As part of our occasional series, Rising Tide, we’re offering snapshots of Rhode Island’s economy after the Great Recession. The state famous for coffee milk syrup, is now home to a burgeoning specialty coffee scene.
Bolt Coffee Company, in downtown Providence, bustles with the sound of grinding beans and steaming milk. Customers squeeze onto couches and at tables, with foamy lattes and tiny cups of espresso.
Barista Justin Ennis grinds beans for a special cup of coffee.
“So this is going to be a pour-over of Kenyan coffee from Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland,” said Ennis.
Pour-over is a process of brewing coffee, similar to steeping tea. Ennis measures the freshly ground coffee on small scale, before pouring them into a cone shaped filter.
Ennis is part of new breed of coffee aficionado. Like a sommelier, Ennis knows where his beans come from, the country, the region, sometimes down to the farm. This knowledge is a hallmark of the specialty coffee scene.
Surrounded by his various instruments, Ennis looks more scientist than barista.
“We’re using a pouring kettle, which is kind of like this gooseneck kettle that gives us a very consistent, and predictable flow rate,” said Ennis. “There are many different devices.”
It takes about four minutes to brew a single cup of this coffee, and it will set you back about four bucks too. But people are willing to pay, and the popularity of specialty coffee is growing. Bolt is one of more than a handful of specialty coffee shops and retailers that have popped up in the city in the last few years.
“Coffee’s one of those things that people really connect to in a powerful way,” said Mackey. “In an emotional way.”
Todd Mackey works for the international specialty coffee distributor Olam, and has an office in downtown Providence. He said the growth of specialty coffee is riding the coattails of a larger local food movement.
“As ironic as it is when you think of coffee coming from so far, but it really ties in when you talk about local roasting and freshness, and people wanting to know where there food is coming from,” said Mackey.
Mackey said specialty coffee operations are opening up across the country. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the retail market was worth some $26 billion last year. Mackey said Providence is getting a slice of that pie.
As the city searches for new industries to get the economy back on its feet, specialty coffee is one small, but bright spot. He estimates more than one-hundred people are working in specialty coffee around Providence area, whether at roasters or shops. But that’s a relatively recent change.
At New Harvest Coffee Roasters headquarters in a Pawtucket mill space, Rik Kleinfeldt stands amid knee-high piles of coffee-filled burlap sacks.
“This is probably 14,000 pounds of coffee, so this will probably last us a couple weeks,” said Kleinfeldt.
That’s double the coffee Kleinfeldt was going through just five years ago. Most of that goes to restaurants and bakeries, but recently he opened a stand-alone coffee shop of his own in downtown Providence.
He said there’s another reason for the influx of coffee shops around town; compared to other investments, it’s cheap.
“You know you can start a coffee shop, depending where you are, for less than 50-thousand dollars,” said Kleinfeldt.
And investors are taking note. Millions of dollars are flowing into specialty coffee, from venture capitalists, to corporations scooping up roasters and retailers.
“Coffee is obviously a huge commodity, a huge market,” said Kleinfeldt. “And for most of its history it’s been dominated by the corporate mindset, where it’s not really about quality it’s about quantity. And I think that investors are seeing that consumers are much more interested in quality and that connection.”
At Bolt Coffee, barista Justin Ennis finishes up the pour-over. The coffee is a light caramel color. He serves a cup to coffee distributor Todd Mackey of Olam, and another customer at the bar. IT has that strong, unmistakable taste of coffee, but without the bitterness of your office pot.
And while more than half a dozen places to get specialty coffee have popped up around Providence in the last four years, Mackey said he only expects the scene grow.
“Yeah you’re talking about what is more or less, a recession proof kind of product, you know? Coffee and booze man.”
As Providence angles its way out of the latest recession, one thing’s for sure: it won’t be lacking for a good cup of Joe.