Before opening his first retail coffeehouse in a midtown Sacramento alley, Jason Griest roasted a lot of beans.
“I sat there for hours and hours and hours, days and days and days, and weeks and weeks and weeks, and months and months and months,” he says. “I roasted a lot of bad coffee, I tasted a lot of bad coffee, and then I started roasting better coffee. One of our mottos is: Today we’re good. Tomorrow we’ll be even better.”
Griest, owner of Old Soul Co., is part of a tightly knit community of independent coffeehouse owners who roast their own beans rather than buy from outside vendors. And, he says, their mastery in transforming tasteless, green coffee beans into aromatic morsels have made Sacramento one of the top artisan-coffee towns in the country.
“The thing that separates Sacramento right now is … this growing number of roaster/retailers who are just as good as anywhere,” he says. “New York City’s coffee scene has exploded. I would put Portland (Ore.) as the No. 1 coffee city, as far as quality coffee. And Seattle is a good one. But per capita, Sacramento is just as good, if not better.”
Boulevard Coffee Roasting Co. owner Clifford Miller, who opened his Carmichael store 32 years ago, didn’t roast beans in the beginning but now has a 4,000-square-foot roasting plant.
“It’s my studio,” he says. “Roasting is always different. It’s an agricultural product. Those beans are never the same. They’re always from Colombia or Costa Rica, but they’re different every time. You’re always learning. You’re on a fluid path. It’s literally going with the flow.”
Miller, who says “a certain peace” comes over him when he’s manning the roaster, sells twice as many whole, packaged beans as he does brewed coffee and pastries.
He moved to Carmichael in the early 1980s, went out one morning for a cup of coffee and couldn’t find a shop. “The company is founded on two principles: Find a need and fill it. And if you want something done right, do it yourself.”
Even with consistent and growing streams of customers coming through their doors, most everyone in the business has been affected recently by the rising costs of commodities. Rain-damaged crops in Central and Latin America last year pushed coffee bean prices to an all-time high (beans cost anywhere from less than a dollar a pound to more than $200 a pound). Dairy prices were up 9 percent in January over the same time last year, according to the USDA. Sugar is more expensive, too, and paper goods cost more.
“There is no question that the cost of coffee and everything that goes into coffee has never been higher,” says Griest. “We try not to raise prices, if we can. In a lot of cases, we’ve just absorbed it and had less of a profit margin, and when we really felt like we had to, we raised the prices in small amounts.”
Still, the newfound demand for high-quality coffee is hot in Sacramento. When Sean Kohmescher opened on 10th Street downtown his first Temple Coffee in 2005, he says sales were “pretty bleak.” Fast-forward less than a decade and Kohmescher is onto his third store, at 2600 Fair Oaks Blvd. He was only recently able to step away from the coffee roaster long enough to take his first vacation in years.
Over at Old Soul, Griest and his business partner, Tim Jordan, expanded from their original midtown location off L Street and added a shop in the old Weatherstone building on 21st Street, one in Oak Park and another at Sacramento International Airport.
Other independent coffeehouses in and around Sacramento include Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters, Naked Coffee, Coffee Garden, Bella Bru Café & Catering, and the venerable Java City, founded in 1985. Add to that a handful of La Bou Bakery and Cafes, Peet’s Coffee & Tea franchises, 32 Starbucks stores in Sacramento and another 31 in the surrounding areas, and it seems the metaphorical cup is running over.
“I think we all do things a little differently, and we’re in different areas. I don’t ever think of it as competition,” says Kohmescher. “I just hung out with half of them over the weekend.”
Griest agrees. “The more people get exposed to higher-end artisan coffee, the better it is for everyone,” he says. “My gut is telling me that 90 percent of the coffee market is still corporate, big and over-roasted, and the other 10 percent are the independents and people who are really focusing on the intricacies of coffee.”
He and Jordan are planning to branch out with their Old Soul brand, perhaps opening their first out-of-town outlet next year in Austin, Texas, where there is little competition.
Mikhail Chernyavsky, host of Comstock’s Emerge video series, takes a behind the scenes look into Insight Coffee Roasters, where owner Lucky Rodrigues shared his vision for midtown’s newest coffee shop, his goal to develop sustainable relationships with producers and his take on launching a business in Sacramento.
“I arrived in the City of Saloons,” wrote Mark Twain upon arriving here in 1866. “You can shut your eyes and march into the first door you come to and call for a drink, and the chances are that you will get it.”