A small coffee -- no, make it large

by Kyle Nabilcy


Madison will see the opening of its own Alterra cafe this Friday, and it'll be the first cafe for the Milwaukee coffee roaster that isn't in the Milwaukee area. But before this expansion to south central Wisconsin comes to fruition, Alterra will already have hit something of growth spurt. It's part of a trend in small-scale roasters across the country taking big steps toward national brand exposure.

Sure, you could say that companies like Starbucks (Seattle), Peet's (San Francisco), and Caribou (Minneapolis) kicked off this expansionist bent decades ago, but Starbucks is so far past its Seattle beginnings that it kind of fetishizes its younger self. And a single German conglomerate now owns both Caribou and Peet's, so they're kind of in the stratosphere now, too. What company stepped into the national spotlight prior to maybe five or seven years ago? Go ahead, I'll wait. (There really aren't any.)

Intelligentsia (Chicago) started to get a little national prominence around that time, opening a California cafe in 2007, but it remained a Midwestern product, largely because the tenor of America's food conversation hadn't quite come around to the artisanal fascination yet. (I do like that Intelligentsia makes a Door County roast to sell in the famously Illinoisian-heavy Wisconsin peninsula.) But things were quiet for a few years.

Then San Francisco's Blue Bottle expanded into New York in 2010. Alterra  got some press that year too, signing a distribution deal with Mars, Inc. that put its coffee in the Flavia single-serve system. This was a move that caused some consternation given the conflict between the increased waste of pod coffee and the environmental awareness of Alterra to that date.

When rumors started swirling in May of 2011 that Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters, beloved of the Pacific Northwest set, had been sold to TSG Consumer Partners, a firm most famous for funding and then selling its share of the Vitaminwater brand, the trend was in full flush. Though at the prospect of a sell-out, lids were predictably flipped.

The future Alterra storefront.

Turned out this wasn't entirely accurate. TSG was simply doing with Stumptown what it did with Vitaminwater: providing investment for expansion. Within a couple days of the publication of that Willamette Week story, the New York Times reported that Stumptown would open shops in New York, with eyes on Chicago and San Francisco down the road -- with the cash from TSG as the catalyst. (Blue Bottle got into the ownership turnover game in 2012, in with headlines and corrections that closely mirrored those that Stumptown received.) 

All of the aforementioned roasters are regularly listed in national media as some of the best small-brand or boutique coffee you can buy. And to keep from being lapped by the competition, Intelligentsia's expanding yet again, with reports that new shops in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York are on the docket for 2013. I for one am happy that Alterra, our local roaster done good, has decided to spread the love to more of its home state before setting out for the coasts.