February 21, 2012

CUSTARD OR BUST: Intelligentsia

This was our second visit to Intelligentsia’s roasting facilities, this time we visited their headquarters. The first visit was on the West Coast to their facility in LA. If you want to count Ecco, a roaster Intelligentsia owns, this was the 3rd Intelligentsia visit.

Rolando and I were talking on this trip and realizing we’re in a pretty unique position at this point. We’ve been committed to working with the best beans in the world since day one. And we won’t take a coffee into our program until we’ve had a chance to visit the roaster, learn about the company, see how they roast, etc. So to date we’ve visited a crazy list of roasters: Barrington Coffee, George Howell, New Harvest, Coffee Exchange, Speedwell, Barismo, Matt’s, Stumptown, Ecco, Barefoot, Four Barrel, Ritual, Verve, Intelligentsia (West Coast), Blue Bottle, Counter Culture, and after this most recent trip Alterra, Metropolis, La Colombe Torrefection, and now Intelligentsia (Chicago). I have no way to confirm, but I suspect nobody has ever done that. I’m guessing we’re the only folks out there that have visited these roasters, a roster that includes most of the best coffee roasters in the world.

Add to this the fact that we’re both non-industry folks,neither of us ever worked in a coffee shop, and you end up with this journey. We’re slowly learning about coffee, having fun with new and surprising cups, and learning about different company missions and cultures. Amazing how much they vary.

This brings us to Intelligentsia. These folks are one of the pioneers of the “Third Wave” of coffee, along with Stumptown, and Counter Culture. These folks started working in the 1990s to help others think of coffee more as an artisinal food (e.g., wine) and less like a commodity (e.g., corn). Intelligentsia is based on Chicago, but like Stumptown and Counter Culture have taken recent steps to expand around the country. I’m guessing the timing is related to Starbucks growth leveling, but maybe I’m wrong. Anyway, all are expanding, albeit in different ways. And all 3 of those players have done amazing and important things for coffee.

So we were pretty excited to visit Intelligentsia. When we arrived it had this funny cold feeling. I don’t know how to capture this very well, but just about every roaster we visit feels full of life. They remind me of artists studios. Sort of bustling, full of life and creativity. It’s a really fun feeling. I was surprised that the Intelligentsia headquarters had more of a corporate feeling. That picture is of Rolando sitting in the lobby. Not sure we’ve visited a single roaster with a lobby. In the roasting facility it was silent, no talking, no music. We were asked to wear hairnets (a first at a coffee roaster).

But in the roasting facility we met Xavier (did I get your name right?). He rocked. He moved with purpose and passion. Really awesome to see him in action. He told us all about the coffee and roasting approach, which was really fun.

This trip has us thinking a bit more about our coffee program. No question their beans are awesome, and they source very responsibly. On those measures Intelli is without questions one of the best in the world. But we didn’t come away from the visit with the same feeling we’ve had about our favorite roasters. We still haven’t met the owners (a first), we didn’t taste (a first, although we’ve obviously had a bunch of their coffee in the past), the facility wasn’t filled with that energy we’re used to finding. I suspect we just weren’t super important in their larger picture. Does that stuff matter?

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