Uncommon Grounds Part I: Coffee lovers spur boutique bean buzz
"The crack" heralds the unique flavor profile of each batch of once pale green beans that are brought to 180 degrees by skilled coffee roasters.
Large companies can replicate this process with tens of thousands of pounds of beans each hour, but Firecreek Coffee Company owner Mike Funk said roaster Matthew Dupont is in charge of turning 80 pounds of beans an hour into grindable coffee for 24 Verde Valley businesses.
"Through trial and error and learning hundreds of different roasting cycles, our challenge is to unlock every different kind of coffee we roast and find the perfect profile of time and temperature," Funk said. "That's where Matt's value is."
Firecreek mainly supplies coffee bars, restaurants and specialty grocers like Whole Foods.
"It's like he's the chef in the restaurant," Funk said. "He has a sense for how the bean develops."
Firecreek started in Cave Creek six years ago after Funk, a new father, decided to work a little closer to home. The business moved up to the Sedona area about two years ago, so Funk makes the looping commute from Phoenix to northern Arizona and back.
Big to boutique
The Seattle coffee industry was starting to pick up around 1990 when Funk started building espresso carts for entrepreneurs.
"I just kind of grew up with the specialty coffee industry as it became a very big industry," he said. "When I started, there were seven Starbucks."
As he continued to build equipment over the next 10 years for people hoping to make their mark in America's growing coffee industry, Funk realized customers were far more interested in his professional development advice than in the hardware he was crafting.
Funk said at this point, he started traveling throughout the country to meet with coffee roasters both big and small for Sara Lee, a company that, at the time, was one of the biggest coffee retailers in the country.
"Around 2003, 2004, everything started changing in the coffee industry," Funk said. "Big companies would say, these little guys, they're putting used equipment out and they're kicking our butts because customers say their beans taste better."
Once a batch of beans gets over 50 or 70 pounds, the beans need to be sprayed with water. This stops the cooking, but mutes the flavor of the coffee.
Funk decided to be a roaster for this newest evolution in coffee. First, he started selling $6,000 La Marzocco Espresso handmade equipment to small coffee roasters who were "changing the industry."
"It was a fantastic education," he said. "I got to learn what their problems were and what they did."
Finally, Funk said he was able to focus on starting Firecreek Coffee, where beans are roasted in 20-pound batches, his roaster's "sweet spot."
"We're not just espresso or dark roast," he said. "We're going to pay two or three times more, we're going to go lighter and accentuate the blueberry notes of this blend - you can't do this on giant equipment."
Learning to roast coffee beans is a humbling process, Funk said.
"In three hours, you figure out how to roast this green bean to a cup of coffee and you think, well I've mastered this," he said. "And then you taste it and it doesn't taste right. Then you find out how to get it right, then the next batch has a little more rain or light, and it tastes completely different."
Funk said he lives on a 200-mile route that takes him to his two cafes, the roastery and wholesale clients at least five days a week.
"I had a cabin in Oak Creek Canyon above Sedona, and we always loved that," he said. "We always loved the Verde Valley, Old Town Cottonwood, Jerome and those areas."
He's continued to offer consulting services to other small business owners in the Verde Valley.
"What we focus on above all else is, we help great coffee shops and cafes be better," he said.
Cooperation over competition
Firecreek mainly supplies restaurants, specialty grocers like Whole Foods, and coffee shops like Crema Cafe in Old Town. Crema puts a boutique flair on other aspects of the menu, carrying craft beer, local wine and unique offerings like red chile glazed bacon, said owner Kelley Foy.
"I just really love craft things," she said. "I make craft gelato, and the coffee is very much a craft product. Like wine, if you really love coffee, you can tell the difference in the quality."
Crema promotes other local businesses like Orion Bread Co. and Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders in Old Town by using their products.
"If other people are successful, then we're successful," she said. "We see a lot of the wine industry people come in, a lot of the storekeepers come in, and it's almost like our own little village of people."
Foy and Leta Hollon opened the business five years ago, serving coffee and a limited food menu featuring cold sandwiches. They named the coffee bar Crema after the foamy layer that sits on top of an espresso.
A good espresso shot relies on freshly roasted and ground beans, the barista's timing, and a machine with plenty of pressure to bring out the oils that make the foam.
"It's all about the crema on the espresso shots," Foy said. "That's really important to us."
Foy said she uses Firecreek beans because Funk understands coffee and has a sensitive palate. Being able to go into the roasting room and meet the roasters adds a personal connection.
"He was able to roast our specific coffee profile for us," she said. "We were able to choose how we wanted our coffee to taste and he worked really closely with me to create a Crema blend, so it's very unique."
A walk-up window facing Main Street was added as the growing food part of the business made it tough for coffee customers to grab an espresso during crowded mealtimes.
"There's a real appreciation for craft items in general," she said"Fresh baked goods, good coffee, good wine, things that regular people are getting in there and doing themselves - there's a real appeal to that and there's a great appreciation for that in the Verde Valley."
The furniture in Crema was mostly made by Foy, who comes from an art background.
"It's all encompassing," Foy said. "I'm able to work on a new remodel to expand our seating, I'm able to weld my own tables and build my own tabletops, and so it's been a really fun process."
Locals and tourism
Mary Arkush and her husband Mike opened their business eight years ago with art in mind. Jerona Java Cafe was initially a coffee bar and gift shop, with the idea being to attract tourists on their way to Jerome from Sedona.
Mingus Avenue, however, didn't turn into the thoroughfare for out-of-towners that Arkush had expected.
"We had to figure out, OK, the gift idea was great, but on paper it just was going to take too long to get that return," Arkush said.
Instead, Jerona has become a hub for locals to gather and get a sandwich.
Since the tail end of 2005 when the business opened, a few sandwiches grew to a full cafe menu that accounts for half of Jerona's sales. Catering has also seen growth, especially in the last two years.
"The food actually has been kind of a saving grace for me," Arkush said. "It's the one aspect I feel I can be creative. It's even the art of doing business, making all of that happen."
Arkush earned an art education degree from Western University in Michigan and made her career by entering dozens of shows each year. Her husband had his own machine shop.
From there, she said they wanted to create something with a quantifiable value. Arkush said they fell in love with 89A and the Verde Valley.
"It took about 10 years to get this whole thing off the ground," she said. "We invested in this, we built the building, we designed it."
Though locals make up the bulk of her customers, Arkush said out-of-towners have come into the area already acquainted with a dining experience that goes beyond the traditional sit-down, family-style restaurant.
"More and more people are coming in from cities to the Valley, and I think that actually has the biggest impact because they're the ones who are used to the atmosphere of a coffee shop," she said. "Our biggest evolution has been our customers getting used to the concept of the cafe."
A taste for boutique coffee has spread in the Verde Valley, Arkush said, along with how comfortable people are ordering at a counter.
"It's not just coffee that we're breaking boundaries in, it's the cafe style," she said. "Customers are used to franchises only having that cafe, they'll accept that, but when it's home grown they expect table service."
Jerona coffee has been made from beans roasted at Rivierra Coffee Company Inc. in Chandler since the business's doors opened in 2006. They switched roasters once, but went back to Rivierra because Arkush could work closely with them to get the coffee she wanted.
"They've been wonderful about roasting very consistent coffee," she said. "We can talk about tweaking and adjusting."
Sedona sees plenty of tourists each year, and Funk agreed that Northern Arizona's coffee industry has been helped by tourism.
"Where there are food sales, there are coffee sales," Funk said. "You may buy pizza or a burger once a week, but you buy coffee every single morning."
From bean to brew, Funk said the goal is for baristas to make quality coffee consistently.
"It's an organic process and there are so many variables that it keeps you in the game," Funk said. "Every once in a while, the planets align and it tastes amazing."