"Lets see if we can do it!" said Matthew Huested to his co-founding partner of Sunergos Coffee, Brian Miller. One year later, after logging thousands of hours behind the counters of Louisville coffee shops, living off the tip jar, scraping together the funds to build their own space, and roasting in their meager spare time, Huested and Miller opened Sunergos Coffee on Preston Street in September 2004. "Today, we have three locations, serve ten times as many patrons, and have more than twenty employees," says Huested. And they're fresh off their America's Best Espresso win at Coffee Fest 2013.
The Sunergos success story is a tale that has unfolded time and again in Louisville, a city where quality craft coffee is becoming part of the collective identity. "When the Derby is done, the game is over, and the sun is rising, everybody wants a great coffee in their cup," says Huested. "I fully expect to see Louisville at the center of a Midwest coffee uprising. It's not something we envisioned from the start, but it's something that has occurred in a fiercely grass-roots fashion." So, why Louisville? Why is the coffee culture so strong, independent, and quality-driven in Kentucky's biggest city?
Roasters Sondra and Jason Powell of Red Hot Roasters – Louisville, KY
Coffee being ground at Red Hot Roasters
Costa Rica, Leon Cortez de Tarrazu, Washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Gelana Abaya, Natural Process Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Kochere, Washed Yemen Haraaz
Argo Sons – Louisville, KY
Sunergos Coffee – Louisville, KY
Baristas Aaron Kicklighter and Tristan Mishell of Sunergos Coffee – Louisville, KY
Love and Grunge in Louisville
Before getting into the coffee business, Huested and Miller came to Louisville to study at the Southern Baptist School of Theology, where they bonded over a shared hobby: roasting coffee beans. These would-be entrepreneurs also have something else in common with a whole slew of people living in Louisville. The city is ranked number one among major American urban centers for attracting and retaining college-educated young people, a key demographic in the development of a city's coffee culture, beating out cities with better known reputations for creative, artistic, and independent business communities, such as Portland and Seattle.
"When I first moved to Louisville over 14 years ago, the urban core felt like creative grunge, a description that I use affectionately and one that captures the idea that [Louisville] was [a city] of dilapidation with an active creative community seeking to inhabit the abandoned places," says Huested.
Back in 2004, Sunergos was joining the ranks of Louisville roasters such as Heine Brothers, Java Brewing Company, Day's Coffee, and Highland Coffee. In 1995, when Sondra Powell came to town to attend the University of Louisville, there was only one independent micro roaster. "I fell in love with Louisville and never left," says Powell. "Of course I drank a lot of coffee in college, and as I started to learn more about it, [I decided] to pursue roasting and open up a coffee drive-thru, at the time, there were none. We started wholesale operations in 2006. Red Hot Roasters has been growing steadily ever since," says Powell, who is in roasting partnership with her brother, Jason.
Sondra and Jason's Kentucky roots go way back, to the pioneering days of Ambrose Powell in the 18th century. The first settlers in Kentucky found that seeds from a certain tree could be roasted and brewed to make a beverage similar to coffee, a luxury item that had not yet made its way into wild, unsettled Kentucky. The tree became known as the Kentucky Coffeetree (the state tree of Kentucky until 1994) and was used as an advertising tool by developers to attract people to the state. Though Coffeetree coffee eventually fell out of fashion, the seeds of coffee culture in Louisville had taken root.
"Coffee is a ritual, a tradition, a comfort," says Powell. "Even in bad times, the experience of the morning coffee is an affordable luxury. I also think, maybe, it's the pioneering spirit. Louisville didn't wait for the big coffee chains to come. We built something amazing here without them." Today, there are only 10 Starbucks within the I-264 loop that surrounds most of Louisville. "Or maybe it's because our bars stay open till 4am. After a night of fine Kentucky bourbon, we need a good cup of coffee."
There's also a sense of competition among Louisville roasters, and when a supportive coffee community is injected with a shot of one-upmanship, it creates an environment where roasters push themselves and the city's tastes. "There are so many choices here. Louisville expects high-quality product. I only see this trend continuing. I'll recommend another coffee shop to a customer if they're heading to a certain neighborhood," says Powell.
Couching It: Low Rents, Big Business, and the Small Guy
Rising Star Roaster James Tooill of Argo Sons is one of those coffee comrades. He was recently one of two Louisville roasters to place in the top four at the Southeast Brewers Cup Championship and will be the first-ever Kentucky roaster to compete at the national Brewer's Cup. "Louisville is rapidly maturing in terms of quality," says Tooill. "Every major player has been revamping their training and standards."
Tooill is a Louisville native and sees rents as a major force behind the growth of quality-driven coffee shops. "Louisville has a low cost of living and low rent for businesses, which reduces a lot of barriers to entry for independent artisans. The low rent also allows cafés to focus on brewing a great cup of coffee and on letting their customers sit down and enjoy," says Tooill. "[Louisville] has young people with money and neighborhoods dense enough to have cafés, but not so dense that we can't have couches and four-tops."
Matt Argo is co-founder of Argo Sons Coffee with his cousin Adam Argo. "Drive up to Chicago and try to start a business," Matt posits. "The difference is night and day—space, cost of living, commute." Argo also cites the small-batch nature of the craft coffee business as a built-in advantage. "Sometimes bigger guys have a harder time finding higher-quality coffees in the volumes they need. We thrive off this." Argo Sons is also thriving from an influx of people working for non-coffee-related big business. "Companies like UPS and Zappos are bringing in people, and they're all hungry and want coffee and things to do! The international population brings such incredible flair; there's a fun culture developing."
History, demographics, personality, couches … It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why coffee in Louisville is so damn good. But it is. Most likely it's a confluence of factors that make Louisville a phenomenal coffee city. What the roasters and shop owners contribute may be most important: a sincere desire to share great coffee with the city for which they have a deep affection. "Sometimes, I joke that Red Hot Roasters is like my caffeinated love letter to Louisville," says Powell, sealed with a kiss of coffee.