffee bar Craft Kafe, which opened in March.

And just as many drinkers 10 years ago couldn't tell an IPA from an APA from a stout, coffee is still something of a mystery to much of the general public. How many people can really tell the difference among beans from Ethiopia, Colombia and Costa Rica?

Joel Davis sure couldn't. To him, coffee was coffee. But he did enjoy the community of coffeehouse culture. And whenever he went on the road with his Christian rock band, Ascend the Hill, he would seek out the coolest coffee shop in each town. Those baristas, he said, almost always knew the coolest bars, the coolest restaurants, the coolest hangs.

One day, while visiting a coffee shop in Providence, R.I., he had a cup of black coffee that changed everything.

"I remember tasting the natural nuance and sweetness and character of the coffee and thinking, man, this actually tastes good on its own," said Davis, owner of Commune + Co., which sells pressure-brewed cold coffee in bars, popup shops and from a custom trike in Tampa.

Davis plotted coffee shop tours that coincided with his band's tour dates, sampling exotic beans, roasting techniques and creative brewing methods. "Six years of research and development for quality coffee," he said. Commune + Co. is the result.

"We don't roast our own coffee," he said, "but we have the opportunity to develop wholesale relationships and partnerships with some of the best coffee roasters in the country, and pick from them what makes them great, and bring that to Tampa, and showcase for a growing coffee culture and community that there is diversity."

Davis, like many members of Tampa's coffee cognoscenti, learned a lot of the industry while working at Buddy Brew.

"Buddy Brew really broke this whole thing open for people like us," McTague said. "They kind of sparked the first third-wave craze in Tampa."

But at a certain point, Buddy Brew became synonymous with "independent coffee" in Tampa. Same with Kahwa in St. Pete. Coffee fanatics who had visited world-class shops in Seattle, Portland and New York enjoyed them both, but began craving more options.

"A lot of people ask us, 'Why aren't you serving a local roaster?' I ask, 'You mean, why aren't we selling Buddy Brew or Kahwa?' " said Davis, whose beans are from roasters in Michigan and Wisconsin. "It has nothing to do with Buddy Brew or Kahwa in a negative sense. It's that every local coffee bar that's doing anything quality is serving Buddy Brew and Kahwa coffee. They're completely different styles and flavors. If we're going to get into this thing and do our own coffee company, I want people to know that there is a lot more out there."

•••

Skiadiotis always knew it. Born and raised in New York, he wanted Craft Kafe to serve the kind of coffee he couldn't find in Kahwa's home of St. Petersburg. "I was driving from St. Pete to Tampa because Kahwa wasn't my jam," he said.

So he hired Dean Kallivrousis, formerly of Buddy Brew, to head up his coffee program. "I wanted to make an impression, not to be just the standard," he said.

Kallivrousis, a Tampa native who spent years honing his craft in Kansas City, describes the Tampa Bay coffee scene as "young but rapidly blooming. It's probably five years or so behind the rest of the industry, whether it be Kansas City, San Francisco or New York. But it's a cultural movement that extends well beyond coffee. It's really being a conscious consumer of where your product comes from. That certainly includes beer and other craft industries as well."

Skiadiotis and Kallivrousis envision someday opening a coffee lab in St. Petersburg where roasters, buyers, baristas and aficionados could undergo Specialty Coffee Association of America training or simply participate in exotic coffee tastings, known in the coffee world as cuppings. It would be, they say, the first facility of its kind in the Southeast.

That sort of one-on-one, person-to-person education is possible for smaller purveyors in ways it might not be at a busy Buddy Brew or Kahwa, and a big part of this growing scene. Tony Geers sells his home-roasted Kings Arms Coffee six days a week at the River at Tampa Bay Church in New Tampa. Many of his weekly customers, he said, knew nothing about single-origin, lighter-roasted coffees before trying his. "It's almost like a coffee awakening," he said.

Ashley Steele, general manager of Zeal Coffee Roasters in Lutz, said owners and employees will sit and talk coffee with any customer who is interested.

"We love to include people in what we're doing, so they feel like they're getting more than just a cup of coffee," she said. "A lot of people come in, and they say, 'I want a dark roast, or something robust' — things you're used to hearing when you buy pre-ground coffee at the grocery store. By talking to them about all the different things coffee can be, it opens a lot of doors."

•••

It's no coincidence that so many key players in this new coffee movement scene go back many years. Davis, Young and McTague all came up in the same music scene. Steele and her partners are old friends with the King State guys. Kallivrousis has roasted at McTague's house.

"It doesn't seem like we're in different worlds," Geers said. "Everything's pretty cohesive, and everybody's kind of on the same page as far as supporting one another."

Again, Davis points to the craft beer scene for inspiration.

"You go into a local brewery, and it is rare to not see another local brewery on guest tap," he said. "They all understand they're all working against the Anheuser-Busches."

Local coffee roasters, he said, have been slower to adopt that philosophy, but it's happening.

"I don't want to steal people from Kahwa," Davis said. "I don't want to steal people from Buddy Brew. I want to steal people from Starbucks."

Before Young and McTague began roasting beans in a popcorn popper on McTague's back porch, they dreamed of opening a shop somewhere in Tampa. They aim to do so sometime in 2016, and hope it can become a hub for Tampa's new wave of roasters and purveyors.

Davis, too, dreams of opening a brick-and-mortar shop. He's already building a second trike to sell Commune + Co. in St. Pete, and would consider offers to franchise. He wholesales to more than a dozen hip restaurants that keep his coffee on tap, including Rooster and the Till, Datz Dough and the Mermaid Tavern. On a recent morning, two mixologists dropped by from Fly Bar and Restaurant, which uses Davis' coffee in its Commune Daiquiri.

"I don't know if I'll ever be rich off coffee," he said. "But I don't have to be. There's an enjoyable life to be had, a sustainable life to be had, in what we're doing, and I think that's beautiful. … It may be harder, you may lose a little more sleep, but it'll be worth it."

Just then, another customer strolled up to the trike.

"How's it going?" Davis asked with a smile. "You after some coffee?"

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

     
           
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