To some people, music is just sound. To others, it’s a wildly diverse spectrum of distinct artistic expressions, with a genre like heavy metal at the dark end and perhaps a classical string quartet at the light. To others still, these seeming opposites actually have a lot in common — fast dramatic scales, arpeggios, a general grandiosity, all of which meld nicely together when carefully and creatively combined.
The culture of appreciation for coffee is very similar, in that for some it’s all just coffee, for others it’s a vast and varied spectrum, and for a new start-up in Berkeley, Calif. called Rhetoric Coffee that enjoys experimenting with multiple-profile single-coffee “melange” blends, there’s new beauty to be found in intertwining the parts.
“We’re trying to make something like ‘symphonic’ roasts, where each bean is an instrument,” Rhetoric Coffee Roaster and Co-Owner James Parrish told Daily Coffee News. “We happen to like blends like Metallica and the London Symphony Orchestra — full, unexpected, awesome — and so do our fabulous customers.”
At the same time, another more literally fabulous medium full of drama and grand gestures is also celebrated by way of Rhetoric’s packaging, as each bag comes adorned with an original, commissioned comic book style illustration screen printed by hand. The current design is by artist Jonathan La Mantia. Said Rhetoric Co-Owner Colin Curtin, “James has the largest comic book collection I’ve ever seen.”
Parrish explained this fascination. “I grew up ten miles from anywhere in a rural area of California that actually has all four of the seasons,” he said. “So like in winter, once you’ve frozen your bones slogging it tough in the snow, or splashing crazed through chilly puddles, all that’s left is to tuck into a blanket with a flashlight and read something. In my case I had bought a box of comics from a kid in school for twelve bucks in fourth grade, so I read comics — so many comics.”
Rhetoric Coffee opened in Berkeley in January of this year on a small Probat and later stepped up to a Loring S15 roaster available at the Bay Area CoRoasters shared production facility. Previously, Parrish was a co-founder and lead roaster for the worker-owned collective Alchemy Collective Café, then moved on to a barista position at Blue Bottle Coffee before striking out to create Rhetoric with his friend and fellow dreamer Colin Curtin.
Today Rhetoric offers biweekly subscription packages of eight, 12- and 16-ounce whole-bean bags, as well as wholesale packages to offices and for makers of foods that incorporate high-quality coffee as an ingredient.
“Wholesale rocks,” said Parrish. “For food wholesale, we work together to figure out what will taste best with their product, and hammer out a consistent, high-quality roast that fits them and their needs. We usually do several tastings, both coffee alone and within their product, to dial it in.”
Parrish first discovered the dual-profile single-bean blend idea through his friendship with Brad Joyce, who was head roaster at Blue Bottle during Parrish’s barista years there, prior to the advent of Joyce’s own company, Jewel Box Coffee Roasters. Said Parrish, “I was blown away by the amount of clarity, complexity, and consistency you could find in roasting coffee that way.”
Parrish then applied that and other lessons he’d learned from his mentors in roasting to his own distinct approach for Rhetoric.
“When Colin and I started Rhetoric I really wanted to put my own stamp on what I was doing and head a slightly different direction than what I had learned from the two lead roasters I worked under,” he said. “On roasting, I am always trying to let the terroir or natural characteristics be as present as possible while highlighting, absolutely, a fist-to-the-face of sugary doom in every cup.”
Immediate next steps for the business include “focusing on getting more and more people to fall in love with our coffee, to both support us and the comic book artists we work with,” said Parrish.
Looking ahead, Rhetoric aspires to establish a community-oriented retail space that also serves as a music venue and art space. “We’re musicians, too, and think there are too few places to dance or perform that have great sound,” Parrish said. “And of those that do exist, most don’t pay artists properly.”
For now, after roasting greens sourced mostly through the Coffee Shrub at BACR, the duo completes the rest of the work of packaging, printing and other production requirements from Rhetoric World Headquarters — a 150-square-foot space in Parrish’s home garage in downtown Oakland, furnished with, as Parrish described it, “two lights, a desk, a bass guitar, and drum kit for jam sessions.”
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.