For the second year in a row, Capitol Hill will be the coffee playground to attendees of one of the largest coffee conventions in the country, happening just off the Hill in the Washington State Convention Center.
Thousands of coffee professionals started gathering this week for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s expo. Four days of lectures, demonstrations, and competitions officially kicks off Thursday.
The opening day concludes with a block party just outside Melrose Market from 7 to 10 PM. Thursday night’s event is open to the public, as is the latte art competition inside the E Pike Victrola. Local baristas are encouraged to compete and their local customers are encouraged to go cheer them on. Organizers tell CHS the block party will include a beer garden, food trucks, and of course, plenty of coffee.
Typically, the SCAA event travels to different city each year. The return to Seattle and the convention center coincides with the recent nearby arrival of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room. Starbucks is this year’s official event host and says it is eager to show off its new showy operation on Capitol Hill.
But Starbucks won’t be the only roaster for attendees to check out within walking distance of the convention center. Capitol Hill is home to the densest cluster of coffee roasters in the city, which includes Victrola, Caffe Vita, Espresso Vivace, and Stumptown. Eastlake is also home to roasters for Kalani Organic Coffee and Monkee Tree Coffee.
According to permit information obtained by CHS, there are 30 coffee roasters within the city limits where green coffee beans are heated until they’re brown and aromatic.
Coffee roasting is one of the few industrial economies still thriving on Capitol Hill. There are around two dozen people directly employed in roasting coffee in the neighborhood, according to roasters that spoke with CHS — though that number may have been bumped higher with the arrival of a dozen new Starbucks roasting employees.
Much of the business among the four non-Starbucks roasters relies on shipping coffee to other cafes and businesses. The web of wholesale Capitol Hill coffee is thick in the neighborhood and spreads throughout the state and even into Canada, according to Stumptown’s director of coffee Andrew Daday.
“It is a hub,” Daday said. “There is a lot of dollars in product being manufactured on Capitol Hill.”
Inside Vita’s roasting room on E Pike (Images: CHS)
But as the seemingly insatiable appetite for Capitol Hill property continues, small-batch roasters may have to start looking elsewhere for space. Vivace recently signed a lease to move its roasting operation to a space beneath The Garage in anticipation of increased demand for the property where its current facility is housed in the midst of Pike/Pine.
“Roasting is probably not going to be a good fit for an urban core like the Hill because space is too expensive,” Vivace founder David Schomer told CHS.
Without exception, all the roasters on Capitol Hill are located in old buildings that have increasingly rare wide-open spaces and loading docks. “It’s almost preservation minded,” Daday said. Hardly any newer developments include space for light industrial business. Transporting coffee in and out of the neighborhood has also become more difficult as trucks battle with busier streets.
While there doesn’t appear to be any effort to try to incentivize developers to build new light industrial space, Daday said the city should consider it.
It’s difficult to determine just how much coffee is roasted on Capitol Hill, as most companies are loath to reveal too much about their finances. Vivace, for instance, is a relatively modest roasting operation, employing four people to roast around 12,000 pounds of coffee per month. By comparison the new Starbucks roastery has five full-time roasters expected to produce around 117,000 pounds per month in its first year.
Despite the challenges of roasting on Capitol Hill, roasters say coffee tourism in the neighborhood is growing. It will be on full-display this weekend as the SCAA event leads tours through the neighborhood’s cafes and roasting facilities.
The Starbucks Roastery is as much showroom as factory (Images: CHS)
Schomer said he’s skeptical that coffee roasting on Capitol Hill will grow into a major tourist destination or a coffee equivalent to the area’s auto row past. While the Starbucks project was specifically designed for throngs of tourists, the rest of Capitol Hill’s roasting facilities were not.
E Pike’s Caffe Vita recently spruced up its roasting room with a new roaster and some interior upgrades as the Capitol Hill caffeine grandaddy celebrates its 20th year. Still, the facility in the back of the E Pike shop is primarily used for roasting and professional training. There is a public training held once a month inside the roast room and most of the Capitol Hill roasters hold regular public cuppings to show off their machines.
Roasting coffee in close proximity to where it’s being consumed does have some real advantages, particularly for discerning drinkers. Even under optimal storage conditions, speciality coffee roasters want to get their coffee in a cup in under a week. Small batch roasting also affords coffee purveyors more control over their brand.
And just like the farm-to-table movement in food, a growing number of coffee aficionados want to know how their cup of coffee came to be. Short of traveling to the tropical climates where coffee is grown, local roasting seems to be the best way to connect.
“For us, part of our mission in coffee is to connect consumers for work that’s done in stores,” Daday said. “It’s providing that window into this international business.”
We’ll update with the Latte Art Throwdown winners when we track down the info. UPDATE: The winner is…
The Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 27th Annual Event runs from April 9-12 at the Washing State Convention Center. Find out more here.