Verve Coffee Roasters goes against the grind, taking java culture to new realms.
PLUS: The South West Regional Barista Competition hits Santa Cruz.
Starbucks—drink your caffeinated heart out. Java drinkers aren’t buzzed anymore on their coffee-in-a-box options. People want an experience to go along with their jolt of energy for the day. That’s where local coffee shops come in—they take out the corporate feel of things and re-inject the coffeehouse notion with smiling baristas, espresso from far-flung places, modern architecture, top-notch service, time spent lingering over those foam designs, and perfectly-timed brew. Such a place can even convert tea drinkers to the other side. That’s what happened to me one fine day at Verve Coffee Roasters in Downtown Santa Cruz. Co-owner Colby Barr slipped out of our interview briefly when he heard that I didn’t believe black coffee could taste good.
When he sat back down at one of the community tables—on a chic swiveling seat—he placed a small cup of dark liquid in front of me and urged me to give it a shot. Hesitantly, I took a sip. Bam. If I were an expert, I’d be more verbose, using phrases like, “notes of this and notes of that,” but all I could really say was, “Wow, this is freaking good.”
The coffee tasted sweet, like one of those fancy chocolate bars with bits of fruit folded into the cocoa. No sweetener or cream in this cup of coffee—just straight black. I drank the whole thing down in a matter of minutes. With that, I had to know where Barr, who travels the world looking for exquisite coffees to have on hand at Verve, found this espresso that I was drinking.
“At Verve Coffee Roasters, we taste a lot of coffee,” Barr says. “I mean, a lot.” On this particular day, Barr had been involved in a taste-off. “Sometimes when we are tasting (cupping) coffees for selection, we end up tasting dozens and dozens of them. Sometimes … we’re looking at 300 cups of coffee in a single sitting, though I don’t know if sitting is the appropriate term since after you cup (taste) 300 cups of coffee, you will be doing no such thing.”
By the time he tasted this particular blend, “I was clearly palate fatigued,” he says. “But the finish line was so close. When I got to the last coffee (five cups’ worth) I took the spoon to my mouth with almost a sloppy, haphazard motion, really just glad to have made it. But when the coffee hit my lips, everything changed.
“I suddenly wasn’t thinking about where I was going to find the closest beer to pull me off the ledge, but instead became completely clear-minded and focused on the spoon in front of me,” he adds. “What had I just tasted? I was in love with this coffee and I had to have it. It was unlike any other Central American coffee I had tasted. It was very sweet and very fruity. It had flavors of toffee, cream, strawberry and grape and yet was vibrant and clean through its viscous mouthfeel.”
Barr instantly chose the coffee—the Panama Elida Estate Natural—to sell at Verve. It has been “loved by our clientele and even used by our baristas in competition, taking second place in the United States Barista Championship,” he says. Barr has traveled to Panama on many occasions to meet the Lamastus family who produces this selection.
“Sometimes the best coffees in the world are found at the end of a long, winding cupping session,” Barr says. “Sometimes they’re at the end of an actual winding road that takes 31 hours to fly to and another 12 to drive to. And sometimes they arrive to our warehouse and are the only coffee we taste that day. You never know. That’s why you have to taste them all.”
When Barr mentions the United States Barista Championship, this isn’t just a passing comment. It’s big stuff in the coffee world. If a barista makes it far in the competing sport of espresso making, he or she is not only on a natural high but can achieve notable recognition in a beverage industry that takes itself, its work, its service, its aesthetic, and, most importantly, its coffee, very seriously.
Verve is one of a handful of coffee houses in the United States who have taken the coffee experience to the next level. They’re a part of what some call the “third wave,” a movement in coffee that started with the “first wave”—the institutionalized coffee in a can generation; to the “second wave”—the espresso movement of places like Starbucks; and now this new trend of a whole new coffee experience.
“The first wave was, ‘I need my coffee I don’t care about it, I just want the fix,’” says Barr. “The second wave brought the idea that there was a place to go to, venues to spend time at. The third wave is all of that, people drinking it, espresso culture, a place to go, but now we’re focused on the coffee itself—where does it come from and the production of it.”
However, Barr and co-owner Ryan O’Donovan admit that the term “third wave” does make them cringe somewhat. “It feels outdated and doesn’t describe what is happening now,” Barr explains.
What Verve is doing now is not only creating an atmosphere and an experience for coffee (and tea) drinkers, but also placing remarkable importance on the source of the coffee, the training of its team members, the “vibe,” and the art of offering the best-tasting, most perfectly crafted coffee one can find.
For this reason, Verve’s baristas have entered the annual South West Regional Barista Competition & Brewers Cup, which takes place this year in the Rittenhouse Building in Downtown Santa Cruz from March 9-11. There, Verve, the competition’s host, will have two of its baristas compete against others in the region for a slot in the United States Barista Championship, which is the precursor to the World Barista Championship. This year, Verve will showcase the talents of Lizzy Sampson and Jared Truby. This is Sampson’s first year competing and Truby’s fifth year competing. (Last year he took seventh at the national event.)
At this three-day event, locals are welcome to swing by the venue and watch the baristas in action. Sampson and Truby will be in the mix along with up to 50 other competitors who will have to make 12 drinks in 15 minutes. Everything from their presentation, to taste and balance, is judged using an extensive scoring sheet. In addition, the competitors have to concoct a signature drink for the judges.
“It’s a really great community event,” says Barr. “And it’s also important to have this professional development in the industry. It sets a lot of standards on how to operate behind the bar and standards of drink quality. We’re also really excited to have it here in Santa Cruz, to expose the general public to this avenue of coffee culture.”
Finalists then go on to the United States Barista Championship where the stakes are even higher and the competition is even more severe. The winner of the national competition spends a year traveling, teaching and acting as a spokesperson for the craft of being a barista.
“They’re looking for the ultimate ambassador for specialty coffee,” says Chris Baca, head trainer/educator for Verve and a talented barista who has previously participated in the competition.
The Ultimate Ambassador
While Baca notes that the competition is looking for an “ultimate ambassador for specialty coffee,” for those familiar with Verve, it would be safe to say that the company can already claim that title. When Barr and O’Donovan set out to create this brand of coffeehouse, they were diligent and knew exactly what they were going after.
And they were determined that it would happen before they both turned 30. It did. The pair met at Chico State and after college they both gained experience in the coffee industry—O’Donovan worked as a barista, as well as in retail and wholesale, and Barr went on to purchase a coffee shop. In 2005, they had a conversation about how they were not seeing the type of coffee house model that appealed to them. In 2006, they got things rolling and decided to create the very coffee house that they had always wanted to go to. They moved to Santa Cruz, found a venue on 41st Avenue in Santa Cruz (near Capitola) and opened the first Verve in November of 2007. They created the gorgeous interior 100 percent themselves—concrete, counters, everything.
“We were committed to roast, find, and serve the best coffee in the industry,” says O’Donovan. What sprang up quickly was the wholesale side of the business—cafés from out of town snapped up Verve’s coffees to sell at their own shops elsewhere. The two men jumped on the cash registers and “we worked every day for 100 days in a row,” O’Donovan adds. “Every customer was the most important person in our life.”
Their philosophy emerged: “To have the best product on planet Earth,” O’Donovan says. “Provide the best service and be unwavering about that, and have it be a nice atmosphere—the highest quality yet still feel totally accessible.”
In September 2011, a Seabright location opened, and in November 2011, the industrial/modern Pacific Avenue location was unveiled, and the company has expanded to include about 50 employees.
As Verve continues to expand, the interest in working for any of the three coffee houses increases and plenty of applications are turned in every week by barista hopefuls. But Barr and O’Donovan have high expectations of their staff. “We don’t hire baristas,” Barr says. “We hire people to get educated. They work on registers and after some time (which can be up to six months) then people will potentially go into a barista training program, a multi-day educational and academic training program which covers coffee, processing, the industry and tea.” The aspiring baristas take a test and have to score 90 percent in order to take on the job skills of a barista.
But even after all of that, what makes the best barista? “To be able to multitask and have attention to detail,” says Sampson, one of Verve’s two competitors in this year’s South West Regional Barista Competition. “Verve baristas are really friendly, we get to know our customers and we put care into each thing we do.”