Coffee is ritualistic on many levels and if you worship it like many do, chances are you belong to one of its tribes.
There are those who home brew, and those who prefer their local barrista. There are the "fast food drinkers" who worship daily at the counters of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, and those who will not deign to cross their "millions of customers served and counting" threshholds. This brings me to the "I only drink espresso and its gotta come from a very expensive machine" drinkers and their crunchy cousins who have been carefully polishing their chemex carafe for decades. Embracing simplicity in preparation and materials, the French press method has enjoyed a strong revival as many of us attempt to simplify and take back the brewing process to our own hands. Translate this method commercially and you have businesses like west coast favorite Philz and in our own backyard espressoNEAT who have elevated coffee to an art, brewing each cup, one by perfectly crafted cup, at a time.
No matter which tribe you ascribe to, we all worship the same thing, really. And that is the coffee bean. The fresher, the more recently roasted, the better. No matter your method (we can argue about tools and machines another time) it is all rather superfluous if you don't start with good, make that great beans.
So where do you turn in Fairfield County for the best roasted beans? There are two local business worth seeking out located conveniently at opposite ends of the county. Redding Roasters in Bethel, CT and Zumbachs in New Canaan, CT are among the best and few coffee roasters in our area that sell both to the trade and directly to customers.
You know if Redding Roaster's amiable owner Bill is busy roasting if his motorcycle is parked out front. The first time I learned he was the owner of that gorgeous creature I knew we'd be fast friends. In his own words, "I prefer a simple life, my joy is riding my motorcycle." Bill, you had me at that bike.
Redding Roasters is located on Greenwood Avenue in Bethel. Inside his homey shop you're greeted immediately by a carafe of coffee to sample and a chalk board listing the single bean origins available for purchase that day. Up in the right hand corner of the board, hand-written over and over by the imaginary customer Bill just busted sipping from a Dunkin Donuts cup, reads the Redding Roaster's detention assignment: "I will not drink coffee from Starbucks. I will not drink Dunkin Donuts…" and so on.
On most visits, almost for sport I ask what he recommends and his answer is always the same, "everything of course!" This guy has a great memory and usually he'll recommend a roast based on my passion for Ethiopian beans or my recent obsession with his Bali Blue. Although Redding Roasters does not sell brewed coffee, there are plenty of beans to purchase (whole or ground as well as flavored). Redding Roasters roasts their single origin beans to what he says is the full city level, including beans from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Sumatra, Brazil, Ethiopia and Yemen. He buys his beans from just a few brokers, whose relationships he values and relies heavily on. The brokers will often tell him what's roasting well, what's over-priced and what not to miss.
Take a peek around the corner beyond the small retail space and you'll see the tools behind the rest of this one-man roasting operation; pallets piled high with sacks of coffee, barrels of beans, scales and the shop's epicenter, a hefty Deidreich roaster. Redding Roasters caters to three tiers of clients; caffeine junkies like me who drop in to buy their weekly beans; restaurant clients and caterers including O'Neils and Daily Fare in Bethel, Fabulous Feasts in New Canaan and Ancona's in Ridgefield to name a few; and a few private label clients such as Simply Smiles, a coffee that is derived from and with sales that benefit the Oaxacan tribe. Bill will create custom blends for some of the coffee shops that brew his beans, but he will be the first to admit he prefers the simplicity of brewing single origin. In addition to single, Bill offers decaf and flavored coffee. The Redding Roasters decaf is brewed by Swiss Water process. So although you can't walk in and buy a cup of joe, you can walk out with a week's worth of freshly roasted beans for your own home brew.
Founded in 2004 Bill was inspired to start his coffee roasting business after working in the printing industry. A dying business, he was looking for a new vocation which led him to partner in a short-lived coffee roasting business where he learned what to do, and almost as importantly, what not to do. He left that experience with a clear vision. Build a business he could take pride in combining specialty quality beans with the consistency of a great roaster. Redding Roasters launched six years ago and has stayed simple and true to this mission.
Bill is a one-man-show, and he clearly works all sides of the business from roasting the coffee to interacting with the customers. From this customer's vantage point, he excels in both. Looking for an Ethiopian but wanted a darker French roast than his usual full city? No problem, give him 20 minutes or call ahead and he may have the time to sneak in a special order and roast your beans to the level you desire.
If you've spent any time in New Canaan you've more than likely been privy to the siren call of Zumbach's, which roasts daily, creating an unmistakable aroma that rolls through downtown like a glorious and thick caffeinated fog.
A fixture on Pine Street in New Canaan since 1992, Doug Zumbach started his business before Starbucks was a household name (if you can remember that far back). In fact Starbucks had only reached as far east as Chicago when Doug decided to devote his time and energy to roasting and brewing coffee. A self-proclaimed people person, Doug was a human resources executive doing the Metro North Manhattan shuffle each morning for many years before taking the leap into his own business venture. "I was very lucky to start at the beginning of the gourmet coffee cycle starting in California and Seattle." Eighteen years and the same business plan later, Zumbach's is a mainstay in New Canaan where its fresh coffee and earnest business keep it a town fixture.
Step inside Zumbachs and its clear you've entered a second home to many in New Canaan and its surrounds. Above and behind the counter and creeping onto the ceiling hang dozens of college banners boasting the many current and former employees and patrons who have passed through the doors. Over in the other corner you'll see two important features, his Diedrich roaster and a photo of his beloved 1977 Porsche 930 turbo. A car fanatic, Doug loves to race and if not roasting chances are he is behind the wheel his car, ideally up at Lime Rock. So naturally in 1995 Doug started caffeine and carburetors hosting car fanatics from the region at his shop for a cup of joe and a leisurely drive. On a recent Sunday morning it drew over 100 cars. Call ahead for dates.
Open daily, Doug roasts an average of 250 pounds of coffee each day. He encourages people to stop by and not just grab and go but enjoy the process of roasting, and buy a bag of beans. Zumbach's is both coffee bar and roaster, selling its coffee by the cup as well as selling beans (whole and ground). The shop is small with the majority of its real estate dedicated to a long counter that runs its length filled with dozens of jars filled with coffee beans. To the left of the register sits Zumbach's flavored beans, and to the right a larger selection of single origin beans and a few blends. On a recent visit, Zumbachs was offering over thirty different single origin beans.
On any given morning you'll likely find dozens of smartly dressed men and women grabbing their coffee to go as the first and most important stop of their daily commute. It's a rare day that you won't find Doug manning the roaster or chatting up a customer inside Zumbachs. In addition to these regular customers, Zumbach's provides coffee for many Connecticut restaurants, offices, country clubs and even municipalities, including a CTBites favorite Nicholas Roberts Gourmet Bistro.
So many beans so little time. So I asked Doug what the best approach was for a coffee bean neophyte and he responded with a geography lesson.
"South or Central America is a good place to start, specifically Guatemala or Costa Rica. Then go to Africa, possibly some Indonesian blends and then play with medium to dark roasts."
Lessons learned here? Befriend your neighborhood roaster. They seek out specialty grade coffee, and their consistency and passion translate into a great cup of coffee, making Zumbachs and Redding Roasters a worthwhile detour for your morning cup of home brew. Also, roasters tend to have excellent taste in hobbies. Motorcycles and vintage cars? I may be destined to be a coffee roaster.
Resources in Fairfield County
If you want to take a more scholarly approach to coffee, I urge you to check out a cupping at espressoNEAT in Darien. They host regular cuppings, or coffee tastings that explore the taste, flavor, and fragrances of coffee. These cuppings are part tutorial and part blind tasting of several different types of coffees side-by-side. You'll learn why higher elevations usually yield better coffee beans, get the opportunity to "break the crust," and hear the NEAT coffee pros eloquently parse flavor profiles and explain coffee growing regions.