Coava can stand the heat
Coava's new HQ, the Public Brew Bar, at Southeast 10th and Main is part factory, part show and tell. The 10,000 square foot space has a coffee counter just inside the door, and then an array of machines dominated by a rumbling roaster, a huge steel silo that lets beans out in precise amounts and a jiggling grader that sorts them by density. Just as microbreweries are now obliged to show their inner workings, with steel tanks and booted brewers behind glass, so this successful coffee operation is doing what owner Matt Higgins wished he could have done 10 years ago when he had the idea — before Starbucks spent $20 million on its Reserve Roastery and tasting room on Pike Street in Seattle.
Coava (pronounced KO-va, it means green coffee) sources, roasts, wholesales and retails specialty coffee. Their original coffee shop at 1300 S.E. Grand Ave. gets busloads of Korean and Japanese tourists. It's the kind of place where you wait five minutes for a pour over and the only food is pastry. It's a coffee purist mecca and while its influence has grown since it opened in 2010, plenty of other fine coffee roasters moved in nearby in the central east side's once-cheap warehouses. There's Stumptown's headquarters and its cold brew facility, Heart, Upper Left, Water Avenue and the Buckman Coffee Factory.
"This is Distillery Row, but it's Roastery Row now," he says with a laugh. "But our first day on Grand we had 12 customers. We didn't think we were going to make it. We had homeless sleeping in our doorway and windows being broken." He would roast from 6 p.m. to midnight after closing the store.
The new Coava HQ also has a cupping room, training lab, a clean room for packaging, offices, manufacturing, a wet bar upstairs... And don't get Higgins started on the "green silo on demand" feature. This is a custom made hopper that holds 25,000 pounds of coffee. It was installed so his staff wouldn't have to hump buckets of coffee 20 pounds at a time. He did it because it can be tough work and he wants them for their brains more than their brawn.
Coava founder, CEO and sole owner Higgins, 36, can talk about coffee non-stop, in complete sentences, without ever being boring. His technical knowledge is matched by an salesman's love of the product and a bootstrapped entrepreneur's pragmatism.
He's handy: he has done metal fabrication and electrical work in the new space, as well as helping install all the coffee machinery, which is all made by Probat Burns of Vernon Hills, Illinois.
Coava is known for its training of baristas. In fact, most of the staff started out as baristas, and they stay around. "The coffee industry chews people up and spits them out. Coava is the place you come when you've worked everywhere else," he says. He just can't see how anyone could run a coffee business without having perfected the nine bar shuffle. He hopes not to have an espresso machine in the coffee bar, as it's a distraction from the purist's cup of coffee. But there is one in the training room, a $10,000 La Marzocco Linea. "It has modified group head caps and a PID temperature controller. It's the laser accurate workhorse of the industry."
But it was rising rents that pressured Higgins into making his latest move. He found that indoor cannabis cultivation companies were paying $2.00-$2.50 a square foot in the territory he had marked when he opened Coava on Grand and Main in 2010, and he had to act fast.
"I got my employees together and we talked about expanding somewhere more affordable, like near the airport..." He said faces dropped. Nobody wanted that type of commute, to a lifeless industrial park. It would kill the culture.
Own don't rent
Then a chance came up to buy a former car body shop at Southeast 10th and Main. He took out a mortgage, calculating that steady growth of the business would be possible with steady growth of the brand. And that means being highly visible: offering conspicuous production.
The coffee industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, with regards to supply chain.
"Ten years ago everyone hid the roasteries, 'We don't want you to come in, it's the magic.' In my opinion, the older mentality owners in coffee are still afraid they're going to give away a trade secret."
Doing a roastery that is as slick as a retail store is expensive. The new Coava space is a real production facility. After its official opening on April 26, on weekends the coffee bar and schmoozing area will be fenced off from the machinery. On a regular weekday, if last Wednesday was anything to go by, it will be loud in there. It is really loud as a hopper empties into the roaster, as the hot beans are stirred to cool off, and as they fly upward through a fat vacuum tube (leaving behind any heavier grit and twigs). Higgins built the system for efficiency, but with one eye on the crowds he hopes will come through, for events such as industry trainings on machines like the grading table, or for beer and coffee pairings.
"You should get a unique experience you don't get from other roasteries." One idea is to do coffee flights, and compare them to the beers that have coffee in them.
Coava staff have long experimented with getting coffee into beer. They have roasted beans, soaked them in the fermenter, and tailored roast profiles for the manner in which the coffee will be steeped and extracted.
"They're using 45 hours at 52 degrees, whereas we brew coffee in two-and-a-half minutes at 200 degrees." So they steep beans, or do a base and cut back into the bright tank. They have done this with pFreim Family Brewers based in Hood River, and with Fort George out of Astoria.
"One of the main things I want to do with this facility is, Monday through Friday this is Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood we're in here doing production: pushing, pulling, lifting bending, roasting coffee. Saturday's the only day we don't run a crew, there's no noise."
He's just installed a volumetric density grading table. Green coffee beans joggle on a wide, perforated tray until the densest (tastiest) ones bounce to one side. These — around 10 percent of a sack — go through a separate gate and are sold as a special "reserve. Visitors to the roaster can learn about and taste them.
"It's meant to be an educational piece of what makes our roastery different and why our coffee's different too."
Duck and cover
Higgins started as a barista in 1999 at the University of Oregon's Common Grounds. He began roasting in 2003 and buying green coffee in 2006.
Now 36, he is experienced. "I've got 70 some-odd thousand batches under my belt, which is almost 300 24-hour days standing on the drum roasting."
He likes how the industry has changed and made quality an issue. "Increasing the quality of green coffee forces the roastery owner to be progressive or fall behind."
With two kids and another on the way, he recently moved from the fashionable Mississippi Avenue area to undiscovered East Columbia near the horse track. "My wife gives me a horrible time because I always forget to bring coffee home. I'm always at work."
"We are a tiny company, 40 employees, we'll be maybe 60 by December, but what we consume annually is a picoliter, a fraction, a complete nanodecimal of what these big roasters consume: Green Mountain, Mountanos Brothers, Seattle's Best, JAB Holdings..." He reels off the big names, then launches into a seamless history of the coffee boom. He actually likes Starbucks, and will drink it on his world travels. Props to the competition:
"I have a great relationship with Stumptown, without them I could not do what I do. They did what Starbucks did in the early 1990s. Most people only knew Juan Valdez and Folgers, very poor quality coffee. Starbucks took it to the next level, and made education to occur, for people to say 'Maybe I should buy higher quality.' Out of that mentality Stumptown pushed the bar times 10, in the early 2000s, on what quality could be, and without them educating the Portland consumer base, my demographic, I wouldn't have been able to enter the market and sell single-origin only."
Vorsprung durch Technik
Higgins is outspoken about coffee and business, passionate about both. His degree at the University of Oregon was a major in German with a minor in business. He made a living in Germany for a while as a marketing translator, and still has a soft spot for German machinery. For a side hustle he used to rebuild old motorbikes he bought off Craigslist. His 1999 BMW R1100GS sits in the production area, essential for when he has to race between Coava customers. He has little patience for the new Portland traffic. His former commute in his 1996 Jeep Cherokee from Albina to Grand Avenue increased from 14 minutes to 40 in the last 10 years.
Jonathan Felix-Lund is the Coava Director of Operations, mostly running the wholesale program. He explains that the business model is to expand the wholesale and retail operations in tandem. Having retail removes some of the risk, in that they know they will be selling their own product.
Their next two retail Coavas will bein the Sky 3 apartment building in in downtown Portland at Southwest 13th Aveenue and Jefferson Street and...San Diego? "It means our Los Angeles customers can see what we do without having to fly to Portland," says Felix-Lund. But the bigger reason is, the west coast has an intricate coffee culture, but San Diego doesn't yet have anything as exacting as Coava.
The Coava formula seems to be Quality plus Hospitality minus Snobbery. This is far from the sugarfest of Dutch Bros and Black Rock. But yes, you can put milk in it. And while they don't really like a French roast, they make a special batch of it every week for their neighbors up the block at Creative Woodworking.
Coava is hiring 20 more people this year. Higgins has delegated some control to Brian Freire, a colleague fluent in Spanish and all aspects of the business, to travel the world and buy product.
Higgins's plan — aside from being a good employer — is to stay a sole owner. As someone who started roasting in his garage based on scraping his tips together, he's in no mood to take on investors.
"I never came from money. The most money I earned before Coava was $32,000. Money is just a token, it doesn't buy you happiness," he says. "I wanted to do an MBA but I opened a company instead. Which is like having a baby." On reflection, he thinks he has learned plenty from the school of hard knocks.
They are very lean and ready to self-finance.
"In my heart of hearts I want to be working, welding, getting things done. In coffee, I'm one of the few owners that has worn every hat in the industry, and I treat every aspect of my company with a laser sharp level of detail that some others may to be able to bring to the game. We're pretty sharp in being able to scale. I don't have to listen to an equity partner. We're going to open 10 cafés, for sure."
Coava Coffee Roasters Inc.
Specialty coffee roasting
President,CEO, owner: Matt Higgins
Retail coffee shops:
Coava Brew Bar
1300 SE Grand Ave,
Phone: 503 894 8134
2631 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Sky 3 Building opening August.
San Diego opening July 2017
New HQ Public Brew Bar events:
Soft opening April 19.
Grand opening: April 26.
Rager: May 5.
Twitter & IG: @coavacoffee