That Virginia is for lovers is a well-known fact, although lately more than ever that truism is applying to coffee-lovers in particular. Richmond specifically has seen recent growth in its specialty sector, along with a general uptick in restaurant and beer culture there. Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Co. is just finishing a major expansion, the Confluence Coffee Co. cold-brew outfit has also just scaled up production, and by mid-February, Richmonders will officially have another strong source of coffee they can depend on: Ironclad Coffee, founded by Ryan and Kelly O’Rourke.
Ryan O’Rourke is the son of coffee people. His parents ran a couple coffee shops in Tennessee when he was growing up, one of which still exists though it has passed through different owners and brands. It was there that he gained some barista basics and exposure to the industry behind the scenes, although the passion wouldn’t overtake him until a bit later in life. Coffee aside, he’s also the descendant of Irish people, which inspired him to move his family in 2011 from Richmond to Galway, Ireland, where they lived for about five years.
While working for a US-based website about Irish culture, O’Rourke discovered that the coffee in that part of Ireland was not the best, to say the least. “How can I put it kindly…” started O’Rourke with a laugh. He went on to describe a specialty scene as still emerging in Dublin, while the surrounding areas have been slower to catch on. “They like it burnt, as black as can be,” said O’Rourke. “They’re perfectly content with poorly grown, poorly processed, poorly roasted beans, poorly brewed coffee. They’re absolutely content with that. They’re a huge tea country.”
The state of coffee in Galway drove him to roast his own. When the chilly Irish climate proved preventative for an outdoor popcorn popper method, he sprang for a Gene Café. The more O’Rourke learned of the science and craft of roasting, the more certain he became that a future in the coffee business was inevitable. From Ireland, through phone calls and emails, O’Rourke researched and eventually ordered a US Roaster Corp 12-kilo machine in advance of his return to the States.
Having returned to Richmond not even six months ago, the O’Rourkes are already established in a 1,100-square-foot former print shop at 2904 W. Moore Street in the city’s bustling Scott’s Addition neighborhood. In the time that they were gone, the city’s gastronomic culture has also progressed swiftly. “The restaurant scene is insane, the craft beer scene is insane,” said O’Rourke. “What we’ve seen in the coffee scene just in the past five years while we’ve been away, it’s increased, it’s come a long way, but it’s still got a ways to go.”
O’Rourke has observed a trend of parallel growth in other cities between the beer and coffee cultures, therefore he’s confident in the continued growth of coffee in his hometown. “Richmond’s just gone crazy with the craft beer. The coffee scene has lagged a little bit, so I think Richmond right about now is primed and ready for a huge coffee surge,” said O’Rourke.
Since mid-December, Ironclad has been in soft-opening mode, selling beans online and laying groundwork for a wholesale business. Final clearances from the city didn’t come until last week, and now that they have, a formal ribbon-cutting event will be held sometime in the coming week or two. A tasting room or other light retail component is included in the plan, although it will take a few more jumps through municipal hoops to get the permitting in order, as the combination of beverage service and “light manufacturing” inherent to roastery cafés is still a fresh territory in Richmond that causes some confusion in city hall.
O’Rourke approaches the hurdles with patience, though, like a blacksmith reddening his iron in the fire. The moniker of his company is in part a nod to Richmond’s centuries-long history of industrial ironwork, although it’s also a further guarantee of their motto, “No fimble-famble.”
“No messing around, no lame excuses, just up front and honest, no nonsense,” O’Rourke translated from the 19th-century colloquialism. “I’m a fan of work ethic and honesty.”
O’Rourke said his appreciation of these qualities came into greater focus during his period abroad. “There’s a lot of great things about Europe, but that’s not one of them,” he said. “I was burned so many times by people not being on the level, it’s one of the things that I was really looking forward to, getting back to the good ol’ USA. Not that it’s perfect, not that people in the U.S. aren’t dishonest about thing sometimes, but it’s a lot better. I just wanted to be part of reviving that a little bit; what we’ve lost over the past several generations.”
Part of that revival, equally central to the Ironclad ethos, is the personal touch. “I want people to know that we’re not extreme in any way,” said O’Rourke, striving, as always, for fairness and diplomacy in his description of the line he sees between snobbishness and accessibility in a roaster’s presentation of their coffees. “I want to walk the line between letting people that we know our stuff and care about super high quality, I want to give them the best product that we can, and yet have fun with it and make it accessible to people that aren’t huge coffee fanatics.”
Once the ribbon has been cut, O’Rourke looks forward to spreading the Ironclad name around the city and the region by hosting events, visiting potential clients and markets, shaking hands and sharing the culture and personality of his company.
The strategy for year one is to focus on establishing a local and regional wholesale base, which by Year Three or Four will have hopefully grown to the point of supporting a full-on café that furthers the brand by serving and selling the coffees they also wholesale. “If that doesn’t happen, that’s alright,” said O’Rourke, “because I’m not as into the café side as I am into the roastery side. But it would be a good sign.”