Custom Coffee Roasts Set Cafés Apart

Kate Bernot

When it comes to jazzing up your java, skip the pour-over show and foam art and go straight for the custom blend. Increasingly, cafés and bakeries are seeking out roasters to create custom coffee roasts or blends designed to match the menu. These custom blends can cost a premium, but owners say they’re a memorable offering that elevates a daytime menu, develops customer loyalty and even helps sell more pastry. 

“We didn’t just want a one-off coffee; we wanted a custom blend that contributes to what we do,” says Kevin Tyschper of DeEtta’s Bakery in Naperville, Ill. He and his wife decided to partner with Chicago roaster Sparrow for a Sumatra-Burundi-Guatemala blend that plays up the bakery’s nutty and floral ingredients. 

Unlike pairing wine or beer, coffee shouldn’t sharply contrast its food counterparts, but should fall near them in terms of flavor, according to Sparrow’s Chris Chacko. Each type of bean contributes its own inherent characteristics, depending on where it was grown and how darkly it’s been roasted. 

In DeEtta’s blend, Guatemalan beans provide acidity and sweetness; Sumatran beans contribute an earthy woodiness that connects to savory notes in the pastries; Burundian beans yield roast and fruit flavors. “I’m looking for the coffee to be an attraction that will bring someone in the door. If I bring them in with coffee, I know 90 percent of the time they’ll buy something from the case,” Tyschper says. 

Roaster-café collaborations have also popped up between New Orleans’ Willa Jean and Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee; Minneapolis’ The Bachelor Farmer and Dogwood Coffee Company; Mountain View, Calif.’s Esther’s German Bakery and Moksha Coffee; and others. The process begins with selecting a roaster who’s open to collaboration. The process of creating a blend can take multiple coffee tastings (called cuppings) and will evolve over time as a menu changes or as seasonally unavailable coffee beans need to be replaced in a blend. 

At The Bachelor Farmer, for example, assistant manager Casey Underkofler maintains an “open dialogue” with Dogwood when beans cycle out of season. If a component of the coffee isn’t available, Dogwood subs in a similar bean to maintain a consistent profile to the 70 percent Colombian, 30 percent Bolivian blend.

“I’m trying to understand what chefs want to highlight in the pastry, because the recommendation of the coffee is based on that,” says Vikram Shrivastava, partner at Moksha Coffee. Dense cakes might warrant a full-bodied Sumatra,  while buttery croissants beg for butter-cutting acidic beans such as a Kenyan or Costa Rican. Chacko acknowledges that his beans cost a premium, but, he says, so does good pastry.

“When a bakery reaches out to a roaster, it says, ‘We value what we’re doing because coffee is an integral part of what we’re doing.’” 

Kate Bernot could eat Thai noodles with fried eggs for breakfast, lunch or a late-night snack. 

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