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Thumb Roast Coffee in Rural Michigan Creating First Impressions

Thumb Roast's 3-kilo roaster of unknown origin. All photos courtesy of Thumb Roast Coffee.

Thumb Roast’s 3-pound-capacity roaster of unknown origin. All photos courtesy of Thumb Roast Coffee.

Less than five miles off the coast of Lake Huron is the tiny town of Croswell, Mich., population 2,500, on the mid-southern part of the thumb of Michigan’s mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula.

People there like to keep it pure and simple in coffee as in life, according to local entrepreneurs Sue Balysh and Missy Bobo. It was in the spring of 2015 that these two old friends’ shared loved of fresh coffee drove them to start roasting the stuff on a stovetop skillet, then in a more streamlined consumer-grade device, and then inevitably stepping up to a commercial-grade 3-pound roaster for the manual controls and the volume it could provide.

In September 2015 Thumb Roast Coffee company was officially born, and word of its quality and freshness has spread quickly. Balysh bought the 100-year-old and 10-years-vacant building at 14 Wells Street in Croswell, which they’ve steadily been remodeling to accommodate the roastery and tasting room. Previously occupied by a local print shop and a newspaper called The Jeffersonian, the duo is glad that the original, vintage signage can still be seen through the new black paint on the building’s exterior.

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“We like that idea, we’re happy it turned out,” Balysh told Daily Coffee News. The basement was reportedly still equipped with the old printing press and other machinery, still in working condition, which could possibly have come in handy for label-making or flyers eventually, but in the present, it was just too much.

“In hindsight, we might’ve been able to keep it, but it was a lot of work and a lot space,” said Balysh. “It probably wouldn’t have been practical for us to keep it there.” Instead the Thumb crew focused on upgrades and improvements such as new windows, plumbing, and installations for their coffee-related equipment. Coming soon will be awnings and an outdoor heating system to take the chill off of some outdoor seating when the winter subsides a bit.

Balysh is also the proprietor of the East Port Exchange, a hodge-podge of boutique vending under the roof of the former general store building in nearby Port Sanilac, where local artists, craftspeople and antiques dealers sell their wares alongside a selection of new retail items such as household goods and beach-related apparel and accessories. Bobo came on board there as a manager and bookkeeper about a year and a half ago, at which point the pair started mulling over opportunities to further pool their talents and expand their enterprise. “We do have a lot of fun together. We work well together and we like each other a lot, it makes working much easier,” said Balysh. “It’s really awesome, it’s probably the best thing I’ve chosen in my life.”

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Their 3-pound drum roaster is a one-of-a-kind prototype left orphaned when a lack of investment capital left its makers incapable of pursuing manufacturing. They bought it from a seller nearby that was the second owner, and its origins beyond that remain a mystery. “I never looked up the guy’s name who actually made it, but he did a great job,” said Bobo, who takes the lead of roasting for Thumb while Balysh continues tending to the East Port Exchange. “There’s a few tweaks that we’d modify now that we’ve been using it, but other than that, it’s been great.”

As the company’s wholesale business expands, a roaster somewhere around the 10-pound-capacity range may be in order sooner rather than later, the business partners said. In the meantime, Thumb Roast combines green coffees sourced from South Bend, Ind.-based Theta Ridge Coffee into blends named in the regional spirit, such as Sanilac Sunrise and the Lake Huron blend.

Bobo finds the local palate commonly appeased in the medium or darker range. True to the even-keeled nature of daily life, Bobo described a coffee-drinking populace predisposed to the idea of a happy medium, but are willing to learn more with a little encouragement. “When we started, we found that people tend to think that they like medium, but then once we get them to try between medium and dark, they actually like the dark better,” said Bobo. “People like the in-between, so just past second crack, I’m finding that that’s our sweet spot.”

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“Most of our customers like it simple. This is a very rural area,” said Balysh. Therefore Thumb Roast Coffee has so far stuck with French Press and manual Hario pourovers in their tasting room where locals can relax with a hot cup and some friendly conversation. “We have had people ask specifically for espresso, but that might be as fancy as we get,” said Balysh. “Just simple coffee, simply served. Our motto is ‘simply coffee.'”

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