A while ago, I headed up to Grand Rapids to spend Christmas with Ashley’s family; a couple days before I left, I ran into Richard Futrell (of Counter Culture Coffee‘s Chicago training center fame) at Swim Cafe. We chatted about the holidays and whatnot, and when I told him that I was planning on visiting MadCap while I was in GR, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “While you’re there, you have to visit Rowster! R-O-W-S-T-E-R. It’s a really great coffee company and cafe, run by some cool folks, and they roast some awesome stuff.” I had never heard of it, so I wrote it down and made it a point to stop by.
Several months later, ROWSTER remains an absolute must-visit cafe whenever I’m in GR.
Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of ROWSTER New American Coffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Feel free to pull up a chair.
My first impression of ROWSTER, back in December, was utter surprise. I was very surprised to see how small of an operation their cafe actually was, when I had heard so many great things about it. I had been to their GR neighbor, MadCap, a few times before and it was everything I thought it was going to be—a big cafe, with an equally big roasting operation in the basement. Rowster, on the other hand, seemed like it was primarily used as a space for roasting coffee and then, later, expanded into the cafe market, so added a few chairs and a table or two. It was as though being a cafe was merely an afterthought.
As it turns out, I was right.
While I was talking with the owner, Kurt Stauffer, and a couple of guys working there that day, they told me that they originally started off primarily as a coffee roaster. It wasn’t until a few years later that they decided to have a cafe operating in addition to the roasting; and, even now, their primary focus isn’t on the cafe end of things. Grand Rapids is such a small market for coffee, so a cafe isn’t what they wanted to pour all of their energy into. However, they told me that if Grand Rapids were to suddenly become a hotspot for the so-called “third wave,” they wouldn’t be opposed to expanding their focus. Besides, GR already has MadCap’s cafe to champion the craft coffee revolution; if they do everything right, the door will open up for ROWSTER, too—as it stands now, they’re already doing a great job anyway.
It was very obvious to me that they are pouring a considerable amount of energy into their coffee. While I was there, they offered to let me a try a shot of espresso (which they brewed using a Colombian bean); it was one of the best shots of espresso I’ve had in quite some time. So sticky and honey sweet. What impressed me most about that shot, though, was the care and precision that the barista put into pulling it. You could tell that he had a great amount of respect for the coffee and for his job. It was refreshing.
In fact, every time I’ve been there, I have a very pleasant experience thanks to the baristas. I don’t know if Stauffer is brainwashing them, or if there’s something in the water, but each person on staff there is very excited about what they’re doing with ROWSTER, and what ROWSTER is doing in Grand Rapids. Of course, it could be—just maybe—they actually really love their jobs.
Since that first visit, when I walked out the door with a bag of their incredibly tasty Bali Kintamani Natural, I’ve ventured the long highway from Chicago to GR only a couple of times, but I make sure to stop by ROWSTER anytime I do.
During my second visit, I left the store with mixed results—a package of Burundi Kayanza-Gacokwe. The baristas there described this as one of the most amazing coffees they’ve ever had in their roaster. The cup I had there put me in agreement—it was pretty darn good. The first few cups I made at home, though—not so great. Kurt and I suspect that I fell victim to the infamous potato defect (which you can read more about here) which, of course, is no fault of their own. The rest of the package was good, though—still not as great as what I had in the shop but, hey, I’m not a professional barista.
My most recent visit (during my coffee crawl through GR), wasn’t so successful. I had a great time chumming it up with the baristas on duty (I always do), but the cup I had… Well. You can read more about that tomorrow. It was a cup of their Zambia Terranova Estate—a coffee with which they’re experimenting. It wasn’t that great, but you’ve gotta hand it to them—they tried.
And that’s one thing I’ve come to really appreciate about ROWSTER—their commitment to their customers and to transparency. Any coffee company can put their best beans out on the market and warmly embrace the praises that are sure to follow, but it takes a really unique company to tinker, tamper, and toy with coffees that aren’t quite up to snuff, but are still, at least, interesting. If it hadn’t been for the sentiments expressed in their online coffee journal, I would’ve very easily written the Zambia off as a failed attempt. However, it was the transparency in their confession, “We ordered it out of curiosity, having never cupped a Zambia” and the subsequent statement, “Unique and interesting and pleasant flavors but overpowering intensity. It’s worth checking out.”
To me, these statements show much more than a company that wants to sell stuff and make lots of money; it shows me a company that is curious about all varieties of coffee, that is interested in trying new things, getting out of the box, that wants to share their explorations with their clientele. Furthermore, their honesty about their opinions of their coffees (i.e., cupping notes) and their honesty about where their coffee comes from (i.e., farm notes, specs, etc.) shows me a company that is committed to being completely transparent with their customers. They’ve got nothing to hide. They weren’t all that impressed with the Zambia Terranova Estate themselves—they admitted it. They didn’t try to “sell” it, either—they said it has “overpowering intensity,” but that “it’s worth checking out.”
I’ve got nothing but respect for a company that has nothing but respect for the customer, for the business, and for the bean.