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Wisconsin Cafe Chain Stays Afloat During In-House Roasting Transition

Whatever fanfare occurred when Barriques opened its Park Street location in Madison, Wis., last August was limited to the front of the house, where owners Finn Berge and Matt Weygandt were confident their staff could run another successful cafe and wine bar (the Madison-based company’s sixth).

barriques madison coffee roastingBut there was an element of trepidation in the back of the house, where a coffee roasting operation represented a new venture for the 13-year-old company. By September, Barriques had phased out most of its previous supply and was using a 600-square-foot back room at the Park Street location to roast beans for all its cafes.

“Coffee is such a huge part of our business and it was kind of like changing the wheels on a moving bus,” Weygandt says of the transition. “We didn’t even really start talking about it until the new year, but it turns out it’s been pretty smooth for us and we’re really happy with the quality.”

With more than a decade of lessons learned in the wine and cafe business, the owners decided to minimize risk associated with the transition by buying a brand new 18-kilo drum roaster from US Roaster and hiring 25-year coffee roasting veteran Rob Jeffries, who after some stints at larger coffee roasting operations that utilize more computer-generated processes describes the Barriques gig as a coffee roaster’s “dream job.”

“At this scale, you’re really talking about a craft,” says Jeffries, who maintains a five-days-per-week roasting schedule along with assistant David Wheatley, a roaster and Barriques barista trainer. “In musical terms it’s like jazz. Classical music is the triumph of organization and design, but jazz is ‘everybody jump in the pool at the same time and let’s try to make something great.’ ” In less musical terms, says Jeffries, “This is more like running a fine scratch bakery than a big industrial operation.”

One of the challenges in switching to house-roasted blends was to not alienate longtime patrons who’d grown accustomed to specific blends and flavor profiles that were found in Barrique’s coffee  roster for years. “We needed to generate some profiles that were not totally different than what we were offering,” Weygandt says. “We didn’t want to slap our loyal customers in the face.”

For now, Barriques’ coffee roasting operation is scaled to supply the six cafes, as well as a small handful of local restaurants (including the Weary TravelerNatt Spil and the Roman Candle), and Weygandt said any increase in Barriques’ coffee production will likely be slow and steady. ”We started to get involved with those restaurants because we have some ties and we wanted to try it out,” barriques coffee in madisonWeygandt says. “But I think now we’re thinking about this more and we have the ability and capacity to start sharing this coffee more with others.”

Jeffries is more than willing to share his passion for coffee and coffee roasting with anyone who might be interested, and he regularly hosts cuppings of new roasts on Tuesday morning at the Park St. cafe. “If you’re interested in coffee and you want to know what it’s all about, we’re an open roastery,” Jeffries says. “Come on in.”

Weygandt acknowledges the plethora of quality roasteries in the Madison area, although he says Barriques isn’t necessarily aiming to compete with them. His focus, he says, is the coffee-drinking customer, using the experience he’s earned as a wine merchant. “I’m afraid of some of what I’m seeing in the coffee business, because I saw it in the wine business 13 years ago — where the retailer is telling the customer how to drink and enjoy the product,” Weygandt says. “You can’t shove this stuff down people’s throats. All we can do is make as high-quality a product as we can, and I believe people will enjoy it and come back again.”

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