OURAY – The new owners of Exotic Earth Coffee Roasters huddle conspiratorially over cups of strong dark coffee in a back room at the Box Canyon Lodge to discuss their venture.
Karen and Rich Avery, Box Canyon Lodge proprietors, and their friend Danny Wesseling are all self-admitted coffee addicts. Now, they say, they’re just taking that addiction a few steps closer to its source.
“The three of us are in cahoots,” they cackle, not even bothering to conceal their coffee-buzzed glee.
The trio bought the small, Ouray-based specialty coffee roaster company from its founders, Robert Byler and Dee Hilton, in April.
Byler and Hilton had dropped the idea on the Averys earlier in the year, “and we let it percolate,” Karen said. “We decided, why not? And then Danny heard of our crazy plan.”
“And I thought I’d get in the venture with them,” said Wesseling, a director of sales for Source Gas. When he pays a visit to a customer, he says, conversation always happens over a cup of coffee. Now, he can put those connections to a new use.
Exotic Earth’s organic, shade-grown fair-trade beans, hailing from exotic equatorial locations around the globe, are roasted in small batches in a small shack between Ridgway and Ouray.
The Box Canyon Lodge has always been one of Exotic Earth’s biggest customers; the Averys commissioned a private label specialty blend from Hilton and Byler when they bought the hotel in 2007. It is the only kind of coffee they serve their guests.
As coffee magnates, the Averys and Wesseling say their primary aim is to continue to be roasters and wholesalers.
“We absolutely do not intend to open a coffee shop,” Karen emphasized. The beans currently sell in 12- or 16-ounce bags at small retail shops and specialty stores in Ouray. Bulk sales go to hotels and restaurants.
“We aim to expand the business, and continue to get organic shade-grown fair trade beans,” Karen said. The group is also exploring how to expand its single- source whole-bean sales.
They took their first delivery of coffee beans at the roasting shack last week. The beans arrived in an Old Dominion truck, packaged in exotically labeled 150-pound burlap sacks that Rich and Dan unloaded themselves, while Karen supervised.
“We were Hans and Franz,” they joked.
One thing the Averys have learned from running the Box Canyon lodge is that it’s a good idea to figure out what you’ve got before you make a lot of changes.
“We have big dreams, though,” Karen said.
For starters, they’re setting up a coffee packaging and labeling operation in the basement of a building they own at 636 Main Street, below the Backstreet Bistro, in a space formerly rented to San Juan Mountain Guides.
They intend to stick with their distributor, the San Francisco-based Royal Coffee, at least for the time being. “We can get beans from all over the world through them,” Rich said. “We’re not large enough to do the buying ourselves. That’s what big companies do.”
Rich and Dan, who are in charge of roasting, are enjoying learning the nuances of the art of coffee roasting and bean mixing and “all the kinds of variables that go into coffee.” For example, gourmet Arabica beans are loaded with rich, distinct flavors, but to get a caffeine kick, “lower-class” Robusta beans must be added to the mix.
Karen, whose day job is account manager and troubleshooter for Oracle, the software company, is the “head bean-counter” of the Exotic Earth trio. She’s also the self-appointed “Director of Automation.” Her first task: figuring out how to make individual pillow pouches of Exotic Earth coffee for hotel-room coffeemakers.
Rich points out that coffee, as the second most traded commodity in the world after oil, is big business. “It’s huge,” he said.
That may be the case, but Exotic Earth’s operation remains very small for now. They have a fairly basic 10-pound roaster. Roasting is a daylong affair. “It’s a very manual process,” Karen said. “You’re constantly checking the texture and color of the beans.”
The three look forward to upgrading their roasting equipment in the near future.
“We are super-serious about it,” Karen said, with a huge smile. “We’ve got big plans, so many things swirling through our heads. We want to be everyone’s local roaster.
“But for now, we just need to get through the summer, and see what it takes to keep up with our current demands.”