Why is specialty coffee exciting right now? It’s not just that there are people doing some really creative and innovative things in medium- and smaller-sized markets throughout the United States, it’s that consumer interest has grown enough to support them.
One great example is with Velo Coffee Roasters in Chattanooga, Tenn. Launched four years ago as a micro roastery with bike delivery service, Velo is now on the precipice of some big changes, thanks in no small part to $37,000-plus in Kickstarter funding to pay for much of a new roaster.
We recently asked Velo founder Andrew Gage and brand manager John Fentress about the company’s organic growth, and how the company is poised to help shape coffee in Tennessee’s fourth largest city.
Can you explain the need for the Kickstarter?
JOHN: Yes, we’re going to buy a 15 kilo cast-iron Joper. Right now we’re using a US Roaster Corp. 5 kilo., so the new roaster will allow us to triple our output, though that won’t be something we pursue immediately. The new roaster will allow us to maintain current output, increase quality, and mend the frayed edges — this will be more on the side of morale than anything — caused by maximizing output and time on the small roaster. The new machine will also allow us to increase quality, being that it is cast iron rather than stainless, and has an integrated computer profiling and analytics system. So before we crank out more wholesale orders, we’ll be working on bettering our product.
How did you get into coffee roasting and what made you take the leap to start your own roastery?
ANDREW: I worked in shops around Chattanooga, and at one point was made head roaster at a shop/roaster. This was invaluable as a learning opportunity, but it was also the impetus to start Velo. In many ways, I viewed starting my own roastery as the best way for me and my family to stay in the city we love, and to simultaneously develop as a roaster and coffee professional.
Obviously, you’ve seen some growth in Chattanooga. Has most of your business been wholesale and how would you characterize your own growth over the past four years.
JOHN: We’ve done most business as a wholesaler so far. We have accounts with groceries and shops in town, but we’ve always had some form of retail outlet. However, our efforts have recently been refocused towards expanding hours and making our retail space into a full service brew bar featuring espresso and single cup brew methods. Beyond that, we’ve got a fledgling of a bike shop under our wing, and when that gets to the point of being sustainable, we’ll roll that out under it’s own moniker, letting it and the communities around it grow into themselves more.
How will this purchase and installation affect Velo’s physical spaces?
JOHN: The roaster is positioned immediately inside of the main entrance to the space, across from the brew bar. The space we roast in currently is large enough to accommodate the new machine, so that wont change. The space we’re in is about 1,500 square feet, and that will probably be the next thing we’ll max out. trying to fit a roaster, retail space, and bike shop in 1,500 square feet can be done, but it takes patience and planning.
ANDREW: We really enjoy having the roaster in plain sight of customers. Over the last four years we’ve taken every opportunity we can to create educational experiences, and we’ve seen incredible returns from it. We attempt to be as transparent as possible.
What is your approach to roasting, speaking technically and/or philosophically? What are you hoping to get out of each roast? And what have you learned over the years to help you get there?
ANDREW: We simply try to gently coax the best out of each coffee we carry. Instead of imparting each coffee with an indiscriminant “signature” roast style, we do our best to listen to what each unique coffee has to say. This is simple, but much different than the way I was taught to think about coffee as I was coming up in the industry. Lucky for me, I’m still “coming up” in coffee and I still have a lot to learn.
When it comes to the mechanics of a roast, my approach has evolved, but our simple philosophy has remained the same. Generally speaking, I have learned better how to use momentum and energy created in one phase of a roast to affect another phase. By the time we approach the first crack we like to have enough momentum to carry us through the finish with a very gentle heat application. We are constantly experimenting with development time within and around the first crack. Moving from our current stainless steel drum 5k to a cast iron 15k will undoubtedly present a big learning curve, but that’s partly what I’m in coffee for: The challenge.
Can you tell me about your future retail plans?
JOHN: We currently have a retail space. However, we expanded the hours only recently from eight per week to 20. For three years we were only open Friday and Saturday, but the way things are going with Chattanooga, we realized we needed to build our face-to-face presence more, rather than let ourselves stay represented as a bag on the shelf of the grocery. Not that we don’t think that’s valuable, but we saw it becoming a limitation.
What does the menu look like and what do you brew with?
JOHN: We try to keep a laser focus when it comes to making the menu. We pair coffee with the brew method we feel represents it best. Currently we offer Kalita, Clever, Aeropress, and Fetco. We also have a menu of cold brew options: iced coffee, latte, coffee soda, and a rotating specialty drink. Coffees change with season, so when we get a new one, we experiment to find it’s place on the menu. When it comes to espresso, we have one house espresso blend, and we’re developing a second. In the past we have offered espresso, but we sold our machine to fund a Fetco water tower and EK 43.
We figured rather than do both sides of coffee at a lower quality than we felt we should, we’d focus on one side. For our purposes, single cup, manual brew was the side we chose. However, the plan is to bring back espresso. Since we want to be able to grow and modify our space based on sales and attendance, we’re going with a Modbar. We’ll start with a single group and steam wand, and continue from there. Right now, we are knee-deep in espresso grinder research.