5 Indy Roasters to Know

Say hello to these heavyweights of the local roasting scene.

This article is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s February 2016 Cool Beans coffee package. For more coffee coverage, click here

Laying down the law: Who better to patrol the local coffee scene than a night cop with a foodie streak? Look for IMPD officer (and former Peter George-trained chef) Daniel Rosenberg’s tasting reports, highlighted here in yellow.

Tinker Coffee Co.

Two coffee virgins dove deep into bean science and emerged as Indy’s most innovative roasters.

Two years ago, neither Stephen Hall nor Jeff Johnson had ever roasted a single coffee bean. They were merely two guys (and brothers-in-law) who loved coffee and believed they could elevate the roasting scene in Indianapolis. Hall worked in the wine industry, giving him the discriminating palate required to identify nuances in flavors, and Johnson was a consultant experienced in data management, making him the perfect guy to interpret the technical information that a coffee roaster produces and tweak formulas accordingly.

A year later, Hall and Johnson opened Tinker Coffee as a third-wave roaster—a term that refers to today’s artisanal, post-Starbucks coffee culture. They retrofitted a vintage Probat (a company that has been making roasters since 1868) with a thermocouple that continuously monitors the temperature of the beans inside the drum, not just the air around the beans. A computer charts what’s happening at every stage of the roast, allowing for better supervision over flavor and consistency.

“A lot of people still do this by hand,” says Hall. “They’ll take temperature readings and mark it down in a chart.” Johnson continues the thought: “But to see it every moment in the program like this helps us to make decisions in real time as we’re roasting.” That kind of control maximizes the chances of extracting the balance of flavors each coffee region is known for: fruity notes from Africa, nutty flavors from Central America, body from South America.

Tinker is brewed at several Indy cafes and restaurants, and if you become a die-hard fan, check out the subscribers club. Members get a monthly shipment of fresh coffee, plus an early taste of seasonal offerings. Subscriptions start at $30 and can be purchased at tinkercoffee.com.

Bragging rights: From zero to coffee darlings in less than two years, despite the conventional wisdom that it’s foolish to buy a roaster and launch a business without any background in coffee. 

Roast to start with: Conduit, a blend that changes seasonally with the agricultural calendar. Current origin: Brazil and Nicaragua. Tasting notes: chocolate, raspberry.

Where to buy the beans: Wildwood Market, Goose the Market, Homespun: Modern Handmade

Laying down the law: “I tried an Ethiopian medium roast at The Garden Table. It had a slight taste of citrus up front. Fairly smooth, not terribly acidic.”

Bee Coffee Roasters

Chalkboards, three-ring binders—these coffee-scene pioneers keep the craft low-tech.

Old-school. That’s how BJ Davis describes the operation at Bee Coffee Roasters. “There are no computers to chart the roasts,” she says. “We do everything by hand, with brains and a [standard] timer. We smell, we watch.”

Doing it this way gives the Bee team more control and artistic license, Davis says. The Lafayette Road facility certainly feels analog. As Davis talks about her devotion to a more traditional way of roasting coffee, Kelsey Simpson sits beside the Diedrich drum roaster in the back room, overseeing the process. Simpson and Bee co-owner Andy Gilman do most of the roasting, with Davis pitching in when needed. These days, Bee Coffee tends to focus specifically on beans from El Salvador and Mexico. “Those coffees give us a broad range of flavors,” Davis says. “You get that fruity tartness, but you also get it rounded with base tones like chocolate and caramels.” Since she teamed up with Gilman as a business partner three years ago, they’ve also worked on perfecting a light-roast coffee. “A lot of them are done badly,” says Davis. “In order to roast coffee on the light side, you still have to caramelize it and find its sweet spot. Otherwise, you end up with something that turns sour as it cools.”

Davis chalks up much of the flavor to the roaster. “Because it’s old and has limitations, there are nooks and crannies that have never been accessed. So there’s always that roast flavor in there—good, bad, or otherwise.”

Bragging rights: Co-owner Gilman founded the League of Lattes competition, which local baristas and cafe owners universally agree has elevated coffee culture in Indianapolis in less than a year. It has given Bee a reputation as the cheerleader of Indy’s coffee scene.

Roast to start with: El Eden co-op. Origin: Mexico. Tasting notes: berries, chocolate.

Where to buy the beans: Bee Coffee Roasters locations, Goose the Market, Pogue’s Run Grocer, Wildwood Market

The cafe: Bee has two coffee shops serving its own brand exclusively: an Eagle Creek–area cafe and a simple, airy nook across from the convention center. Both are among the best places in town to get a perfect pour-over or carefully crafted latte. 201 S. Capitol Ave., 426-2504; 5510 Lafayette Rd.,
280-1236; beecoffeeroasters.com

Laying down the law: “The Sumatran had raspberry notes up front with a nice roasted taste after it blended. As the coffee cooled, it just got fuller and fuller in taste. Awesome!”

Quills Coffee

Slurping their way to success, in Indy and beyond.

Every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. sharp, at the Quills production center and training lab in New Albany, head roaster Houston Miller makes a noise that sounds more like a mechanical hose sucking air into a vent than a human tasting coffee.

But there’s a method to his madness. That powerhouse slurp? It’s the key to evaluating the roast. A good gulp does two things: It covers the entire palate at the same time, instead of just the tip of the tongue that a regular sip affords, and it aerates the coffee, converting some of it into gas that fills the nasal cavity and results in a multisensory experience. It’s how Miller knows if the roasts are achieving his objectives. Can the caramel be detected in the Costa Rican? Does enough berry pop in the Ethiopian sample? “We have to be extremely critical during the cupping,” says Miller. “The point is no longer for us to just experience the coffee. It’s to scrutinize.”

Though the roasting is done in New Albany, the cafe staffers at the Indianapolis outpost of Quills go through a serious six-month training program and spend time at the roastery down south. The goal is seamless integration of the roasting and brewing processes, so the coffee served to customers meets the high expectations set around that lab-room table. Perhaps that’s why Quills baristas perform their job with a steely concentration—still, if you’re new to the crop-to-cup movement, go ahead and ask about the menu’s detailed tasting notes. And while baristas insist they don’t mind if you doctor up your brew, we consider it a professional courtesy to at least taste the coffee black.

Bragging rights: Featured in a 2014 Super Bowl commercial for Squarespace. New York City billboards and national buzz quickly followed.

Roast to start with: Inkwell, seasonal house blend. Origins: Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico. Tasting notes: chocolate, caramel, fruit.

Where to buy the beans: Quills Coffee Shop

The cafe: The industrial-sleek, student-heavy space is located on the ground floor of downtown’s 9 on Canal apartment building, with validated garage parking and a few street-level spots. Overwhelmed by the tasting notes? Order an Alchemist, a latte with agave syrup, cocoa, cinnamon, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. 335 W. 9th St., 426-1431, quillscoffee.com

Laying down the law: “A Mexican bean had some lovely strawberry right up front. The light roast didn’t override the unique taste. The pour-over was expensive ($5), but you could really taste the difference between it and the regular brew. I drank both. Yum.”

Hubbard & Cravens

Granddaddies of the local indie-coffee scene.

Nearly 25 years ago, before Starbucks came to town, and before latte art and pour-overs and tasting notes were hot topics, Rick Hubbard and Jerry Cravens launched their namesake company.

What started in 1991 with two guys and a small Probat drum roaster is now headquartered in a big warehouse on the northeast side of town, roasting over 1 million pounds of beans every year. Two new Probats with state-of-the-art computer technology have replaced the original roaster. The smaller roasts 100 pounds at once, all destined for the four local Hubbard & Cravens coffee shops. The larger machine roasts 600 pounds, and the coffee is shipped to restaurants and wholesale clients nationwide.

The size and output of the operation affords the company an opportunity that isn’t available to most roasters in town: All the beans they source are purchased directly from farmers, and only after a Hubbard & Cravens team visits the farms personally for onsite inspections and cuppings. Smaller outfits must trust the work of brokers, who do the international site visits on behalf of multiple roasters at a time. The Hubbard & Cravens commitment to travel all over the world comes at a pretty hefty price tag, both financially and physically for Rick and his wife, Marcie. But they think it’s the best way to maintain a first-rate product. “You have to stay true to quality,” he says. “You could cheat. But the customer always knows.”

Bragging rights: Quietly bucking the national trend of third-wave coffee companies selling out to big corporations. Rick Hubbard has vowed to keep Hubbard & Cravens a family-owned business based in Indianapolis.

Roast to start with: SoBro Organic. Origin: South Pacific. Tasting notes: plum, milk chocolate.

Where to buy the beans: Hubbard & Cravens coffee shops

Laying down the law: “If you like to gulp your coffee and not think twice, the pleasant Sumatran is a good choice. But I would not call this a dark roast. It’s not bad, but I think I’m going home to make another cup of coffee.”

Julian Coffee Roasters

From small coffee shops to a retail behemoth.

Ken Julian occupies a peculiar perch in the Central Indiana coffee-roasting scene. He’s got the heart of a small roaster, the bumps and bruises of a former coffee-shop owner, and the know-how of an entrepreneur who inked a deal with Costco. It all started more than 11 years ago, after giving home roasting a try and getting hooked.

Today, Julian runs a busy operation from a warehouse in Zionsville, servicing independent coffee shops all over Central Indiana and producing private-label coffees for cafes and stores around the city (see sidebar for locations). Julian Coffee is also in Fresh Thyme grocery stores, and finally, after a two-year negotiation process, secured shelf space in Costco this winter.

Some of the growth has been possible thanks to what Julian calls his Maserati: a high-tech Loring hybrid roaster he upgraded to last year that more than tripled his capacity. But despite talk of higher output and big-box contracts, conversation with Julian inevitably returns to small, indie coffee shops. He and his wife, Lorrie, owned Eagle Creek Coffee Company in Zionsville for seven years and understand the tight relationship between the coffee roaster, shop owner, and baristas. “We don’t just sell them coffee,” he says. “Our goal is to help them grow their business. We can help train the baristas, and support owners by watching trends and bringing in new products.” In addition to the light to medium roasts on which they built their reputation, Julian also creates cold brew, nitro coffee on tap, and, recently, K-cups, due to customer demand.

Bragging rights: Survived an exhaustive two-year pitch-and-inspection process to land its product on the shelves of Costco, a rare achievement for small Indiana food and beverage companies.

Roast to start with: Sunday Morning Blend. Origin: South America, Indonesia, Africa. Tasting notes: mild berry, chocolate.

Where to buy the beans: Costco, Fresh Thyme, local coffee shops as private label (Strange Brew, Foundry Provisions, Mo’Joe Coffeehouse, Henry’s Coffee Bistro, Zing Cafe, Square Donuts).

Laying down the law: “The Sumatran roast was very dark and full, and left an earthy taste that stayed on the tongue. Really good, but not for the faint of heart.”