What do comic books and symphonies have to do with coffee? Not much, unless you’re talking with Rhetoric Coffee co-founders James Parrish and Colin Curtin. The 8-month-old coffee company, based out of Berkeley’s Bay Area CoRoasters, is taking its inspiration from both art forms.
Delivered by mail every two weeks as part of a subscription service, Rhetoric’s beans are not the typical Bay Area single light roast. Instead, Rhetoric is “trying out experimental blending methods, [like mélange roasts], that you don’t see anywhere else,” said Curtin, a web developer with a longstanding dream to get into the coffee industry.
Read more about coffee companies in Berkeley.
Parrish, a Blue Bottle barista and one of the founders of Alchemy Collective Café, is heading up coffee roasting. He may roast one single origin bean two or three ways, ranging from light to dark, and then blend the different roasts to create complexity. Or he’ll roast several different origin beans at different roast levels “to get a wide spectrum of flavors,” said Curtin.
These blends can get increasingly complex. Curtin described a recent blend in a piece published on the food website Hungry Onion: “Our last blend, the ‘Cottonwood Blend’ … was 5 different origins of coffee and 3 different roast levels (light, medium, and dark). It has an extremely full body and the singular, most distinct note our roaster (co-founder James Parrish) identified was ‘Myrtle berry’; a citrusy-peppery-rosemary. … Being small means we get to bend and break rules. The blend was primarily an AA Kenya coffee, to which James exclaimed, ‘No one blends Kenya!!’ and laughed maniacally.”
What does all of this have to do with music? As Curtin told Nosh, “We’re trying to have our roasts be a symphony of flavor. Each roast is like one instrument, to make a wonderful, complex tasting coffee.”
Curtin says he and Parrish have no particular affinity for any style of roast; depending on the particular coffee beans, they may create a lighter or darker blend. “You can roast beans in many ways,” said Curtin.
What’s more important for the pair is the sourcing of the beans. Like most new coffee roasters, Rhetoric Coffee is fastidious about its sourcing. According to a recent story in Daily Coffee News, much of the company’s beans are imported through Coffee Shrub‘s direct trade program, Farm Gate. This purchasing program negotiates coffee prices directly with the farmer, “at the farm gate,” according to the Coffee Shrub website. The importer pays prices higher than Fair Trade minimums, and “we we can easily verify that the good price we pay makes it to the people who do the work, and are responsible for the great cup quality of our coffee.”
For Curtin, direct trade is an important step in creating a “holistic coffee experience,” he said. “We want customers to feel as good buying and drinking our coffee as we do making it.”
He and Parrish intent to maintain these principles as Rhetoric grows. “A big focus will be on paying everyone fairly,” said Curtin. He said they would like to open an East Bay café in the future. Curtin plans for Rhetoric to become a B Corp, and to have open books and a profit-sharing system with its employees. “It’s an experiment in ethical business and high-quality coffee,” said Curtin.
The café will also be a showcase for live music and artwork — much like Rhetoric today. Each bag of Rhetoric coffee comes come in a paper bag, screen-printed with elaborate, whimsical images from comic book and (soon) graffiti artists. Parrish is “big into comic books,” said Curtin.
“Our plan with the art on the bags is to change it every batch, just as we change the composition of the roast every time,” said Curtin. “Learning how to hand screen print on the bags was important and hard. It gives a really nice texture and they look fantastic and detailed to show off the art.”
Much of Rhetoric’s artwork has so far come from Chicago artist Jonathan La Mantia, and it has recently commissioned new work from local graffiti artist Nite Owl. Screen-printing takes place in Parrish’s garage in Oakland, which also functions as Rhetoric’s office.
Like its artwork, Rhetoric Coffee is expanding slowly and deliberately. For now, its coffee is available to the public only through its subscription service; coffee comes in eight-, 12- and 16- ounce bags ($14.75 to $20) every two weeks. Rhetoric also offers wholesale and office delivery.
“We’re completely bootstrapped from our customers,” said Curtin. Those customers are growing, through word of mouth advertising, music festival giveaways, and podcast advertising. One future customer? Curtin’s son: “He’s turning three! He’s anxious to grow up and drink coffee.”
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