Walk into MadCap Coffee in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, and it can be a little intimidating.
It’s clean, a little rigid and, like any hobbyists, some coffee fiends can come off a little snobbish, just the same as beer enthusiasts. I felt that way when I moved back to Grand Rapids after college and had my first coffee from the shop on Monroe Center.
But at its core, MadCap is one of the nicest places in Grand Rapids to spend a morning. The atmosphere is calming and can foster great work and conversations.
The staff is casual, playful and willing to help select the right cup of coffee that fits the customer. There are Yelp reviews negative toward the service, but it isn’t bad, certainly no worse than other shops. The attitude and knowledge is far superior than those at other coffee shops. This isn’t just a job to them. It’s a way of life.
It was at MadCap that I discovered the true depth of coffee and had to explore further, so I chatted with Co-founder and Director of Coffee Ryan Knapp. The interview turned into an “Inside Track” at the Grand Rapids Business Journal and sparked the initial subject — coffee — for this relaunch.
Sitting in the taproom at The Mitten Brewing Co., where MadCap now subleases some space to roast coffee, Knapp discussed his career and the vastness of the coffee world over a beer.
Many in the coffee world love beer and it was one of the first comparisons Knapp made as he explained how to enjoy a great cup of coffee. Just as in a beautiful beer, the aroma holds a huge amount of importance. Take a few moments to inhale the bouquet of smells coming off the cup, he said.
And, much like beer, temperature can play a huge part in what flavors are present in coffee.
“I can drink an ice cold beer and say, ‘Oh, that’s great,’” Knapp said. “But as it warms up, it tastes super skunk and you have to pour it out. All those skunk flavors come out.
“I feel very similarly in coffee. If it’s a rough coffee, but super hot, you can drink it, you don’t think much of it as the heat shocks your taste buds. But as it cools, that’s where the assessing comes in. A really good cup of coffee should still taste fantastic as it cools and you begin to detect all the different flavors that come out.”
That quote helps explain the unfortunate mass opinions on beer and coffee.
The light unoffensive lagers of Budweiser, Miller and Coors are an excellent way to deliver a relaxing elixir to a wide swath of the population. And the “bold” dark roast of coffee made famous by the likes of Folger’s and Maxwell House were an easy, longer lasting and marketable way to deliver a jolt of caffeine.
Those beverages remained the standard for years, hiding the true beauty of both beverages and allowing consumers to shun them because of the flavors, especially coffee.
Now, as the craft beer movement fights the light Americanized lager and introduces many in the world to the variations of beer, coffee is in a similar position.
“The movement is similar to what we’ve seen in craft beer the past 10 years, and even the wine of the last 20 to 30 years,” Knapp said. “It’s just a realization that this thing that everyone looks at as a simple commodity can also have a lot of nuance, a lot of character and a lot that goes into what makes a great product.”
Before the current wave of craft roasters and coffee shops, a second wave of coffee retailers had to come through behind instant coffee, so stores like Starbucks began to infiltrate cities on every corner, not a bad thing in Knapp’s mind.
“Everyone is hateful of it,” he said. “But overall, what they’ve done is introduce the idea that it’s ok to spend a little more on coffee and that there’s an experience based around coffee.”
MadCap regularly lands on lists as one of the top roasters in the country. And that’s not by mistake. Knapp and his co-founder Trevor Corlett have been students of the bean for many years.
Not only do they know the beverage, but they charge a premium for a real reason: to ensure the farmers they get top quality beans from continue to produce the product that leads to an amazing cup of coffee.
Knapp harkened back to his study abroad in college spent in Africa. He spent the semester in Uganda, but a few weeks in Rwanda too, discovering that coffee is the thing keeping those countries afloat.
That socioeconomic side of coffee caught his eye, and it shows through now in how the business sources its beans.
“Our brand is really concerned with finding high, high quality beans and our thing is we want to pay them really great money for great product,” he said. “Often, farmers are very underpaid. So our relationship could mean a farmer is making three times more money than they have in the past.”
The cup of coffee that sits in front of a customer is the final point of a long process, and brewing the beans is basically an exercise in not ruining the first dozen steps. Because of this, the farms are the most important part of the coffee. Knowing what the how and where the beans came about is hugely important, and Knapp said they can determine 70 to 80 percent of how a coffee will taste before it ever gets to the roastery.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on how we can find the very best coffee,” he said. “For us, that’s tasting through a couple thousand coffees a year to pick the two dozen or we’ll serve on our menu.
Packaging the beans as a light or dark roast plays into the commodity culture, and simplifies coffee beyond what it really is. Instead, MadCap likes to tell the story of the farmer and farm. To say, this is who and what he grew. Then the roast will highlight that soil, climate, or the way it was processed.
With that, Knapp hopes to give the farmers credit.
“They grew something excellent so we should give a lot of credit to the people actually working a lot harder than us,” Knapp said.
That chain in coffee; the farmers, pickers, processors, shippers, roasters and baristas, usually around 20 sets of hands before brewing, keeps Knapp interested in the beverage. The final step of brewing can’t improve the coffee, it’s purely to highlight it.
Knapp said baristas at MadCap usually have up to a year of training before they’re making coffee for customers.
“We give them that burden of not screwing up the first 13 sets of hands that did something phenomenal,” he said.
The store has a case of pastries, but that’s it. The focus is coffee, a big undertaking in itself. The shop is set up to showcase the coffee. The experience behind it. The sounds, the smells, and, of course, the taste.
A big chunk of MadCap’s business is wholesale, but Knapp said it’s a fine balance. The cafe provides a place to show consumers what the coffee should look, smell and taste like.
Placing that idea in the heart of Grand Rapids was a risk. The city wasn’t exactly a hotbed of coffee culture in 2008. Knapp and Corlett saw the growing beer and foodie scene, and thought specialty coffee had a chance.
They were told they were crazy. Some still believe that about the shop.
“That’s part of the meaning behind MadCap. It seemed like a pretty madcap idea to open up a specialty coffee store in the State of Michigan at a time when the economy wasn’t at it’s best,” Knapp said.
Instead, Grand Rapids has been receptive to the idea, as it should since it’s regularly one of the top coffee roasters in America. The reception is a good indicator that Grand Rapids’ coffee knowledge is growing, as is the increasing numbers of independently-owned specialty coffee shops.
Grand Rapids is still learning, as is Knapp. From seed to cup, there’s so much to learn.
“It’s an exploration,” he said. “It’s to the point I taste 2000 cups of coffee a year and it’s still evolving. I still miss things and learn things. That’s the thing that keeps me excited about coffee eight years later.”