Over the past year and a half, a group of young coffee people in Tennessee have been slowly developing Honeybee Coffee, in the process crossing over from mutual hobby territory into full-fledged commercial roastery and retail brand.
Depending on the day, the Honeybee team consists of “sixish” members, according to Co-Founder Wesley Hill, including but not limited to: Hill’s brother Aaron and family friend Joe Whatley, who are involved as baristas and roasters; roaster Josh Steedley; and Hill family patriarch Norris Hill, who has provided some financial stability for the emerging company.
Honeybee’s nest — and the marketing vehicle that generates most of the brand’s buzz — is a tricked out Airstream trailer that came online last year, and includes a La Marzocco GS/3 for espresso preparation, as well as a manual brew bar and a batch brew station, which are utilized in isolation or jointly depending on where the trailer is stationed and how many customers are swarming about.
“We set up the trailer at events about twice a week, off and on,” Wesley Hill recently told Daily Coffee News. “We just got into Whole Foods locally, and we’re getting into a few more stores around here lately.”
Almost all the partners involved were still in college when the Honeybee venture launched, but Hill says increased brand recognition and grocery access have made the company viable enough locally to warrant full-time commitment. Honeybee is closely associated with Knoxville’s Spero Coffee, where Steedly is a roaster, sharing the company’s production roastery and finding some efficiencies in higher-volume buying. For its own sourcing efforts, Honeybee has worked with several importers, and Hill says he’d eventually like to pursue more direct relationships.
Incidentally, Hill is already somewhat engaged at origin through his professional involvement with Knoxville’s ProVision Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit operated by the senior Hill that supports ministries in developing countries.
“Our main interest initially was how do we provide better income for the farmers,” Wesley Hill said. “That was the initial nudge for Honeybee, and then we all kind of all got obsessed with coffee.”
Through the coordination of grant initiatives in Haiti, Hill has familiarized himself with some of the issues facing the country’s coffee industry, particularly the logistic difficulties small farmers face in delivering their unprocessed coffee to buyers. “In Haiti, one big problem is the decentralization of massive coffee mills — you’re hiking coffee through the mountains over five days to sell the coffee and it can go bad in that time,” Hill said, adding that the ProVision Foundation is currently working on an initiative to create micro-mills in some Haitian growing regions.
While his work with ProVision and with Honeybee are not necessarily related, the nonprofit’s work has provided him with some informational inroads to the seed-to-cup production process — information that has helped inform some of Honeybee’s core values related to highlighting origin and the work of farmers through its coffees. Said Hill, “The market for Haitian coffee is very different than what we’re interested in on a specialty coffee level, but by relationship and conviction we’re tied to the Haitian coffee market.”
Hill said there is a small but dedicated community of people helping drive coffee forward in Knoxville — he said he’s particularly indebted to Shaun Hill of the city’s longtime multiroaster Old City Java for so freely imparting a wealth of coffee knowledge — but that the scene is still emerging there, despite the metropolitan spirit of the area, populated by over half a million people and with cultural connections to Asheville and Nashville.
“In the south, third wave coffee is not that big, so education and introduction is a little slower here,” Hill said. “We’ve been trying to find some coffees with crazy juicy notes, just to shock people and have them say, ‘Wow, I’ve never tasted anything like this before.’ And for a lot of people, for some reason, Guatemala is a big name from a selling standpoint in the south. Then we try to get them to understand that not all Guatemalan coffees are the same. It’s an interesting combination of selling and education.”