RIDGWAY – A trip to Exotic Earth Coffee Roasters’ new digs in the Ridgway River Park industrial complex starts with the obvious question: “Would you like some coffee?”
Karen Avery hands over a bright red ceramic mug filled with steaming medium-roasted Guatemala. Her husband Rich just roasted the beans last night. The brew is available at the Ridgway Conoco, where caffeine-craving customers go through about five big jugs of it each day.
Things have been moving fast for the Averys and their partner Danny Wesseling since they bought the small, formerly Ouray-based specialty coffee roaster company from its founders, Robert Byler and Dee Hilton, in April 2012.
First, they acquired the business. Then, the land in Ridgway, where they broke ground on their new facility last fall. Soon after that, they scored a sweet deal on some upgraded coffee roasting equipment. And throughout it all, they’ve been acquiring a few new customers (Mountain Market, for example, now carries their brand), learning the ins and outs of the industry, and the fine art of coffee roasting itself.
Now, they are getting set to celebrate the grand opening of their new retail shop and roastery at 602 N. Cora Street in Ridgway River Park (right across the street from Sunset Auto), with a ribbon-cutting set for 5:30 p.m. this Thursday.
Here, in addition to the roasting room in the back, and the weighing and bagging station, and the office with the printer where they make all their custom labels, there is a spacious retail and seating area where customers can linger at leggy tables over mugs of coffee (no fancy stuff, just straight brews), or stock up on beans to take home with them. The store will be staffed, at least initially, Monday through Thursday from noon to 6 p.m.
There is a pleasantly bright caffeine-buzz in the air, and the whole place rings with newness. Distinctly lacking is the funky smell of charred coffee chaff which pervaded their old roasting shack, tucked away in the woods behind the Cedar Hill Cemetery (the unusual location inspired the name of one of their most popular blends – “Wake the Dead”).
Exotic Earth’s organic, shade-grown fair trade beans hail from exotic equatorial locations around the globe. The majority of its business is via wholesale to small area retailers and specialty shops selling 12 and 16 ounce bags. Bulk coffee goes to hotels and restaurants, frequently with custom blends specifically for the customer. In the future the company plans to sell online to a growing cadre of diehard Exotic Earth Coffee fans.
But as for today, “We’re hanging pictures!” Karen exclaimed.
Photos of brightly colored green and red coffee beans, and African women dressed in equally brightly colored garb, tell the tale of the Averys’ recent travels to Ethiopia, where they visited several coffee plantations to see for themselves how their product is grown. It was a thrilling, adventure-drenched experience, and eye-opening in many ways – particularly as they saw how impoverished the region is where the coffee is grown, and learned what a labor-intensive process it is to grow it.
Travel stories percolate throughout their conversation. How they sat on animal skins on dirt-floored huts, drinking a tea made of coffee chaff because the villagers were too poor to afford the coffee beans themselves. How a tribal shaman once spit on them, as a kind of blessing for good travels. “I guess it worked!” Rich laughed.
Karen pointed to a brightly painted traditional round-bottomed coffee pot that they brought back from their trip, describing how it is designed to nestle in the embers of a cooking fire as it is set to brew. Several times, they were lucky enough to take part in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
Perhaps, once they get settled into their new space, they will offer coffee ceremonies of their own, right here in Ridgway. Rich is also eager to start doing “proper cuppings,” during a set time two or three days a week. This would be sort of like a wine-tasting for coffee-lovers, to experience and evaluate a series of different roasts, bean varieties, and blends.
Rich described the process. “You take two tablespoons of ground freshly roasted beans, pour boiling water on top, let it steep for two to three minutes, and then break the crust with a spoon,” he said. “You really sense the coffee, the aroma. Then you taste the coffee with a spoon. You slurp it like crazy to aerate it and get it on the back of your tongue.”
The final, optional step involves a spittoon, “so you don’t get too much caffeine in your system,” Karen explained.
The Averys and Wesseling, over mugs of coffee of course, agree that they are happy with the scope and pace at which things are happening with their business.
“We’ve grown a little bit but we are mostly still establishing,” Karen said. “We have a distributer now who is taking our coffee to Clark’s Markets.”
“And we have gained quite a few of the type of customers we inherited when we bought the company,” Rich added. “A few more restaurants, a few more individual people that are buying the coffee.”
“We are still microscopic,” Karen said. “But that’s okay because we are learning.”
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