March 14, 2016

Specialty coffee roasters thrive in Vermont economy

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

Chris Pyatak, head roaster and coffee resource manager at Capitol Grounds in Montpelier, makes notes as a batch of beans pours from the roaster at the company’s facility.

Local coffee roasters have seen solid growth in the Vermont market in the past decade, boosted in part by the growing popularity of local food products and the regional draw of the Vermont brand.

Paul Ralston, founder and CEO of Vermont Coffee Company in Middlebury, said his company is part of two recent trends: the growth in specialty coffee and organic coffee. His company’s coffee is certified organic.

Ralston said the overall Vermont brand, with its message of hard work, high quality and natural products, has indeed helped his business.

“It is important to us,” Ralston said. “We’re selling coffee all throughout New England and New York, and it carries an important part of our message.”

Ralston said the company, which was founded in 2001, has built its business on strong personal connections with the shop owners and customers who buy its coffee. Its “Coffee roasted for friends” motto expresses that idea, he said.

One example is the “frequent friend” program, which awards points to customers for turning in their coffee bags or boxes. The points are used to get prizes like free T-shirts, mugs or hats.

“Giving our customers something extra based on their loyalty is just what a friend would do to another friend,” Ralston said.

The company also sets up demonstrations at stores around the state, including tastings and information on how to grind, brew and store the coffee appropriately.

Ralston also said Vermont Coffee Company tends to make a very bold, full-bodied roast, and this bold flavor is key for the brand.

Ralston said the overall Vermont brand, with its message of hard work, high quality and natural products, has indeed helped his business.

“Even our light roast coffee is a very flavorful, really a complex cup of coffee,” Ralston said.

Bob Watson, owner of Capitol Grounds Cafe and Roastery in Montpelier, has the distinction of owning a “cafe roastery.” He said the fact that the business — which started in 1998 — has both is a fact he’s trying to emphasize more in his current marketing and branding. Watson wanted to make more people aware of the fact that the business roasts its own coffee. He called that combination the “defining feature” of the operation.

“The cafe is kind of the face of the business,” Watson said.

Also aware of the vibrant specialty coffee market he’s in, Watson is looking to expand his wholesale business and reach out to co-ops and stores elsewhere in the state, including the southern Vermont market.

“One of our specialties is finding larger Vermont businesses that have coffee programs,” Watson said. For example, Capitol Grounds does business with Burton Snowboards, noting that Burton employs the type of young workers who are used to the business environment of the past decade, which is prone toward locally made products.

“In Vermont, we kind of support each other; it’s not all about the price,” Watson said.

Speaking of Vermont, that’s the market where Watson plans to keep his business.

“We’re pretty much in Vermont, we really don’t go outside the state,” he said. “We have some accounts we ship to, but we don’t have a distributor.”

Watson insists on having his business deliver its own coffee shipments. For Watson, that’s a part of maintaining local business relationships and having his finger on the pulse of the market where his product is sold.

For Capitol Grounds, that local connection helped drive the strong sales of “Bernie’s Beans” — a new coffee named for Vermont’s candidate for president, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Christopher Pyatak, coffee resources manager and roaster for Capitol Grounds, said Bernie’s Beans is a Colombian coffee roasted to a “Full City Plus,” which is just a little darker than the company’s lightest roast.

“Sales have been excellent since the launch, and we’re thrilled to be donating 20 percent of the sale of each bag of Bernie’s Beans to the Vermont Veterans Fund,” he said. Shipments of this coffee have been sent to most U.S. states.

There are also a number of growth-related projects, of varying sizes, happening in Vermont’s coffee-roasting industry. For instance, Watson is overseeing a major kitchen renovation at his business. At the Waterbury-based Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co., founder Mane Alves and his wife, company president Holly Alves, have plans underway to expand into a larger facility later this year, including adding a coffee bar and cafe. They have three businesses under the same roof: Coffee Lab International (founded in 1998), Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co. (founded in 2000) and School of Coffee (founded in 2006).

Holly Alves said Vermont Artisan Coffee has seen a great deal of growth in the past 10 years. She cited overall growth in the speciality coffee business and Vermont’s strong focus on local foods.

“I think the whole locavore movement plays into it,” she said. “People in Vermont like to support the little guy and know where their food comes from.”

Alves said micro-roasters in Vermont always keep crafting their product, paying close attention to detail. She noted that the particular flavor coming from a certain kind of roast changes a bit each year, because coffee beans — being an agricultural product — naturally turn out different each year. This is an annual factor that roasters have to know about, in detail, while making their product.

Vermont Artisan Coffee’s market is mainly Vermont, including Chittenden County, Washington County and locations in the Upper Valley. Alves said the company also has a strong wholesale business and sells coffee to a number of restaurants and co-ops.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, or NOFA-VT, currently certifies seven organic coffee roasters in the state: Earthback Coffee Roasters, of South Burlington; Awake Coffee Inc. in Addison County; Speeder & Earl’s Coffee, of Burlington; Backcountry Coffee Vermont, of Montgomery; Capitol Grounds Coffee, of Montpelier; Vermont Coffee Company, of Middlebury; and Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co., of Waterbury.

As what used to be Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (now called Keurig Green Mountain) has gone fully global, Vermont’s growing coffee roasters are riding the wave of the strong local demand for local products — and keeping much of their resulting growth centered here in the local economy.

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