Coaxing an infinite variety of flavors from a single little bean is the job of a coffee roaster. Far beyond a simple morning jolt or mid-afternoon pick-me-up, venture beyond the caffeine content and one enters a world that would send even the best sommelier’s mind reeling. Continent, country, farm, varietal, single-origin, blend, fair-trade, washed or dry processed – all before a single bean touches a roasting machine. Luckily, Providence has many remarkable individuals who have dedicated their lives to our most revered beverage, and to giving us the best versions they can brew.
A family owned business since 1860, Mills Coffee Roasting on Broad Street predates our “let’s grab coffee” nomenclature. In fact, earlier iterations have ties to the East India Company and acts of rebellion against the taxation of tea. What began five generations ago as Mills Tea & Butter only produced one blend of coffee for over 100 years. Now known as Mills Blend, it remains the company’s most popular seller in 2021.
After a warm greeting by generation four, brother and sister team Susan and David Mills (and a welcoming snort from pug mascot Choppa), the first thing one sees are Susan’s studded, slim black boots. Beyond that it’s all coffee. Great piles of massive burlap sacks filled with green beans wait to be roasted into not one but several-dozen offerings. Variety is the major change that Susan and David brought to Mills, where they both get to showcase their creativity, David as the master roaster and Susan as logo designer while handling the admin side. They share a passion to not only educate customers but also help the farms from which they buy beans, often importing as many as 37,500 pounds at a time.
Mills dedicates proceeds of a special blend to an ALS fundraiser, which is available, along with all other varieties, on TheQueenBean.com. Nicole (of generation five) brought Mills online with a retail site, blog, and podcast. Her brother David follows his namesake uncle into the art of roasting. Bright, hand-painted bookmarks depicting the growing process and stunning burlap sacks representing their varietal are a validation of the skill and artistry beyond the production of beans.
Michael Kapos, VP of Sales and Marketing at Downeast Coffee Roasters, was also born into the roasting business. Founded in 1953 by his grandfather, and namesake, Kapos is the third generation to provide not only coffee but also training and education to wholesale customers throughout the state. Worry not, my self-isolating friends, you need not visit a restaurant supplied by Downeast to enjoy their roasts. A wide variety of beans, continents, roasts, and even flavors are available for online purchase from the business just over the Pawtucket line on East Avenue.
Taking several steps beyond roasting, Downeast trains customers in all things coffee. They also maintain equipment for customers, including machines they’ve created to produce and serve up specialized products like cold brew and nitro brew, which is a process that infuses brewed coffee with nitrogen. When poured from a tap, a creamy, stout-like micro foam is produced on the coffee that can trick the palate into thinking it has been mixed with dairy (a unique alternative for those eliminating dairy and plant-based milks from their diets).
Unlike Mills and Kapos, David Lanning of Dave’s Coffee wasn’t born into a family of roasters. Though he’s always loved cooking and all things food and wine, he didn’t initially choose to study any of these fields. He majored in Mechanical Engineering and Drafting in college and spent several years working in this precise, technical world.
Then the lure of the creative led him to open a coffee bar 12 years ago. Initially buying beans from other roasters but not getting exactly what he wanted, Lanning bought a small roaster and started experimenting with green beans. He was hooked. Taking innovation one step further, Dave’s Coffee does what’s called “post blending”: They roast one bean at a time and then create blends with roasted beans instead of combining green beans before roasting. Though they work in a 25k production roaster they are still able to buy entire crops from smaller farmers. Originally from Ecuador, his wife helps when fostering solid relationships with growers in that country where beans are quite expensive. While buying entire crops is attractive to all roasters, Lanning asserts, “Two different people roasting the exact same bean with the exact same goal will always yield different results.”
Based on South Main Street, Dave’s Coffee enjoys experimentation and seeks variety in all things: light and dark roasts, dry and wet processing. As they choose not to warehouse any finished beans, they roast to order each week for both stores and wholesale and retail customers. As a result, there is often a new limited-edition roast or blend that’s made available to online customers.
Retail locations have stayed open during the pandemic, though it remains pick-up service only. Lanning was ready to open a third retail spot last March but hit pause. There are plans for more retail locations in the future, but Lanning says that the customer mentality has changed – that means business has to change along with it, so the retail focus may shift to the online market. Pick-up and delivery has become more comfortable as sit-down visits have declined, but one constant remains: the desire to ensure they buy beans that can be traced to a responsible and sustainable beginning.
Like most coffee roasters, Rik Kleinfeldt took an indirect path to the profession. Originally from Ohio, he ended up studying European history in graduate school at Brown. Shortly after receiving his masters degree, he worked for nine years learning and roasting at a Providence company that would soon become a competitor. But Kleinfeldt had a mission to focus more on the wholesale end of supplying well-roasted coffee, so he struck out on his own 20 years ago. Today, with New Harvest Coffee Roasters located at Hope Artiste Village, he has built up substantial wholesale relationships, even supplying to both RISD and his alma mater.
Kleinfeldt keeps a smaller purchasing focus than many, concentrating mostly in Central America. He believes having fewer relationships that are long-standing increases a farm’s incentive to keep up quality farming and processing standards. He has purchased the entire crop of a farm in Honduras since 2007. With that guaranteed income over the last 13 years, that farmer has built his own mill so growing, harvesting, and processing can all happen in one location. It ensures Kleinfeldt is consistently sent a quality product.
Though the business of prepared coffee has slowed recently, there are plans to move the roasting facility and open new retail locations in the coming year, where the beloved red Coffee Monster mascot will surely be waving from the counter.
Everyone living close to Providence should be thankful Bryan Gibb wasn’t sure what career he wanted to pursue after high school. If he had, we likely wouldn’t have Bolt Coffee. What he started with business partner Todd Mackey as a traveling special events cart, preparing specialty coffee drinks at weddings and on weekends, became several brick-and-mortar retail locations. Though they have always enjoyed engaging with customers, their increasing involvement with all things coffee inevitably led to roasting.
While they have wholesale customers like the always popular KNEAD Doughnuts, Bolt’s focus is on roasting small batches for retail customers. In addition to prepared beverages, one can purchase whole beans and grinds tailored to all brewing methods, including an instant version of Mass Appeal, their flagship blend. All products, including many coffee adjacent items, are available for pick up and nation-wide shipping so there’s no reason to skip your fix.
Gibb enjoys his coffee black and isn’t fussy about brewing methods because he’s more interested in what he calls the “space around the coffee,” or everything that happens before the coffee meets the cup. Today, coffee is a conduit for human connection and Gibb is passionate about fostering that at every level, from farmer to retail customer.
The future of Bolt includes shaking off 2020 and both inspiring a spirit of hospitality and supporting social justice initiatives in the community.
Bolt is not the only roaster with a passion for beans with a meaning.
Were it not for that intoxicating aroma of both roasting and freshly brewed coffee, one might breeze past The Coffee Exchange mistaking it for just another residence on Wickenden. More than a retail space, all blending and roasting happens here, too. You may not be able to see inside this world right now, but rest assured you can still swing by and get your daily cup or weekly beans from the walk-up window. They’ve even created an app so you can order in advance and cut your waiting time.
Head roaster of 15 years, Ben Gaul didn’t plan this as a profession, but it’s become his life’s passion. He started as a chef in Western Massachusetts and transitioned to managing the only coffee shop in Lennox. It was less stressful than working as a chef but he missed the creativity, so he learned all he could about coffee before it hits the cup. That’s when he teamed up with second-generation Coffee Exchange owner Charlie Fishbein and his brother Bill Fishbein, who also founded both Coffee Kids and The Coffee Trust. The Trust helps support Guatemalan coffee farmers, and its members work together in an effort to combine their purchasing power with an emphasis on paying fair prices.
New Englanders are famous for their love of coffee, but it’s been a while since we’ve been able to stop in where everybody knows our names – where our orders, down to the last grain of sugar and wisp of cinnamon, are waiting for us when we get there. But for now, with a little help from these passionate and philanthropic roasters, you can recreate your favorite cup at home – and be transported to a more exotic place beyond your kitchen: A chocolatey crusade to Kenya. An earthy excursion to El Salvador. A juicy journey to Jamaica. The world of coffee is at your doorstep – masked, sanitized, and responsibly delivered.