Later this week, I will be writing more about the city of Detroit, so I will try not to repeat myself – not too much, anyway.
Detroit has a rich history – full of interesting people, beautiful buildings, ground-breaking businesses, world-renowned art, varied cuisine, and more. Detroit will always be the home of the automobile, the birthplace of Motown, and the home of (despite this year’s playoff performance) the best hockey team in the world (Detroit Red Wings, if you’re not a hockey fan).
Since its heyday, Detroit has declined in a number of ways, and around here, discussing what exactly the problem is and how exactly to fix it, is sure to arouse a lively discussion. Inside and around the city, everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with Detroit and how it should be fixed (and usually exactly whose fault it is).
Luckily for you, I have no interest in putting my two sense in right now. What I’m more interested in here, is what is right with Detroit. As sad as it is to see some of Detroit’s failings, they allow for the inspiring movement that is happening now. Many families, businesses, and young professionals are relocating to the city of Detroit, trying to build her back up – focusing on what they can do, instead of everything they can’t. The result is new restaurants, city gardens, increased artistic presence, and most importantly, hope.
I love coffee. I mean, really, I loooooooove coffee. The smell, the taste, everything about it. So what is better than coffee? How about independently purchased coffee? How about independently purchased, often fair-trade coffee? How about independently purchased, fair-trade coffee which benefits rebuilding Detroit? That is just what you get from Renaissance Roastery. The Roastery’s coffee (available through their Etsy shop) is fair-trade, and they donate a portion of the profits to projects devoted to revitalizing the city. On their website, the Roastery (husband and wife team, Erin and Alex) chronicle their part in rebuilding Detroit – check out, for example, this post of them planting trees in the city. (In addition to the obvious connotations of the word “renaissance,” the most prominent building in the Detroit skyline is the Renaissance Center -RenCen to the locals – it is the tallest building in Michigan, has the tallest hotel skyscraper in the western hemisphere, and has the largest rooftop restaurant!)
I’ve tried Renaissance Roastery’s coffee and it is fabulous! If you’re from the Detroit area, you can visit Erin & Alex at a variety of local events, but even if you’re not, you can enjoy a great cup of coffee, knowing that you’re helping to rebuild one of our great cities. Scroll down to meet Erin and learn more about Renaissance Roastery.
Where did the idea for Renaissance Roastery come from?
My husband (then-fiancé) and I owned a café in Ann Arbor (Carillon Chocolates on Main Street, which has since reverted to another owner, had a name change and ultimately closed). When we took over the café, there was a great commercial coffee roaster in the back that the previous owner thought was broken (they had never even tried using it!). My husband tried it out, and it worked perfectly fine. We started learning how to roast coffee and selling it at the shop, both for our regular coffee and espresso as well as retail by the pound. When we sold the shop we had grown accustomed to delicious fresh-roasted coffee so we started roasting at home on the stove, along the way giving bags to friends and family as gifts at holidays. When we moved to Detroit I was really inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit here, and I was unemployed for a time and wanting to stay busy, so I thought, why not start roasting as a business? I already knew how to do it, I was passionate about it, I already had the equipment, so I decided to give it a go.
Why buy roasted coffee?
Well I think the question is why buy fresh-roasted coffee. Honestly, if you tasted something from the grocery store, even something you’d consider more high-end, maybe a Starbucks blend, next to a fresh-roasted cup of coffee, you’d be blown away by the difference. By the time commercially-roasted coffee gets to you, who knows how long its been since it was roasted? Possibly months, surely weeks. And bigger companies, especially Starbucks, are known to over-roast their beans to preserve shelf life, making them flat and accounting for the burnt taste you get. When you buy fresh-roasted coffee, from me or anyone else, it’s usually been a matter of days since the coffee was roasted. Like most other foods, it’s just better when it’s fresher. That’s true for strawberries, for fish, and for coffee!
What is involved in your process?
I roast at home, on the stove, in a metal popcorn popper. With this method you can only roast a very small amount at a time, and you have to attend the roast the entire time, and literally crank the handle. It does take skill - you have to know some basics about roasting and there’s some trial and error as with anything, but otherwise it’s fairly easy. I like it because it really involves all the senses—you have to listen for the cracks (similar to making popcorn), you have to use your sense of smell to make sure you’re not burning the beans, you can look at it and tell its roast by the color, you can feel the difference in smoothness and shape of the beans at different points in the roast, and of course the taste is paramount in telling if you’ve done it right. In the future I’d love to get a commercial roaster to make the process more efficient—with the stovetop method I just can’t make a lot at a time.
What are you most proud of about your business and why?
That the product is made with love. I care a lot about coffee, about good coffee, and I think a good amount of people are used to bad coffee—I like that I can be the one to introduce them to a new way of doing something that a lot of people do every day: drink a cup of coffee. This product is fresh, the roasting is local, and it’s literally made by hand. From the farmers harvesting the beans in far off countries to me standing at the stove cranking the handle and standing outside in the winter cooling the hot roasted beans, it’s all by hand.
What ideals are important to your business?
Fair trade: that the beans I get are sourced ethically. This doesn’t necessarily mean “Fair Trade Certified,” since that’s a rigorous certification process that can leave out farming co-ops and very small farmers. But I get my beans from a company that I trust to do the right thing, and they have their own standard in addition to Fair Trade Certification of making sure farmers are being paid fairly. Also, I want part of my profits to go back to Detroit revitalization projects. I will be getting help from Detroiters in the process of writing my business plan, getting the word out, getting advice, etc., and when I am successful enough to have a profit, I want part of it to go back to help other entrepreneurs. This giving back and the spirit of Detroit that’s alive right now is where I came up with the name Renaissance Roastery.
What is the best part about being indie? The most difficult?
Best—doing it how you want! And getting to learn from it. Seeing people enjoy the product you made.
Worst—no money to do it how you want! I’d love a big commercial roaster and even a retail café but money is the roadblock to most entrepreneurs, unless they’re lucky.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
Well this might apply more to the café since it was on a bigger scale, but it applies to Renaissance Roastery as well. Plan, plan, plan. Have a business plan. It might change, but have it. It should be an ever-evolving document that you can add to or subtract from, but it should always be there as a guide to keep you on course.
Tell us something about Renaissance Roastery that people may not expect or know.
One thing I think that people find interesting is that coffee doesn’t smell like coffee until it’s roasted. When I get it, it’s green, and it smells really fresh and plant-like, kind of grassy. During the roasting process, it smells pleasantly smoky, and kind of like toast. Only after this process does it get its recognizable “coffee” smell—and man does fresh-roasted smell better than anything else!
What is a business or product that really inspires you and why?
I would say Crystal, the founder of Detroit Brunch has inspired me. I met her at a cooking class at Honor and Folly and she’s been helpful in getting me connected to people and learning more about the Detroit food scene, and getting excited about being a part of it. We went to one of her pop-up vegan brunches at MOCAD, and it was just really cool to see so many people out and supporting her and the city of Detroit. Speakers were there talking about the Detroit food landscape and sustainable, healthy food, for Detroiters, and it was just great. The food was delicious too, and that means a lot coming from a bacon lover like myself!
What is coming soon for Renaissance Roastery?
Alex and I are currently taking the BUILD class at D:hive, an 8 week class that will help me network, learn from others, and build my business plan. After that I hope to find a way to get funding and expand my capacity from roasting tiny amounts at a time to being able to support more orders. Once my production capacity increases I want to sell at craft fairs, farmers markets, and wholesale, eventually opening a retail café somewhere in Detroit. Also, for anyone in the metro-Detroit area, we will be at the Craft Revival in Ferndale during Mother’s Day weekend (this weekend, May 12-13). It will be my first fair, I will have samples of coffee and a small table set up.
I don't know about you, but I'm dying for a cup of fresh-roasted coffee right now :) Be sure to check out Renaissance Roastery on Facebook and their website, and if you're in the area, stop by to the Craft Revival in Ferndale this weekend!
I'd love to hear about your love of coffee - especially if you get a chance to try out one of Renaissance Roastery's blends!