Get this. Upstate New York, it’s Obama’s finest years and two best friends are doing what they love to do, roasting coffee. It couldn’t be a better setting if you tried. The coffee world’s Matt Damon-Ben Affleck bromance?
“We don’t really fit into the ‘coffee world’,” says Andrew Ballard, co-owner of Forty Weight Coffee. “We aren’t particularly hip: we don’t dress ironically. We don’t go to competitions or find them all that interesting. We definitely aren’t part of the coffee in-crowd.” And that is what makes Forty Weight the most interesting coffee operation this side of the earth’s atmosphere. Call them part of the international hand-craft movement, or just upstate New Yorkers if you will; but the real beauty lies quite simply in the product.
And they keep the whole operation quite tight. “We source our coffees from all three major producing regions: Latin America, Africa and the Pacific Rim,” adds co-owner Matthew Marks. “We work with a handful of importers who have long-standing relationships and significant on-the-ground presence with smaller producers who put quality and sustainability at the forefront of their mission.”
Perhaps in true Ithaca, NY spirit the two best friends didn’t have corporate America waiting for them after school, but they also didn’t want to start some millennial business that employs strangers who sit on bouncy balls behind their desks. “I just thought it was really cool that somebody could roast and sell coffee beans for a living,” says Ballard earnestly. And without a big press relations machine behind them, or hipster cool roasting facilities in Brooklyn or even a semi-ironic weird beard, Forty Weight Coffee just is what it is. Two friends drinking, roasting and loving coffee. It’s almost biblical in it’s simple beauty.
But you don’t have to only catch them at Ithaca’s Saturday farmers market, they also work with espresso bars, restaurants and specialty food markets in the New York City area. “We seasonally source small-lot, single origin coffees,” adds Marks. “We also have wholesale partners as far as Boston, West Virginia and Austin. And then we’ve been a guest roaster in high-end shops in Ann Arbor, New Orleans and Dallas.” For once in this life, less is fantastically oh-so much more.
And their story isn’t one for the TED talks, it’s a real story with no take out lessons to add on a PowerPoint slide. “I started with a $5,000 Ambex YM-5 roaster that I installed inside a 1970s camper in the side yard of my apartment,” laughs Ballard. “My landlord thought I was crazy, and all the neighbors thought I was cooking meth. Looking back, I definitely didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when I started and I for sure put out some bullshit coffee.”
But now seven years later, they work in a 3000 square foot roastery, full of state of the art equipment and they have just the right amount of expertise. “Our volume is pretty much exactly where we want it, and we create the exact coffee that we love to drink,” says Ballard. In fact, hot restaurateur Danny Meyer has taken notice too. But that’s almost beside the point.
Because what drives this duo is that so many people are more and more excited about coffee. In essence, more than ever before, and these slurpers of the good caffeine actually also care about how the coffee is being roasted. “People genuinely love fresh exciting coffee,” says Ballard. “As someone who has centered his professional career around creating this type of coffee, this is great. The feedback and excitement we receive from our customers fulfills and motivates us. It’s an amazing part of what we do.”
And the Zen balance of Forty Weight Coffee is their other appeal. “To be honest, we’re not really unique in the coffee world,” says Ballard. “We create the coffee that we love to drink, we do great service, and we try to connect with our customers. There are loads of companies doing exactly what we do. And just as well if I’m being honest.”
But in the long run that’s what makes the coffee business more sustainable, and so much more intriguing. Consumers demanding better practices and qualities. “Can every small town really support 10 small roasteries? Will the third wave mega-companies continue to sell out and spread their seed in a Starbucks-like omnipresent push, eventually shutting down this wave of diverse inspiration we’re witnessing in coffee?” wonders Ballard. “Honestly, probably. Bubbles burst and corporate greed typically wins. But in the meantime, there are lots of companies just like ours, and that’s a great thing for consumers and small business owners alike.”