A Band of (Coffee) Brothers
And a little mindfulness to your next cup
Sometimes coffee has replaced the blood in your veins, passed from generation to generation and across gene splashes. Case in point with five ardent coffee siblings – and their father – strewn across America.
As of right now, three of the brothers are actively running their coffee quests; brother Michael Johnson in Madison, WI with JBC Roasters (“Just the Best Coffee”), brother Joseph Brodsky in Miami with Ninety Plus Coffee and brother Jake Brodsky in Denver with Novo Coffee. With this family affair, it’s not just caffeine, but a vision for the bean’s very future.
Brothers Jake and Michael started working together in 1994 at JBC Coffee Roasters. Michael left his corporate job and started selling coffee out of a coffee cart at the Madison Farmers Market in Wisconsin. “The cart was built by our other brother Randy and was called Caffe Fratelli – oh wherefore art thou brothers coffee – I am pretty sure Mike was hoping to have all of the brothers involved,” says Jake.
At that moment, the family roasting was happening on a fluid bed roaster in the basement of a bakery in small town Wisconsin — which served as a commissary for the coffee cart too.
“Michael was roasting coffee in popcorn poppers in his apartment in the 90s,” says Joseph. “We pulled shots on a 2 group La Pavoni lever machine and put the cart on campus during the week and at the Dane County Farmers Markets on Saturday mornings,” adds Jake.
“In the summer of 2001, Joe called me and asked if I wanted to start our own roasting business together. At the time I was living in Phoenix playing for a lower division pro soccer team (the Arizona Sahuaros),” says Jake. Cafe Novo Coffee Roasters (now just Novo Coffee) was eventually founded in 2002 and has since grown to be a wholesale roasting company with four retail locations. “I now run the company with a wonderful team that includes my father — although ‘semi-retired’ still has a strong and positive voice within the company,” shares Jake.
Next it was brother Joseph’s turn, who branched off to start Ninety Plus Coffee. He now owns and operates the largest gesha (the rarest coffee beans, with an almost jasmine tea thing happening) project in Panama with 182 hectares, and is partnered in nine farms in all major growing regions with 1,300 hectares of single variety plantings in Ethiopia.
“We really want people to start learning about their coffee – how different varietals bring different flavor and aroma characteristics to light, how farming and processing practices can actually totally affect flavor,” says Jake. “We also want to encourage people to engage in the backstory of each coffee.” Now they have all – each in their own way – grown to manifest a model for farm transformation to replace the holdover colonial model. Who says coffee is just from Starbucks, right?
But a highlight for all the brothers is traveling, hanging out and drinking coffee together all over the globe. “Michael and I frequently go on buying trips together,” says Jake. “Meeting him in El Salvador has become something special to look forward to. We talk frequently, share stories, and give advice to one another in many aspects of our businesses.” Michael and Joseph recently roasted some of the most incredible coffees produced by Ninety Plus; such as the most recent release of Ninety Plus Gesha Estates Limited Batch #, was used by Chad Wang of Jascaffe China to win the 2017 World Brewers Cup (as roasted by Jascaffe).
“My hope is that consumers in the U.S. and internationally start to realize how little per serving at commodity pricing (100 small cups per kilogram… hey, try and get that out of a bottle of wine) in grocery and in coffee bars goes to the coffee farmer, and it’s no wonder coffee farms are known for poverty and ecological destruction,” shares Joseph. “It’s amazing how affordable change is per serving. Literally, $0.25 per cup invested in taste, humanity and ecology at farms could reforest much of the tropics. Great coffee is infinitely affordable and consumer knowledge and engagement in the realities of the economics – particularly if they are given options to pay a cup premium for change – has me very hopeful for coffee’s ability to fix land and people from seed to cup.”
Probably the most technical-minded of the brothers is Michael, who likes to geek out on all the science behind the beans. “We roast on a Probat L25 and smaller special microlot roasts on a Probat L12,” shares Michael. “We train our wholesale customers on a Nuova Simonelli Black Eagle, Mahlkonig K30 Vario espresso grinder, and EK43 coffee grinder,” he says, like he’s speaking English…
Now the brothers are able to work on the full spectrum of the coffee continuum – roaster, producer and coffee bars, too. “My brother Jake and I are much younger than our three older brothers. Despite the age difference, Michael always took care of us and included us in more adult activities (sometimes too adult, but we loved it!) from an early age,” says Joseph. “And I used to be the one who baked the birthday cakes for my younger brothers,” smiles Michael.
Follow them all at their different avenues: