Coffee roasters occupy a hazy, just-out-of-focus place in popular American food culture—even those well-known enough to be recognized by name or logo are often more associated with the cafes they operate than their roasting practices. As a result, their influence in the coffee scene depends on the geographic availability of their product. As with craft beer, regional delicacies remain, but a few have gone national. Independent coffee roasting in the US began in the mid-1960s in California and gained momentum in the 1980s; high coffee culture in America is now most closely associated with coastal cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York City, but many serious roasters are located a bit more out of the way.
We now live in the so-called “third wave” of coffee. The first wave saw the industrialization of coffee, from pre-ground beans in vacuum packs and instant coffee crystals; the second wave involved the proliferation of big-box coffee chains with expensive taste, like Starbucks, Caribou, and It’s A Grind. Third-wave coffee can be seen as a reaction to the commercialized lowest-common-denominator of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, focusing attention on both a more refined product and more ethical coffee sourcing.
Each major third-wave coffee roaster lays claim to “inventing,” “inspiring,” or “establishing” some major tenet of contemporary high-end coffee consumption in the US, which becomes difficult to tease apart in hindsight. The field is now crowded with established, inspiring inventors. What can be said is that each of the below roasters made some definitive contribution to the field, and have remained influential on the contemporary American coffee scene.
Peet's Coffee & Tea
San Francisco, CA, 1966, Introduced roasted coffee to the US
The earliest coffee roasting pioneer in America was, perhaps unsurprisingly, an immigrant: Alfred Peet, later of Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Born into a coffee roasting family in the Netherlands in 1920, Peet opened a coffee roastery and cafe in Berkeley, CA, in 1966. Peet’s was the original inspiration for Starbucks founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker, who were exposed to Peet’s during their time at the University of San Francisco. In 1984, the three Starbucks founders acquired Peet’s.
Seattle, WA, 1971/1982, Commercialized coffee roasting
Howard Schultz joined Starbucks in 1982 as director of marketing, and, after a trip to Milan, tried to convince the company founders to serve brewed coffee alongside their retail business; failing that, he left the company in 1985 and opened a chain called Il Giornale, modeled on an Italian coffee shop, down to standing counters and opera music. It’s from this venture that Starbucks acquired its particular self-styled Italian-inspired lingo— “grande” and “venti” sizes, espresso as the basic unit of coffee rather than drip coffee. In 1987, Il Giornale bought Starbucks, took on its name, and began expanding rapidly. As of 2016, there were more than 14,000 Starbucks locations across the US. It may be commonplace, but the sheer size of Starbucks has, arguably, made room for many of the smaller roasters that have come after it.
Chicago, IL, 1995, Introduced direct trade
Though its first location was in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, the germ of Intelligentsia can be found in the Bay Area, where founders Doug Zell and Emily Mange were living before founding what is now a robust number of “coffeebars” in cities across the country. One major leap forward in Intelligentsia’s approach, common to the Big Three, was partnering directly with coffee farmers—what company literature calls “direct trade.” Under normal capitalistic circumstances, direct trade would be sold as a corner cut to eliminate “middleman” profit-sharers, a la Trader Joe’s Trader Joe’s brand everything; in the Big Three coffee universe, direct trade is an epicurean decision—a way to select coffee beans as discerningly as possible— and, secondarily, a moral one— supporting growers directly, rather than through distributors. Even its name, Intelligentsia, suggests the lifestyle of a growing coffee elite—urbane, sophisticated, single-origin pour-over drinkers. Together, Intelligentsia, Starbucks, and Peet's Coffee & Tea make the big three.
Durham, NC, 1995, Coffee education
The first East Coast coffee epicenter, Counter Culture is today one of the most visible roasters in the US. Founders Fred Houk and Brett Smith began building their business with restaurant supply in mind, and their corporate history notes that the first bag of roasted coffee Counter Culture sold was to a Durham restaurant called Pop’s Trattoria. The company remains headquartered in Durham and has made coffee education a priority of its mission. In recent years Counter Culture has built 11 training centers across the US, from Asheville to LA, with free weekly coffee tastings on Friday mornings, giving coffee drinkers equal opportunity for informed appreciation.
Portland, OR, 1999, “Green Team” sourcing
Another product of the Pacific Northwest, Stumptown has gone full Starbucks, now offering bottled cold brew in grocery stores across the country. Nevertheless, Stumptown has gone to great lengths in the service of direct trade, establishing a what it calls its Green Team of coffee sourcers, who visit coffee growers year-round to hand-select coffee beans as thoroughly as possible. The company claims to pay producers “up to four times” the market price of their crop, allowing the Green Team to ask for more than simple farming, such as “hand picking each cherry at ideal ripeness, or implementing a new piece of equipment.” This explains the at-times alarming price of direct-trade Stumptown beans—$20 for 12 oz of Colombia El Jordan; $23 for 12 oz of Burundi Mpanga Kirema, from eastern Africa; or the more attainable $15 for 12 oz of Hair Bender blend. Stumptown isn’t terribly far out of pace with other independent roasters with robust sourcing methodology (Intelligentsia offers 200g, around 7 oz, of Finca Takesi Bolivia Geisha Special Selection for $50), but the role of growers in the company’s practices is notably foregrounded.
Philadelphia, PA, 1994, Broad-base “goodwill”
Of the same generation of the Big Three but with (so far) a narrower national reach, La Colombe Coffee Roasters was founded in Philadelphia by friends J.P. Ibera and Todd Carmichael, lately also of other coffee-related ventures including the Haiti Coffee Academy, a Clinton Foundation-backed development program for coffee growers in Haiti. La Colombe may have been the earliest independent roaster to adopt a broad-based “direct trade” arrangement with coffee growers, a model that continues to distinguish late second-wave/early third-wave US coffee roasters.
Oakland, CA, “early 2000s,” Roast-to-cup
Likely the twee-est coffee roaster in operation in the US today, Blue Bottle is something of a darling. (Blue Bottle is the house coffee of Alice Waters’s famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley.) Founder James Freeman began selling roasted beans at farmers markets in San Francisco in 2002, with a founding credo to sell beans roasted no longer than 48 hours prior. This strict timestamp, coupled with Blue Bottle’s focus on single-origin coffees, speaks to a sense of purity that has come to typify third-wave coffee production, from bean terroir and provenance to brewing and roasting time, temperature, and method.
These roasters are influential in their own right, but aren't quite as heavy-hitters as those listed above.
Parlor Coffee - Brooklyn; Stumptown alum
Ruby Coffee Roasters - Nelsonville, WI; Intelligentsia alum
Oren’s Daily Roast - Manhattan; only in Manhattan, 24 hour bean turnaround (vs. Blue Bottle’s 48)
Cafe Grumpy - NYC, most famous coffee roaster on TV
Tandem - Portland, coffee from the other Portland
Ritual - San Francisco, giving Blue Bottle a run for its twee money
PT’s - Topeka, if you can believe it