Growing La Barba
Just over four years ago, La Barba co-founder and Head of Coffee Levi Rogers was roasting coffee on a converted backyard BBQ grill and delivering each handcrafted batch via backpack and bicycle. Since then, the beloved coffee-roasting company has grown 10 times and now distributes to 140 Utah-based restaurants, shops, cafes and businesses, boasting consistent new blends, single-origins, bottled cold brews and, more recently, limited-edition releases. To accompany their inceptive, University of Utah café, they’ve also opened a Downtown location. There, elegant gold accents, dark teal walls and gentle record-player tunes accompany the espresso drinks and pour-overs, each lovingly crafted and made with intention. Cozy yet luxurious, old-world yet modern, inventive yet approachable, La Barba Downtown has become a treasured Salt Lake hub for coffee culture and education.
For La Barba, their growth has fostered more structure and resources toward quality control, particularly as a wholesale distributor for specialty coffee. “In a lot of ways, our growth has made it easier to maintain and constantly improve quality,” says Accounts Manager and Quality Control Manager Joe Evans. “We have a dedicated team—dedicated time—to taste, blend, re-blend, reconfigure; to work on multiple profiles within our roasting practices and bring out more dynamic flavors.” That quality control manifests in weekly Monday-morning cuppings, hiring a team member specifically for repairing machines and the ability to buy high-quality coffee (and frequently so, because La Barba focuses heavily on the seasonality of each harvest). The emphasis on quality also comes through in La Barba’s Barista Academy, which aims to encourage anyone who wants to learn more about coffee—whether the incoming industry professional or the casual observer—with topics that range from agricultural practices to pulling espresso shots and producing latte art. “[Education] is one expression of La Barba’s love for coffee,” says Josh Rosenthal, co-founder and CEO. “What we’re pushing for is a developing culture. That’s a big part of Barista Academy: changing the complexion of the culture of Utah when it comes to refined coffee, goods, foods.”
La Barba effectively cultivates an enthusiastic and accessible approach to coffee, which, in turn, establishes a continuously growing audience and market. That, coupled with their growth, has laid the groundwork for a passion project: a quarterly series of limited-run coffees, each sold in beautifully labeled brown jars, six ounces at a time. “Because we love coffee, we’re always trying to find the best-tasting coffees out there,” says Rogers. “We decided to designate [a series] where, once every quarter, we do a coffee that’s a little higher quality, at a bit higher of a price point, that’s probably a little different from what people are used to.” Embodying the energized, creative spirit that first inspired La Barba’s founders to start their company, the releases have thus far constituted a delicate Gesha varietal, grown in Colombia at Granja La Esperanza, as well as the brighter Kenya Nyeri Kiamabara, whose label was designed by Kaleb Minz. The current installment, Reserve Number Three, is the Costa Rica La Minita, a coffee selected for the yellow honey process that it underwent. “This one’s all about the body,” says Rogers, whose goal as a roaster and sourcer, from the start, is to purvey distinctive coffees. “It’s smooth and balanced, with flavor notes of peanut brittle and a tiny bit of chocolate.” Touting a charming illustration by local artist Robin Banks, this edition will likely run through the end of December.
“One of the things I’ve loved about La Barba and our vision is … [that] we’re always looking for what works best for each type of coffee—to have a collection that’s broad rather than narrow,” says Evans, who notes a strong, long-lived culture in Utah for passion and pride in process. “As we move forward, it’s all about having an array of flavors and experiences.” Along with the reserve line, La Barba will release two new single-origin coffees by the holidays: a Peru and a Papua New Guinea. The first captures a milk-chocolate flavor with tropical fruit notes that are more distinctive to Peru, while the floral and earthy Papua New Guinea sees Rogers’ aim to expand the geographic scope of La Barba’s single-origin offerings. Looking to 2017, La Barba also aims to double its bottling line, which currently comprises Capitol Cold Brew in three flavors/blends: Original, Ethiopia and Black. Sensing the potential for more widely available, high-quality, shelf-stable product, the La Barba crew is hoping to continue innovating bottled coffee and coffee-related beverages, potentially including a Central American, single-origin cold brew.
“Utah, in the last six years, has been a frontier that is more and more discovered, increased, elevated,” says Rosenthal of the local coffee culture. La Barba—Utah’s first specialty coffee roaster to focus on wholesale—has continued to prime that industry, to invite in and cultivate the community, and to build trust in an ever-expanding audience. Keep up to date with La Barba, their coffee and their Barista Academy on labarbacoffee.com, and step into their Downtown café to experience their coffee and taste it the way La Barba intended.
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