Words by Chris Clemens; photos by Chris Clemens and Steve Carter
At this point, it’s no secret that our coffee scene has placed Rochester on the national map. While cities of equal size, and even larger, have specialty coffee shops, we have somehow managed to sustain a vibrant, dynamic market that only continues to grow.
To our west, Erie County has a population hovering just over 900,000. Buffalo and the surrounding area has a handful of coffee roasters, only one or two of which would be considered “specialty coffee,” colloquially known as “Third Wave.” By comparison, Rochester is the seat of Monroe County, which has a population around 750,000. The Greater Rochester Area has at least fifteen or so coffee roasters, a handful of which would be classified as “specialty”. Add to that the complex genealogy of shops and employees and anyone outside of New York City seeking the most dynamic coffee scene in the state has no choice but to come to the Flour City.
The history of shops, baristas, and roasters who have worked together and moved on to work with others has already been well documented. On the surface, the average coffee aficionado in the region is already familiar with the regular players and what they’re up to. But, there is a much deeper connection among many of the more notable locals in the scene. For them, coffee isn’t a cool thing to get on Saturday mornings. For them, being a barista and making latte art isn’t just a fun way to make a few bucks. It’s first and foremost a passion steeped in a lifestyle that borders on an unmanageable obsession.
A few years ago, when the specialty coffee scene in the city was in its infancy, two baristas at Joe Bean Coffee Roasters were thinking some resource was needed locally to support the growing number of coffee professionals. Rory Van Grol and Wade Reed formed the Rochester Coffee Society (RCS) with the intention that it would serve each and every aspect of the local coffee industry. Shop owners, roasters, and baristas all would have an opportunity to exchange ideas and lean on a network to serve the greater good. Like so many great ideas, the ongoing work needed to organize, inspire, and implement a regular function for the group took a back burner to focusing on work, family, and other projects.
Van Grol has since gone on to form Ugly Duck Coffee, a multi-roaster specialty shop born of his successful pop-up of the same name. After honing his skills as a roaster at Joe Bean, Reed has joined forces with two other local beverage icons to form Fifth Frame Brewing, slated to open this year. Now, a few years later with a growing scene and a well-caffeinated lineup of professionals, the time is right for the rebirth of the RCS.
“Rochester’s scene is cool because it isn’t just a bunch of professionals competing with each other,” says Van Grol. “We all want to see one another succeed.” Using a private Facebook group, the RCS has started the process of establishing itself as a professional association. For now, invitations to those who work on some level within the local coffee scene are invited to join. The electronic meeting place will serve as a place for discussion, but also to plan events. Their first, Roasterside Chat, Vol. 1, was hosted by Joe Bean Coffee Roasters in late February.
Collected in the backroom in front of Joe Bean’s state-of-the-art roasters, a group of about 30 coffee enthusiasts representing all ages, backgrounds, and shops listened as four coffee roasters talked about their craft. Master Roasters from Peaks Coffee Co. (Cazenovia), Joe Bean Coffee Roasters (Rochester), public espresso (Buffalo), and Gimme! Coffee (Ithaca) each brought a bean they felt particularly proud of. While samples were swirled and sipped, each roaster shared more about the complexities of their role and how the artistry they chose for that particular bean had been chosen.
What was most interesting about the evening was the “one-room schoolhouse” vibe of seasoned professionals who had competed in competitions around the country sitting side-by-side those who were less experienced, though without an air of exclusion. No question was dumb, no answer too complex. The goal was truly to allow everyone to raise his or her own understanding, in turn, strengthening the collective coffee scene. You might be hard pressed to imagine another scenario where professionals try to help their competitors—and that’s because it’s rare.
New York Times best-selling author Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take” explores how those who are the most giving in their professional relationships are typically poised to be the most successful later on. “People often underestimate how willing we are to help—not only because it’s rude to say no, but also because the most meaningful way to succeed is to help others succeed,” he saID IN AN EMAIL to boomtown. “As people approach midlife, they become more motivated to share their knowledge and connections. It’s part of their legacy.” What Grant described is, in many ways, the epitome of the Rochester Coffee Society.
With differing levels of experience, each of the featured panelists discussed the scientific intricacies of taking a green coffee bean harvested in a faraway land and carefully mastering its transformation into the coveted brew we were each drinking. Questions from the crowd and answers from the roasters helped bring two factions of a shop together with an equal exchange of ideas and passion.
James Rayberg, Master Roaster for public coffee in Buffalo, is keeping in mind that the role of RCS won’t just be to educate other professionals. “A lot of the questions we received (were about) what we do in the roaster,” he says. “(It) is really interesting to people, and we need to find ways to communicate what we are doing and why we are doing it in a particular way to our teams and the general public.”
The Rochester Coffee Society has begun planning future educational events and the ever-popular latte throw-downs and they’re currently brainstorming ideas for how best to bring the already potent coffee scene in Rochester to new levels. And combining the passion, knowledge, and technical proficiency that exists within these individuals could create a force to make even Portland and Seattle jealous.