Local roasters carve out niche among coffee connoisseurs

Something’s brewing in Houston’s coffee scene – and the result may be a better cup of joe in the neighborhood.

Local coffee roasters say they are gaining momentum with customers who look for their products on store shelves and area cafés. Quality beans roasted close to home provide a fresher, better-tasting product, they claim.

Katz Coffee owner Avi Katz said that while the big labels may still get most of the attention from coffee drinkers, he believes Houstonians are interested in supporting local businesses.

“This city is still dominated on a retail level by Starbucks,” said Katz, whose business is in Oak Forest and operates and supplies the product for Inversion Coffee House on Montrose Boulevard. “I think we’re starting to see that change. I want people to know how dynamic, challenging and stimulating coffee can be.”

Instead of feeling competitive with other area roasters, Katz said he is glad to see more businesses on board.

“We need more people like that who are willing to push the envelope and understand that coffee is great,” he said. “Wake up and smell the coffee.”

Coffee roasters have been proliferating in area neighborhoods. Fusion Beans set up shop at Southside Espresso on Westheimer in 2012, and Boomtown Coffee opened in the Heights, roasting small batch artisan coffee.

More established roasters include Fontana Coffee, with a retail warehouse in the Montrose neighborhood, and Lola Savannah, which has been roasting beans downtown since 1995.

Max Gonzalez, who owns Catalina Coffee, as well as the roasting company that supplies the café, Amaya Roasting Co., has been active in the scene since 2008.

Sean Marshall has owned Fusion Beans since 2007. Also the owner of Southside Espresso, he considers himself part of the “Third Wave” of roasters in the city.

“I’ve been in the coffee industry since I was 15,” he said. “For quite some time, I wanted to be a coffee roaster.”

Marshall remembers working as a barista, dreaming of owning his own shop and roasting his own beans. He would tell his co-workers about his plans.

“They all thought I was full of it,” he said. “I ended up executing all of that.”

Marshall said his predecessors paved the way.

“The coffee scene in Houston has a ton of interesting history that no one really knows about,” Marshall said.

In the early 1990s, he said, “Lola Savannah, Fontana and Katz all popped up. That was a huge step for Houston to enter into the coffee world.”

Those businesses started small, Marshall added.

“There were some hidden gems, but good coffee wasn’t everywhere,” he said. “They’re much bigger now.”

Marshall also credits the opening of Catalina Coffee for inspiring a better coffee scene.

“They did a good job of stepping up expectations of what espresso should be and really focusing on the quality of the coffee bean,” he said. “Until that point, there was a great disconnect between consumers and where coffee came from.”

Katz, who graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, was a key player in getting the coffee scene going.

He was not sure what to do for his career and came into coffee on a whim.

“I really didn’t want to wear a suit,” he said. “I was scratching my head, reading the Houston Chronicle and responded to an ad for Diedrich’s.”

His position as manager at the Montrose coffee shop led him to a gig in sales and manufacturing for a coffee-roasting company, Lola Savannah.

After five years, Katz started Fontana Coffee Roasters and Alltex Refrigeration with Joseph Martin and Keith Adkins.

Finally, Katz decided it was time to go out on his own. In June 2003, he started his own coffee company. In 2010, he took over operations at Inversion.

Now smaller roasters are opening shops, Katz said.

“It’s cool to see these guys who are passionate coming up,” he said.

Marshall said the Third Wave roasters are working primarily to stock their own shops.

“People like what we do,” he said. “We can tell them stories about the coffee farms we’re visiting. We’re kind of the nerds of the industry.”

Marshall encourages customers to drink around and visit various coffee shops including Boomtown, Inversion, Greenway Coffee and Tea and Blacksmith.

“Coffee culture is kind of about finding your spot,” he said.

Katz said that shoppers are looking for more local goods, as well as sustainable practices from companies.

Besides benefiting the environment and the local economy, Katz said buying local can mean better quality.

“Most coffee loses real flavors within 15 days,” he said.

“We only sell for customers what they can sell in seven days. We want to be there on the eighth day to ensure fresh products.”

Katz said he would rather undersell that have a poor product on the shelf.

Keith Adkins, partner in Fontana Coffee, met Katz while working at Lola Savannah in college.

He joined Joseph Martin and Katz in starting Fontana in 2002.

“I just found out how happy it made people when you give them good coffee,” he said.

Adkins said that the flavor of coffee is complex.

“There’s a million variables,” he said. “It’s like wine.”

Fontana also rebuilds espresso machines, distributes loose-leaf and bagged teas, offers gelato ingredients and sells commercial refrigeration equipment.

Smaller roasters often develop personal relationships with farmers who supply the beans, Marshall said.

Roasters will band together to order from various farmers, he said.

“It takes a lot of roasters to support one farmer.”

He takes pride in offering the highest grade of beans. “It’s free of certain types of defects,” he said.

He said he has tried hundreds of thousands of samples a year, sent by roasters and farms.

Usually, he will sit down with other roasters and baristas for taste tests.

Marshall said hiring qualified baristas is critical.

“They are the last hands that touch my coffee before it gets to my customers,” he said. “They can present it as perfectly as possible or they can completely destroy everything that comes before.”

Marshall is constantly traveling, visiting farms. He also owns a mill in Yemen named Red Tree Trading Co. that is in its second year of production.

“I’m the guy who sourced, produced, roasted the coffee,” he said. “And I’m pouring a shot of espresso. I can tell the stories of the people who made the coffee.”