June 10, 2011
I had the chance to go home to Houston for a little over a week in May, and during that time decided to road trip out to San Antonio and Austin with my brother to see friends, drink coffee and eat great food. First on the list was Aaron Blanco and his family at Brown Coffee Company. I had tried multiple times before to see his shop/roasting facility but plans had fallen through every time in the past.
Thankfully this time we made it there with no hiccups, and even squeezed in an awesome lunch at Luling City Meat Market on the trip out to SA. Pulled up to the cafe with a warm welcome from Aaron, his wife Jenee and all three of their kids who were happily playing and working on projects in the roasting space. The space includes just a couple of tables that really force those occupying the cafe to chat and get to know each other as they are literally rubbing elbows. And in fact as we came in, we were promptly introduced to both couples frequenting the cafe at the time.
Over the last couple months I’ve been fascinated in places like Brown which subvert the idea of what a coffee shop should be in some sense and wanted to use this blog as a way to recount a couple of the ways that Brown as a shop was fascinating to me. These are just a couple things that really stuck out to me over my visit to their space.
Brown is unique and different first of all in being in a rather out of the way location within a Roasting Facility. The space itself doesn’t look like a normal coffee shop and you probably wouldn’t stumble upon it without hearing about it word of mouth. The menu is rather subversive in only offering what Aaron is confident in serving and doesn’t list the normal dozen drink names that one would see on a coffee shop menu. This subversion keeps the customer from their normal preconceptions and gives the unique chance to offer something different than what the first time customer was expecting.
The intentionality of everything on the menu showcases itself clearly in seeing how little and specifically milk and sugar are offered. The largest milk drink is a traditional cappuccino, and neither milk nor sugar are immediately available at a condiment bar for customer use. While I didn’t have the chance to see how a request for these might be handled, I imagine that having the time to properly engage why they are not available would handle most complaints that would arise. As well, only Lactose Free Milk is offered, which was surprisingly tasty and very sweet naturally.
Alongside this however, is some of the most familiar and warmest service imaginable. This seems to be one of the keys of the success of the cafe, while they serve amazing coffee and keep people coming back who search for quality, they also have empathy and dedicate themselves to forming relationships with their customers. This is something i’ve found personally lacking in my own focus at points, and certainly a wider blind spot in the speciality community as well. It was great to witness the familiarity in which they interacted with their customers, it seems that normally you only get either quality or service and hardly both in the same space.
One of the most interesting menu items was the Cold Brew. They brew some of the most delicious toddy i’ve ever had, Tegu Mill from Kenya was on tap when I was there. They serve it either “Neat” (a concentrate around 3.5-4 TDS straight up in a Gibraltar glass) for here or serve it either “Rocks” (concentrate over Ice) or “Dirty” to go (concentrate over ice with a splash of milk and simple, one of the few appearances of milk and sugar on the menu). I stole the “Neat” idea for Caffe Streets and it’s been a huge hit, Aaron is only charging us minor royalty fees on each one we sell and we have legal obligations to call it “Brown’s Neat™ ColdBrew Goodness” ;).
As Brendan and I discussed some of ideas for what our ideal shop would look like, Aaron contributed some interesting thoughts about high volume versus high ticket. For a production environment to produce the quality of beverage and experience that most of us in the speciality community seek, the goal may not be to serve low priced, high volume drinks. Instead, creating an environment where the service, experience and beverages are of the highest caliber will (hopefully) allow for a perception of value allowing for higher tickets. I continue to be fascinated by this idea and how it’s played out, and will continue to seek places that exemplify this in small ways.
Finally, I respect Aaron’s sense of balance and moderation. In an industry full of early adopters and full on buying into ideology, his moderation is a breath of fresh air to the polemics. For instance, while Aaron has the tools necessary to diagnose and measure, he uses them quietly as training tools to calibrate himself, rather than crutches (something I am guilty of doing). As well, as a dialogue partner he allows himself to have a firm opinion while actually being able to discuss reasons and have a healthy debate, a skill lacking in the simplistic echo chamber of twitter.
As a student of theology, I’ve always loved this quote that perhaps represents Aaron’s thinking in being more nuanced in opinion from his fantastic interview with Colin Harmon (IBC Champion 2009 & 2010, purveyor of 3FE in Dublin):
“As a former theologian I find similarities between doing coffee well and doing theology well: Everyone has their ideas and reflexive thoughts surrounding it, but not all of their ideas are truthful, accurate or even seeking to be so. People often just want a quick, neat answer or turn of phrase. ‘Fair Trade.’ ‘Jesus saves.’ Bumper sticker thinking can really be so damaging to the cause! There is (or needs to be, in my opinion) a bit of a systematic/mystical tension to it that requires something deeper of us if we are to really become students of it and refine ourselves. In coffee I guess we would call that the tension between the art and the science of it: the beauty of honing your craft as you use your senses of sight, smell and hearing to create a beautiful coffee versus gluing your eyes to a timer and temp readout and following a graph on some computer screen.”
All of this to say, it was a fascinating little trip out San Antonio and i’m thankful for the Blanco’s wonderful hospitality and the conversations we had. If you ever make it to San Antonio it would be a huge mistake not to mosey on over to their cafe Wednesday through Saturday.
However, for those of us outside of the promised land of Texas, Aaron’s running an awesome special on Ethiopia Amaro Gayo Dernaye that I had the chance to cup pre-ship samples of. The cup is all lavender (even the greens smelled of lavender!) and florals while still being juicy sweet in the cup. The coffee starts shipping out over the next week or so, and it’s definitely worth a purchase!