It's been just over a month since Hawthorne Coffee Roasters settled in at 1412 S. 72nd St. in West Allis.
The cozy space used to be a wedding chapel. So, the ceiling paint sparkles a bit more than it should and sheer white fabric masks exposed ductwork. But, the state of the art espresso machine hitched atop an old antique storage cabinet belies the real purpose of the space, where a nutty, toasty, sometimes earthy aroma emanates from the fire engine red roaster that pumps out some of the best coffee on the west side.
Hawthorne Coffee Roasters is, in some ways, entering a challenging market. Milwaukee has no shortage of coffee roasters – with names like Colectivo, Stone Creek, Anodyne, Valentine, Cedarburg Roastery and Fiddleheads already on the scene. But, co-owner Steve Hawthorne feels assured that there’s room for more.
"People don’t have the same reaction when you say a new restaurant is opening in town," he says. "But, it’s not so different. We all do things in our own way."
And he’s not wrong. In addition to increasing the diversity of the coffee on the market, I’d add that the competition among multiple roasters has the potential to keep everyone operating at the top of their game. With new companies hopping into the market every few years, it becomes more difficult for anyone to lie back on their laurels and rely solely on brand loyalty to keep customers.
And Hawthorne knows a bit about the coffee market. Prior to his current position as manager of Rocket Baby Bakery, he spent 13 years at Stone Creek Coffee, working his way up from barista to vice president, charged with purchasing and working with growers. Most recently, he’s been in management at Rocket Baby Bakery, where he works with a coffee program he set up with Anodyne Coffee Company.
But, somewhere along the line, Hawthorne decided it might be a good idea to go off on his own.
To get the business up and running, he partnered up with Wade T. Nemetz, former mortgage lender and co-owner of Milwaukee Food Tours.
"Steve does the coffee and I handle the business end of things," says Nemetz, who says he never really thought about starting a coffee company until he entered into discussions with Hawthorne. "I’m into food and coffee. So, being able to get into a local food business seemed like a really unique opportunity."
He admits he’s pretty green with regard to his knowledge of coffee, but says he’s a willing student who learns something new every day as he watches Hawthorne in action. And it was actually his idea to put Hawthorne’s name on the business.
Hawthorne admits he didn’t love the idea at first.
"I didn’t want the attention," he tells me. "But, ultimately, it’s a really big motivator for me. My family name is on these bags, and I need to make sure to do it justice."
For Hawthorne, who says he’d be roasting up coffee in his basement or garage if he wasn’t running a coffee business, creativity and the ability to have 100% control over what goes on in the roaster is the really great part of owning his own roastery.
"The idea of doing it my way has been really intriguing," he says. "My way is kind of experimental."
For Hawthorne, experimental might mean aging 20 pounds of Brazilian coffee in a whiskey barrel.
"Every week we’ll pull some out and roast it to see what the flavor is like," he says. "If we could find the right balance, it could make a good cold brew. But, who knows?"
In the meantime, Hawthorne is focusing on limited edition, seasonal coffees. So, his offerings will change frequently as he pulls in new varieties of high quality, sustainable beans.
"You’ll never look at my coffee list and see 25 coffees, it will be more like five," he says, admitting that could be a deal breaker for coffee drinkers who like to drink the same coffee all the time.
"I’ve always felt the conflict between what people want and what I think is really good coffee," he says. "My ultimate goal is to make really high end coffee. And for those that prefer one style over another, there will almost always be something available with a similar flavor profile to what they like to drink."
The current five varieties include Brazil Laranjal, Colombia Excelso Narino, Ethiopia Kochere and Kenya Kabare, and Revival, a custom espresso blend, all roasted in small (3 pound) batches and priced between $13-18 per pound.
Hawthorne says he expended particular energy on creating the espresso, since he doesn’t see very many easy drinking espressos on the current market.
"Too many are sour and full of acid," he says. So he set out to create a blend that was both "really delicious and accessible." Revival was the result.
"It starts with the best single origin coffees I could find from Brazil, Columbia, Ethiopia and Kenya," he says. "And it results in a unique, easy to drink espresso that’s clean, chocolatey, full-bodied, with hints of sweetness and just a touch of acidity."
Hawthorne hopes the restaurant market will be amiable to the blend, since it’s one of the places people can most readily enjoy sipping a great cup of espresso.
Chefs like Justin Carlisle of Ardent are already starting to bring in the coffee for use in their restaurants.
Carlisle says that, for him, his choice in product is about quality and not price, and for that reason he’s not necessarily brand loyal. For now, he plans to give the coffee end of his business to Hawthorne, while buying Anodyne’s espresso blend.
That mode of thinking makes sense for a purveyor like Hawthorne who is really concerned with process and quality.
In the long term, Hawthorne says the big goal is to "keep making coffee that I’m proud of," and that "decisions for long term plans will be based on what we can do that still allows us to maintain the same standard of product."
But, his wish list does include a café. "That would be awesome," he says, "When the time is right."
For now, customers can order coffee online to be delivered, or they can pick it up by appointment. Hawthorne hopes to have a stand at one or more farmer’s markets this summer, and is planning a few public open houses at the West Allis roaster in February and March.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.