Almost everything I thought I knew about PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. was wrong. I don’t think I’m alone, either. In a recent article on top USA coffee cities, Kansas City ranked #8 (we are actually in the top three, but not everyone is aware of that yet! LOL). The author referred to PT’s as having “juggernaut status” 1 (“juggernaut: a huge, powerful and overwhelming force or institution”) and that’s the misperception I, and obviously many others, seem to have about PT’s.
Let me explain… I’ve been aware of PT’s for a while, but I don’t think I knew they were right next door (Topeka is about an hour away from Kansas City) until last year when they opened their cafe in the Crossroads Arts District in KC. I wrote about that experience last October. I get a chance to drop by for a cortado once in a while but I rarely buy and brew their coffee (I’ve reviewed their Yirgachefe and the Santa Maria from Colombia before, and liked them both… a lot!).
So, with such a great coffee roaster right “next door”, why haven’t I been drinking PT’s coffee more? I think my mind is as susceptible to what I call Punk Rock Syndrome as anyone else’s. When I was a kid, cool punk bands lingered in obscurity. They sure as hell didn’t sell their songs to car companies for commercials! The more a band would get recognized, listened to and, heaven forbid, picked up by a major label, the more they must suck and be selling out, right? That’s the “logic” of Punk Rock Syndrome and it’s as common in the coffee industry as it was in music. “Dude, no one has ever tasted your coffee before? It must be the best!” LOL
In Kansas City we have two big coffee companies (relatively speaking… not Folger’s big, but big compared to the corner roaster who has a 1kg drum) that you see in every grocery store, at every event, etc. Their coffee is fine, but in a city with a ton of small shops and roasters (have you seen my Kansas City Coffee Guide?), why bother with “fine” coffee from The Big Boys when you can have really good coffee from an up and comer, an everyman, a shop of the people by the people blah blah blah?
Because PT’s has been around for a long time, they get the double whammy or presumptions… first, people assume they are BIG and, therefore, must be bad. Second, people assume they must be roasting 1990’s style, black as night oil beans, second wave style. Wrong!
After I reviewed PT’s Santa Maria coffee, my “longtime” social media pal, Jeff Taylor, who just happens to be the co-founder of PT’s, gave me an open invite to come out to Topeka and check the place out. I visited on a nice warm summer day on Aug 25, 2015, and that’s when I learned just how wrong I, and so many others, are about PT’s.
PT’s Topeka headquarters is in an unassuming industrial park on the outskirts of town. Walking in, I was greeted by a warm, surprisingly un-industrial main area and unofficial office dog, Knox, who brings his human (PT’s graphic artist) with him to work everyday. I’m a sucker for dogs and little Knox won me over instantly.
PT’s headquarters is broken up into two main areas, the office space and the much larger roasting/packing/shipping part. To make the office areas more comfortable, they built a dropped ceiling using timbers, warm concrete floors, wood furniture… soft and comfortable yet modern. The big main area has open workspaces for the heart of the business, taking orders, running social media, designing, etc. A little further back into the space and you see Jeff and Fred’s offices and, across from them, a small but inviting cupping and quality lab. This is where you’ll find the sweetest person ever, Maritza. Maritza is Jeff’s wife, and she’s about the tiniest person ever, but if PT’s has a “juggernaut” in their midst, it’s Maritza. This soft-spoken, always smiling sweetheart has a history in the coffee industry, beginning in Colombia, that goes back to the 1990’s. She was an original Q-grader and instructor for the FNC, Colombia’s coffee industry. She runs quality control at PT’s and she knows everything there is to know about coffee!
The cupping lab is small, but has one wall of glass like a jewel in the midst of the office space, so it feels larger than it is. In my opinion, the fact that the quality lab is so obviously highlighted as the heart of PT’s, speaks volumes. More on that later. Moving further back in the office space you come to a nice training area where Kansas Citian Phillip “Philty” Hall holds court, training both PT’s baristas as well as clients of PT’s who are opening cafe’s using PT’s coffee. These three-day train-a-thons are intense and there was a group from Arkansas City’s Steamy Joe’s learning the ins and outs of grinders, espresso and milk steaming while I was visiting.
Through the door and you’re into the back of the house, a large, open warehouse space that houses the roasters, tables for weighing and bagging coffees for orders, storage of green coffee and shipping. What amazed me was that I was at the end of the “tour” and I hadn’t seen that many people. Only 12-13 people run this “juggernaut” of a business, making it way smaller than most people think, especially compared to companies like The Roasterie and Parisi in Kansas City.
There were two women bagging and packaging coffee (orders come in, Mike Mazulo roasts the coffees, they are bagged and tagged and then shipped out by 3PM the same day) and the whole operation was obviously one created on efficiency, systems and good people in the right jobs for them. Mike’s domain features three roasters: a Diedrich (I think) that you could find in any small coffee shop or micro-roastery, a smaller (3 kilo, I’m guessing) machine of a make I can’t remember that Mike was working on when I visited, and the flame-painted 90-kg monster, a Gothot production roaster.
Mike explained that the small roaster he was using was for their orders of more expensive coffees like Gesha’s (which PT’s is selling three of right now). PT’s used to roast these small orders on Mondays, but Jeff explained that they noticed most of their high end orders come in on Monday, so they shifted production of these coffees to Tuesday so they would arrive as fresh as possible to the people who ordered them. Smart!
I saw a few dozen bags of coffee, but not a big warehouse full like you’d think. PT’s prides itself on sourcing coffee, much of which is direct trade, for quality first. They don’t have an endless warehouse of aging green that they have to pump out and I only saw systems in place based on putting quality coffee into the hands of the people who want it.
Jeff’s friend and longtime PT’s ally, Bruce White of Perfect Brew Services in the Washington, DC area, was visiting Topeka at the same time I was and we were both included in the day’s cupping with Maritza and Jeff. I earned a sweet-ass silver PT’s spoon for my “trouble!” Jeff explained that they cup every roast, every day as well as sample roasts of coffees they haven’t ordered yet. We cupped 12 coffees, three of which were “maybes” and the rest that are in PT’s current lineup (or soon to be).
Jeff said that they cup and take digital notes on all production coffees (blends and the components of their blends, too) every day, looking for consistency as well as problems or coffees that taste better than usual. When either thing happens, they correlate tasting notes with the roasting logs on Mike’s computer to see what went wrong (or more often, right) with the roast. Coffee changes day to day because of moisture and humidity, roast profiles have to be taken into context of the day’s weather, and things are not so simple that you can toss coffee into the roaster, hit a “repeat last profile button” and expect the same coffee to spit out 12 minutes later. Even with all the science in the world there is still an art to coffee roasting and a big part of that happens in Maritza’s domain in the lab.
After a brief lesson on cupping etiquette (even though I’ve cupped several times before, it’s always nice to get the house rules) from Jeff, we went to town, getting a sense of fragrances and then breaking crusts later and finally we went to Slurp City, population 4 (and then 5, and then 6 and then… you get the idea). The lab was the place to be once those cups were ready to be tasted!
The star of the table seemed to be a Kenya AB that hadn’t hit production yet. Kenyans are just crazy coffees and you never know what they’re going to do. I got tons of coconut on the fragrance of the dry grounds and also in the flavor as we cupped. It was great and I’ll be looking forward to getting a bag of that one when it gets into production.
After all that cupping we sat and BS’d for a while in Jeff’s office, then Phil and the gang from Steamy Joe’s, Jeff, Maritza, Bruce and I headed over to College Hill to have lunch at their cafe. The food was solid, the company was good, I got a ton of insight into the business of coffee, and then Jeff had the barista pull me three shots of espresso to try! LOL
I took down their Flying Monkey (used for larger drinks, more of a chocolatey traditional profile), Southpaw (brighter, more “third wave” type of shot used on their smaller drinks so it doesn’t get washed out by the milk) and then a single origin of washed Yirgachefe which was super bright, yet sweet, and dripped with lemon and tropical fruits like pineapple, to me. The drive home seemed to go by really fast!
Jeff left me with an open invitation to come back any time, bring coffee to cup, hang out, whatever and I definitely will. I only wish PT’s was here in KC (I’d be there all the time! LOL) but it’s probably good they aren’t so I don’t forget that I still have a real job and can’t just hang out and do coffee all day. Jeff and the gang took four hours out of their day to hang out, show me around and open PT’s wide open for me to see, and I got the sense that they would probably do the same for any coffee lover, not just me.
I was super-impressed by PT’s efficiency, absolute dedication to coffee quality, and the fact that they can do so much business with such a small crew of people. The thing that struck me just as much as their commitment to quality coffee is the value of relationships to PT’s business. They’ve been at it since the 1990’s, and Jeff and Maritza know everyone. They value every relationship they have from the farmers (who they obviously love) to the importers and exporters, their employee team, the cafes and customers who use their coffee, and even nerds like me who love to write and share about it with everyone else.