Two weeks ago, I visited Grand Rapids Michigan for my cousin’s wedding. En route to the family festivities, I of course coffee crawled my way to Madcap Coffee Company, Grand Rapids’ stronghold of specialty coffee.
I was elated to find a gorgeous cafe, exciting coffee drinks (that’s right, coffee based mocktails of glory) and down to earth people who love what they do and do what they love.
Even though it was a Friday afternoon, Madcap’s co founder Ryan Knapp was kind enough to sit down for a brief interview. He offered me a coffee, and I was very curious to try one of Madcap’s signature drinks.
I drink a lot of black coffee, and even top micro lot black coffee is still black coffee, I’m already at the point in the summer of cold brew over saturation, and I will never like coffee with milk. So when I saw the Madcap Moscow Mule, I was stoked: ginger and lime, two of may favorite food/beverage additives on any day, paired with espresso. Done and done. I wanted one of each, but the Madcap Mule is literally the best espresso drink I’ve had ever, and since I’ve been back in NYC I keep wishing someone here makes them.
Once I got over gushing about the Mule, I briefly interviewed Ryan. The conversation tends towards coffee labeling, since that’s the topic of an upcoming Tea & Coffee Trade Journal article.
RN: How did Mapcap arrive at the decision they did, showcasing the name of the coffee on the label and having the secondary info on the side?
RK: When we transitioned to this packaging, which has been close to four years now, there were a couple things we wanted to do: make it clean and simple, get the information someone needs to them easily.
I think we came in [to specialty coffee] at a time where we knew all this information about variety and elevation and processing method, and I think a lot of shops were pushing “if we know that we’re going to push it in your face.” It was almost like a bragging competition of how much information do you know about your coffee.
But we really wanted to focus on what matters to the consumer, and for most consumers is “what’s the name of the coffee? And how can I identify this if I want to buy it again?” We look at all the coffees we buy as having a personality of their own but still being part of a family; they’re all unique. We’ve seen a lot of packaging with uniform packaging—if they’re unique and different why do they just have the same label on the front? We went with the color combinations; every single coffee we release has a different color combination. So if you can’t remember the obscure Ethiopian name, you can remember “I love the label that’s blood orange or bright florescent green.”
And we’ve tucked information onto the side label so that people who maybe want to know a little bit more can “geek out” about the coffee, but for us, the important part is to identify of the person, farm or cooperative who produced it.
RN: What about the textile Madcap label?
RK: Our designers came and saw the café and saw that there was a real craft behind what we do, so the fabric gives this idea of a really hand made, detailed thing, that when you look up close you realize is fabric. We didn’t know anyone else who was doing that at the time, so we really wanted to do something unique and highlight the thought that “this coffee is really special to us.” All these coffees have a story and a really special life, so what are the details that make people think a little bit differently about coffee?
RN: Do you work with the same farms/regions year after year?
RK: Generally we try to find really lovely coffees, and if we buy something our goal is to follow up and keep working with them. A handful of our coffees you can see on our shelf we’ve had for over three years—some we’ve had since the year we opened. For some of these coffees we’re buying all of the production of small producers, so as we grow we’re always looking for new relationships and always tasting new coffees. In a given year we cup through over 2,000 coffees to select the two dozen coffees that make it to our menu.
RN: Among your regular customers, are more people looking to find something that they love and want to stick with, or do people come in looking for “what do you have that’s new?” wanting to try new things?
RK: We get a little bit of both, definitely. Which is always a challenge for us, since we focus on seasonality. Something that’s on our shelf right now won’t be there in four to six months, so it kind of depends. A lot of time people love something and it makes sense–you love something and you latch onto it—you get it and you get it. Our goal is hopefully to suggest something that is similar. But it depends, we have plenty of customers who are always looking for, “what’s the brand new thing?” the freshest thing.
RN: Where do you sell whole bean bags?
RK: Right now a lot of the cafes that carry our coffee around the country will also retail it by the bag. We’re in a few specialty stores here in Michigan and a few others around the country. Right now we haven’t entered the grocery market at all, mostly because of our size. We do everything in 15lb batches now. The size of the roaster can max out at 27lbs, but we just found that sweet spot that we really like. We work it a lot. We’re upgrading to a 25kg, which will be tripling our capacity in a couple months.
RN: One goal in near future? New café? More sourcing?
RK: One goal, that’s always our continual goal in the company, is to keep on improving,buying coffees that we’re ecstatic about, and partnering with farmers to help them keep getting more excited about particular coffees–and customers who will continue to share their excitement. That would be a continual goal day in and day out. We’re always looking at what can we do to bring out more flavor in the coffee, how can we work with farmers to sustain better practices.
As far as in the next year, the big project is getting the new roaster underway and expanding that capacity. The side project would be getting a café out in DC as well.
I brought that lovely bag of golden Salvadorian Elefante back east and have spent the past two weeks reminiscing about Grand Rapids as I pull the Varietal Series through my little French Press.