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Michigan’s Hardworking Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co. on the Rise

Leelanau Coffee Roasting

All images courtesy of Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co.

In the picturesque Leelanau Peninsula of Northern Michigan, the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company has been in business for more than 20 years, slowly but surely gaining ground by way of uncompromising roasting and brewing methods, and pure hard work.

At the end of 2016, LCRC relocated its existing production equipment out of what was previously a roastery café, installed it and added to it inside a new 3,500-square-foot offsite facility, quadrupling capacity and effectively signaling that all the hard work has indeed been paying off.

“My husband comes from a long line of do-it-yourselfers. They’re very determined, headstrong and independent,” Jody Arens told Daily Coffee News, in reference to company cofounders John and Steve Arens, her husband and brother-in-law, respectively. “They literally slept in the roasting room, with the roaster, the first year. And they made maybe $4,000.”

The Arens brothers in the early days of Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co.

The Arens brothers in the early days of Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co.

Driven by the their love of coffee, their need to put food on the table and the desire to be their own bosses, the team wasn’t dissuaded by the scant revenue in those earliest years, during which Arens described the trio as one ski bum/drummer, one artist, and one art history student. “We all are very artistic,” Jody Arens said. “We’re not the kind of people that make money, but we’re also independent, so we needed a way to pay the bills.”

It was Steve Arens that first fell in love with great coffee while living out west about 25 years ago, where he eventually learned the craft under the tutelage of a professional who used a Sivetz roaster. Today, apart from only sourcing the highest quality beans available from any given origin, LCRC remains steadfastly devoted to the Sivetz fluid-bed way of life. “They alone best develop coffee flavor in the cup,” John Arens said. “To my mind, this is not arguable.”

Arens contended that this is in part due to the immediate separation of chaff and other effluvia from the bean mass, as well as the coffee’s avoidance of prolonged contact with hot surfaces that he says can result in an effect on characteristics in the cup.

“The beans are thus roasted from the ‘inside out’, resulting in full flavor development at any given roast temperature. Michael Sivetz, quite literally, wrote the book on this,” said Arens, referring to Sivetz’ foundational 1963 work, Coffee Technology. “Mr. Sivetz likely forgot more about cup quality than most of us will ever know.”

As for what qualities in particular John Arens strives to present in the cups derived from individual beans, he said that these are the characteristics reconfigured by the soils, cultivation and processing practices at the estates or individual farms of origin.

Leelanau Coffee Roasting

The Sivetz roaster at Leelanau Coffee Roasting.

“Our goal is to let even the most subtle flavors and textures speak for themselves, without overly burdening the beans with unpleasant over-smoking, or under-development,” said Arens. “We do offer a wide variety of flavored coffees, but even here our flavoring procedures almost always use less oils than called for, mostly in the ongoing effort to let the coffee speak, not the additives or adulterants.”

Beyond the work ethic and their chosen method and style of roasting, the company’s stick-to-it-iveness also extends to brewing. Said Jody Arens, “We have never served one cup of coffee in 24 years, not one, unless it was French pressed.” She added that the full-immersion, metal-filtered brew, which she believes to be both healthier and better tasting than other brew methods, routinely attracts lines out the door of their sole café.

Regarding what strategies they may be forming to address those long lines, Arens wouldn’t commit to any full-throated acknowledgment of additional retail developments that may or may not be on the horizon, saying only, “We would be stupid not to expand.”

In the meantime, expansion on the wholesale front is already a strong focus. Arens said the business has in recent years bloomed from just John and Steve Arens working alone to a summertime tourist seasonal peak of 30 workers, plus another four full-timers they just brought on board with the new facility.

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