Salt Lake City is always a few years behind the culture curve, and when it comes to coffee culture in Salt Lake, most of the city is stuck in the year of the Orange Mocha Frappuccino and burnt-as-hell French roast. On the West Coast, high-end coffee roasters and cafes long ago ditched the Irish crème and the breakfast blend, instead focusing on the flavors of the (gasp!) actual coffee itself. This new school of coffee emphasizes a lighter roasting style, which highlights the different flavor profiles of coffees from particular countries, regions, micro-regions and even individual farms, just as winemakers do in the wine world. This new school of coffee also likes to pay the coffee farmers a decent price for their goods, without a middleman—they call it direct trade. It seems like Salt Lake would be all over that, but it has taken a while. A few shops, though, have gotten with the program—Caffe D’bolla roasts their own, The Rose Establishment imports San Francisco’s Four Barrel and Nobrow Coffee & Tea sports a quiver of high-end boutique roasters from around the country. One of Nobrow’s newest isn’t imported from Portland or Chicago, though—it’s roasted in a modified barbecue grill in a Rose Park backyard, and it’s on par with some of the roasters that inspired it. It’s Salt Lake’s own La Barba Coffee Roasting.
Levi Rogers, co-owner of La Barba, handles the artistic side of the company and does the actual roasting. Originally from Colorado, Rogers moved to the Zion of high-end coffee known as Portland, Ore. in 2008. “Right out of high school, I got a job as a barista, but I didn’t know much about coffee. It wasn’t until I moved to Portland and worked with Sam [Purvis, of Coava Coffee], that I started really getting into it. The first time I saw roasting was with him,” he says. While in Portland, Rogers thought he’d give it a try and started roasting his own raw, green coffee in a popcorn popper, a popular, ultra-cheap choice for home roasters.
After gleaning as much coffee know-how as he could from Purvis, who was last year’s Northwest Regional barista champion, Rogers moved to Salt Lake in 2010. He soon met Tim Walzer at Desert Edge Pub, who had just bought his own home-roaster that morning. Obviously, this was no coincidence—the coffee stars were aligned for La Barba. Walzer is a New York transplant and La Barba co-owner, who runs the technical side of the roasting company. With a computer programming background and mechanical prowess in his blood, Walzer built the company’s website as well as their roaster. When he met Rogers, he was just a casual drinker of coffee whose DIY inclinations led him to start roasting his own.
The two became roommates and honed their home-roasting skills, but Rogers wanted to try roasting on a larger scale. “I had a friend of a friend in San Francisco who started a company called Bicycle Coffee. He started on a propane grill with a drum—that’s where I got the idea. So we built it,” Rogers says. They fashioned a prototype out of a small propane grill, perfected their technique and “met with an attorney to drop an LLC,” says Rogers. After a while, they abandoned the janky prototype and upgraded to a larger, more deluxe model. “We hand-built a drum out of perforated stainless steel, put end caps on it, attached it to a spit that is hooked up to a motor—the motor spins it. When it’s done, we just pull it out and dump it onto a cooling tray that’s over a box fan,” says Rogers.
It sounds rudimentary, and it is—but that’s just La Barba’s style. Rogers roasts, bags, stamps, labels and delivers the coffee himself via bicycle to Nobrow, La Barba’s only physical retail outlet at the moment. If you live in Salt Lake and don’t want to go out in public, you can go online and order a bag of whatever they’re roasting, and Rogers will personally deliver it by bike. Also cool is the fact that La Barba sources their green coffee beans from great places. “The Uganda I bought is actually from a non-profit. They have two coffees in Uganda that they do, and they pay the farmers really well—it’s called Kabum Cooperative,” says Rogers. Kabum helps villages dig wells, set up coffee plantations and helps farmers sell their product at a fair price.
Now that La Barba has brought their DIY, West Coast-style of coffee roasting to Utah, the duo hopes to sell their product in as many local establishments as possible, and to help build the community with coffee. On Saturday, Sep. 15, La Barba and Nobrow Coffee will team up for a cupping (a coffee tasting event), starting at 11 a.m. at Nobrow on 315 E. 300 S. For more info on La Barba, or to order your own bike-delivered bag, put down that venti half-caff caramel breve abomination and get some real coffee culture at labarbacoffee.com.