I remember the first time I had coffee that didn’t taste like sludge. I was in Portland, Oregon, for part of a three week theology summer camp with other highschoolers, and we visited a local shop called Symposium Coffeehouse. I ordered a pour over, having an obscure idea of what that was, and got a mug of black coffee. Nothing about it seemed different from any other coffee I had tried. As I sipped it, though, subtle flavors started surfacing, and pretty soon they were smacking me in the face. Blueberry. Chocolate. Orange peel. Wham! Wham! Wham!
I thought I must have ordered some sort of flavor-spiked drink, but when I asked upfront the barista looked at me and said, “No, that’s just what coffee tastes like.” Clearly Portland had a higher standard of flavor quality than Grand Rapids. And I was into it. After that I got coffee every morning from Stumptown, served from a little mobile coffee cart in the town square. For the rest of my (very jittery) days in Portland I rode the high from my coffee epiphany, and thought about how I could get coffee back home in Michigan that wasn’t smothered in milk and caramel.
The answer to good Michigan coffee? Craig. A Grand Rapids legend. Located up on the fourth floor of a decrepit brick factory, Craig roasted coffee and assembled photo albums of his travels to Central American coffee farms. There were stairs to get up to the roastery, of course, but the freight elevator was much more fun. His warehouse space had a ramshackle collection of old wood tables and chairs, and burlap coffee sacks hung from the sealing like flags. The air was rich with the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans, and conversation flowed easily.
There was no polish here; it was just a transparent representation of the coffee roasting process. Craig would sit with you at your table, even if it was just for a few minutes, to ask which variety you were drinking and your opinion of it. He’d share with you a story or two of his time touring a coffee farm in Guatemala, pull out a photo album and take you on the trip with him. His space was as honest as a living room, the coffee was delicious, and the energy of his artistry and investment in the coffee was like static electricity: it pulled people in.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Craig’s coffee experience helped fundamentally shape the way I see coffee to this day. Rather than being something pretentious and gated, Craig presented coffee as a communal experience, something to be shared and discussed and explored together with friends. It reminded me of the way a grandma bakes cookies; she offers up the experience to be something collective and engaging that grandkids can help out with or participate in and then, of course, the final product is munched communally with much giddiness.
I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with coffee lately. A few weeks ago I left tree work and found a new job at a coffee roastery. I’m not sure what about the job called to me, but I think deep down I’ve always dreamed of holding a space the way Craig did, pulling out novel flavors from coffee beans to share with anyone who has the time to sit for a minute. I’m glad there are fewer chainsaws in my life (though I still own one, just in case) though I miss the feeling of swaying back and forth in the canopy of a tall oak. The switch will be worth it, though, if one day I serve a pour over and get to see someone’s eyes light up from an unexpectedly delicious drink.
Jon Gorter (‘17) graduated from Calvin with degrees in English and environmental studies and holds an MS in natural resources from the University of Michigan. He enjoys fly fishing, mushroom foraging, and waterfall scrambling near his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.