If you’ve read the companion to this piece about how to brew coffee in the backcountry, you know that the aim of this listing is to highlight the good beans and good deeds of many of America’s better roasters.
But I’ll acknowledge up front that I didn’t have time to talk to every roaster in the nation. So if you have recommendations for adding to the list, say the word — but back it up, too, with a little shout out about what your favorite local roaster does to help athletes, the outdoor community, and how they work to keep it clean and low-carbon, etc. And, yep, they have to know what they’re doing, too. Some companies aren’t on this list for a reason. They may have good hearts, but to be a little blunt, they don’t know their craft.
Kinetic was founded by former outdoor industry execs. They sponsor everything from individual cyclists to Ride for a Reason, which seeks a cure for Parkinson’s disease, to Big City Mountaineers, which funds projects to get inner-city kids out into the country to experience wilderness. They donate a whopping 10 percent of their net profits to charities, which is reason enough to buy from these guys, but they also roast kick-ass coffee in Arcata, California, and ship nationally. It goes without saying that they only work with fair-trade farms, and only roast USDA certified organic beans. LINK
Word of Ritual’s fanatic attention to detail came to us not from coffee fiends but from Mission Cycling, a team they happen to sponsor. But the devotion to the cause of helping coffee farmers thrive even as commodity prices fluctuate and to continue to come out with single-origin coffees that are out-of-this-world fantastic is why this small roaster has an outsized plot on the coffee map. Oh, and the fact that you can rent this sucker for your next coffee party doesn’t hurt. LINK
Blue State Coffee
From Stop Global Warming to Boston Natural Alternative Spring Break to the CT Fund for the Environment, Blue State Coffee has donated over $250,000 to charities that focus on the environment, children, education, and sustainable farming in the New Haven, Providence, and Boston areas. All coffee is fair trade, organic, and often single-origin. Blue State works with individual growers as well. They are also fanatical about cutting down on waste in their stores, using only biodegradable paper goods and plastics are either 100 percent from corn or potato starch for disposable knives, forks, and spoons. All grounds are sorted and composted as well. LINK
Camp 4 Coffee
These guys support the Crested Butte Hut System, the Crested Butte Academy (a private school that has an outdoor sports focus), and the Crested Butte Avalanche Center. The founders are climbers and devoted outdoors folks, and though the idea for the business was more about a way to support their lives beyond four walls, they turned out to have a knack for roasting as well. LINK
Mark Glenn and his wife Mel are originally from Crested Butte [correction: they're from Frisco!] but settled on Boulder for their roasting biz — and decided on transporting coffee via bike because, as Mark says, “we’re old singletrack junkies from the ’90s.” Mind you, they might push around 300 lbs. of beans on a bike. “I use a steel bike (Surley) Karate Monkey. My bike weighs in at 35-ish lbs. and I’m 165. My wife, Mel is 125 lbs., with a Salsa 29er at 30 lbs. Not too many hills to contend with in Boulder, those of which we save for the last delivery of the run so the trailer is 150 lb. load or less.”
Uh-huh. Conscious, as you’d expect, isn’t just delivering in a green way, but set up their own importing cooperative that works directly with coffee growers so that the farmers get more of the profits and can run sustainable businesses and own their own cooperatives. Conscious even thought about how they sell and ship coffee: “After years of grappling with how we could package our coffee for the consumer market without contributing to landfills, we decided emphatically on a steel can. Unlike plastic bags that are made of petro-chemicals and enjoy near-everlasting life in our landfills, our cans are made out of recycled steel that is re-usable and fully recyclable.”
By the way, the coffee rocks. We tasted a Peruvian roast that was chocolatey, with notes of dark fruit like fig and brightly acidic as well, with a little lemon. Or as a Boulderite who turned us on to Conscious Coffees put it, “They make some effin great coffee!” LINK
Whether it’s using carbon offsets to reduce the emissions caused by shipping their coffee or 100 percent wind power purchased from a wind farm in Ft. Collins, Denver-based Copper Door is focused on keeping their environmental message front and center. And they kill it on coffee, too. Sinjin Eberle, their roaster and head band leader, sent us some Columbia Espresso to try and this straightforward coffee (brewed as espresso) was deep and rich, with a little mineral earthy, saltiness, and ideal with a small dollop of milk foam. And Sinjin is also a devoted sponsor of Colorado’s annual Breck Epic bike race, and is deeply invested personally in Colorado watershed protection issues. LINK
Zack Burnett found us, rather than vice-versa. He roasts out of Jacksonville for Bold Bean and his Riverkeeper Blend is a bit personal. “This coffee is especially important to me because on my days off I enjoy kayaking and fishing on the St. John’s River and also surfing near the mouth of the river. Like many rivers in the country, the St. John’s River is not in very good condition and it faces many additional threats daily. If not for the St. John’s Riverkeeper [a non-profit fighting to sustain the health of the river] I don’t think our river would stand a chance and North Florida’s most important feature would be ruined forever. I’m proud that the caring people of Jacksonville have taken to our coffee in support of the river.”
Beyond supporting a worthy cause, Bold Bean’s Riverkeeper Blend is also a lovely roast, not too dark, with some tangy fruit, a rich middle depth with some cocoa tannins, and a near candyish finish. And one thing we love about Bold Bean (besides the devotion to the outdoors and other worthy causes, as well as sick-good coffees), is that on the commerce section of the site they show you how each coffee is roasted and give you tasting notes. LINK
Chicago-based Intelligentsia may be massive when compared with a lot of the one-man bands on the list, but they do it right even as they grow. They sponsor many charities and in the outdoor space continue to support the Access Fund. They work on direct trade coffees as much as possible, where the farmer gains more control and more profit. As a regular purchaser of their beans it’s easy for me to recommend what they do, because their coffee is uniformly excellent. Oh, and they sponsor BMXer Kevin Porter, which is kinda cool, too. LINK
Disregard the name. Portland-based Wicked Joe ain’t wicked, they’re mighty good. In addition to only selling direct trade, certified organic beans, their coffees are certified “bird friendly” by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. They also buy all their juice from Maine Green Power Plus (wind and hydro), donate their used grounds to local farms for compost, and give to charities ranging from those that support kids (and get them into the outdoors) to Maine State Parks. Coffee snob friends tell me their Main State Parks Blend is a killer bag ‘o beans, and proceeds go to support the 48 great state parks of the Downeast. LINK
Like Intelligentsia, Stumptown is a seriously big kid in a playpen full of children, but they, too, stick to the mission at hand, roasting phenomenally good coffee, working in direct-trade relationships with farmers, and giving back to artists in Portland and around the country, as well as sponsoring “artier” outdoor expressions, like the 2011 Bicycle Film Festival. They also helped raised serious cash for Bikes to Rwanda in 2010. LINK
Trailhead Coffee Roasters
In Portland, Oregon, if you happen to see a giant Metrofiets cargo bike go by with wood paneling, you’re probably seeing Charlie Wicker out on a run delivering just-roasted beans to a client. You might also see Trailhead cargo bikes out at local CX races to support the racers, or out at monthly bike-commuter events, handing out samples. Trailhead does all local deliveries by bike, uses carbon offsets to remain carbon neutral, and they get most of their beans from a unique cooperative run by women farmers throughout Central and South America, and they also participate in a micro-loan program to farmers in Africa. Word to the wise: Portlandia natives are beyond coffee snobs. They are coffee nuts, and they say Trailhead kicks it, which means it’s scary good. Seriously, you have never been more vibed than when mis-ordering a macchiato in a Whole Foods in Portland, so Charlie must be passing serious muster. LINK
Velo Coffee Roasters
Chattanooga-based Velo Coffee Roasters deserves props for delivering beans by bike, and even delivering small batches to private customers (not just stores/restaurants) in and around Chattanooga. Andrew Gage, Velo’s owner, is part philosopher, part cyclist, part roaster. And his roasting facility reflects that blend, looking as much like a bike shop (a very cool, brick one) as a micro factory. LINK
Progress, in Austin, is on the “wrong” side of the tracks. In this case, it’s really on the wrong side of I-35, where, when founder Joshua Bingaman set up shop a few years ago, there wasn’t much but drug addicts and old railroad warehouses. When Bingaman started he literally had to push the bums out of his tiny cafe, and yet his decision to stick to the neighborhood eventually brought in musicians, artists, and other shops to anchor the community. And “community” is the right term to use, since Bingaman believes in craft, but not in the snob side of good coffee. When he was in San Francisco, before founding Progress in Austin, Bingaman kept wondering: “Why can’t I just get cup of coffee and not…be made to feel like an idiot?”
Bingaman’s philosophy stems right from that moment: From wanting to educate, not vibe customers, and from wanting to strive for better — hence the company name.
It carries through to the way Progress supports the Austin community, too, with coffee sold at cost to local charities that can, in turn, sell the beans and keep the profits. Progress has done this supporting the local criterium bike racing series, but also with student groups and charities, as well as the Down Syndrome Foundation of Texas.
And the coffee (which comes from company-owned Owl Tree Roasters)? It’s great. We sampled a Peruvian blend that wasn’t too darkly roasted and was toasty, with a super even milkiness and a great, lingering citrus note at the end. He also sent us off with a bag labeled ???? that contained (we’d guess) beans from all over the planet, but that blend also rocked with super roundness and a crazy-long, tobacco-like after note. LINK
Bennu is also in Austin, and although we haven’t sampled their beans, we did get to test their Chameleon Cold Brew, a super interesting idea if you’re willing to buy in. What you get is a jug-o-java ($4 for 16 oz.; $9 for 32 oz.) that’s been extracted super slowly, over 24 hours. The coffee comes out with a much lower acid content, and is about double the caffeine strength of ordinary drip. In theory you could tote about 10 ounces of the stuff on your next road trip and have plenty o’ ‘feine to fuel a few days’ journey. The best part is, though it’s potent, when cut with milk, is super tasty and rich, and makes the most perfect iced coffee we’ve ever tried. Bennu also participates in carbon offsets, and one reason they ship in glass, rather than plastic, is that glass is 100% recyclable. LINK
Um, wait, Utah and coffee? Yes, and Logan-based Ibis is a multi-award-winning roaster with profoundly good principles at heart. Their Cafe Femenino growing project started in Peru to help abused women in that country and now employs more than 800 women coffee farmers in four Latin American countries. Their coffee also gets a triple environmental seal: fair trade, certified organic, and shade grown. They also sponsor a huge ouch of a bike race, the 206-mile, one-day, Logan-to-Jackson-Hole Lotoja Classic. LINK
In Seattle, you can’t spit in the wind without hitting a coffee bar. So choosing one good roaster is a little nuts, but here goes. Caffe Vita’s coffee is bean juice I’ve sought out on visits home for years now (I’m originally from Seattle). They know their roasting, their direct-trade farming, and their coffee is truly excellent. Hell, they’ve since put a beach head in even more-than-SEA-coffee-obsessed PDX, which tells you they’re serious. Vita’s also dedicated to local causes, from sponsoring the Garage Racing cycling team, to working with the Woodland Park Zoo on a coffee specifically supporting threatened species habitat. They’re also deeply involved with The Service Board, a Seattle charity that teaches kids the value of public service and strong environmental stewardship. LINK
Batdorf + Bronson
Olympia may be the capital of Washington State, but the coffee capital? Maybe not, but Batdorf + Bronson roasters and Dancing Goats Espresso Company are dedicated roasters/purveyors of 100-percent green coffee. Meaning they’re completely powered by renewable energy sources (mostly wind power) and sell only certified organic, fair trade, bird-friendly coffees. This extends to setting up a roaster in Atlanta as well, so that delivery of shipped beans on the East Coast can be done more readily by ground rather than air, reducing the carbon footprint without sacrificing freshness. BTW, in the coffee geek community B+B is considered both a pioneer (they were at it from the mid-1980s) and a leader in top quality roasting. LINK
Illustration: Courtesy, Orbit Visual Graphic Design Studio