The Best Specialty Coffee Roasters in Iowa (2019)
When I started Ross Street Roasting Co. in 2015, I could count the number of Specialty Coffee roasters on one hand. At the rate that roasters similar to us have started up after RSR, I'm very close to needing an extra set of hands to count us.
Earlier this year, I started a hashtag for our community: #iowacoffee - And in that spirit, I thought it would be awesome to document our community, my fellow colleagues and friends in the growing world of Specialty Coffee in Iowa.
In this post, I'll fill you in on how this dynamic craft-focused, small-batch-oriented industry has grown in a relatively short period of time. Programming note: I'm focusing on roasters of Specialty Coffee, and there is technical precision to that term. Specialty Coffee represents the top quality grades of coffee in the world, and are scored on a 100-point scale. All coffees that can be sold into the Specialty market must score at least 80 points or above.
Roasters in Iowa who source exclusively Specialty-grade coffees are those that I'm including in this list. We also tend to have different roasting styles than roasters of lower-quality (cheaper) coffees. Lighter roasts are more common, but this isn't necessarily a rule - more of a tendency in response to roasters and customers.
So without further ado, here is my totally biased list of the Best Specialty Coffee Roasters in our home state of Iowa.
Ross Street Roasting Co.
Surprise! Of course I think my own company deserves top billing! :) I like to think that we've done a great job of making Specialty Coffee accessible to a broader swath of the coffee drinking public. Since our founding, our mission has been to "Turn coffee drinkers into coffee lovers." We started and are located in a small rural community, where old church ladies and farmers are accustomed to drinking nostalgic big brands from the mid-20th century (that still have considerable market share in these parts), and we've developed our expansive product catalog to bring high-end coffees to "normal" coffee drinkers as well as "coffee snobs."
We consistently make new customers across rural Iowa, and get feedback like "I usually have to add cream or sugar to my coffee, but this tastes so good I don't have to add anything!" That's music to my ears whenever I hear it (which is somewhat regularly), and it's an indicator to me that we're making good on our mission statement.
Now that my totally biased #1 is out of the way, here are more awesome roasters in Iowa. I'll go in alphabetical order since I'm not trying to rank anyone. And
Capanna Coffee Roasters (North Liberty)
Website - Capanna predates RSR by a good 9 years, so I've been fortunate to get to know owner/roaster Mike McCain and learned from his wisdom in the biz. Not only does Mike roast tasty coffee, but he also makes incredible gelato! If you're swinging by on I-380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, it's totally worth the short jaunt east to get a coffee or espresso and some gelato!
Dash Coffee Roasters (Cedar Rapids, Iowa City)
Website - Owners Phil & Rebecca burst onto the scene about 2 yrs ago with their Cedar Rapids roastery/café location, and have quickly expanded to two more retail locations in CR and Iowa City. Early on they hosted a latte art competition, which I competed in more for comedic value than anything. (I'm a roaster, not a barista! :) )
Since that time, Phil and I have become roaster buddies and chat regularly, swap coffees, and compare notes. I enjoy popping into their retail elegant cafés for coffee (and their food is great, too). Earlier this fall (2019), Phil even saved our rear-end when a piece of metal got into one of our production grinders. He threw a set of new grinding burrs in his saddlebag, hopped on his motorcycle, and buzzed over to Tama to help me fix the grinder. The coffee community at it's best!
Roasters Phil Davidson (Dash) & Brian G. (RSR)
& the Great Grinder Fix of Sept. 2019
Euphoria Coffee (West Union)
Website - Fellow rural, small-town roasters that have gone the route of roastery/café, which is not an easy business to pull off in struggling rural communities! Founder Nick Yost has become a roaster buddy of mine, as well. In 2019, he purchased a few bags of coffee from our Nicaraguan direct trade partners, Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, and I had the chance to drive those bags up to him and check the place out. This year they moved into a new building on the square in West Union and bought a larger drum roaster after winning a grant competition through the Main Street Iowa program.
Roasters Brian G. (RSR) & Nick Yost (Euphoria)
Dropping off direct trade Nicaraguan coffee
Horizon Line Coffee (Des Moines)
Website - I love this story: In 2017, two young dreamers from Southern California moved to Des Moines specifically to start a café/roastery. Brad & Nam and the HLC crew hosted a latte art competition early shortly before opening, which brought together the coffee community from across Iowa. It ended up getting them in a bit of trouble with the health inspectors (cart before the horse problem), but it also signaled their commitment to getting connected with the growing Specialty Coffee culture in Iowa.
HLC is one of my regular stops when I head to Des Moines. Conveniently located downtown, where there's all sorts of awesome people and food and drink businesses as well as a rapidly expanding residential base, HLC has become a staple business in the Western Gateway district of downtown Des Moines. They have a commitment to inclusivity, hospitality, and sustainability that are a model for the rest of us to aspire to. And Brad and Nam are just wonderful humans. (I only regret that I don't have a good photo of me and the two of them :) )
Iris Coffee (Pella)
Website - Founder Elizabeth D. had worked in the café environment prior to starting Iris, so she brings a wealth of experience from the commercial coffee shop world to her roasting business. She is also one of the few roasters in the state who, like us, roasts on a "fluid bed" type roaster - somewhat unique amongst the more common gas drum roasters. And finally, she's a woman roastery owner/operator, which is rare in the industry and awesome to see.
Elizabeth has visited our shop in Tama a few times, and we've exchanged notes on roasting technique since we share the same type of machine. Pella is close to where I grew up, so it's great to see craft coffee roasting taking root in that unique community started by Dutch Reformed immigrants (including my maternal great grandparents).
Morning Bell Coffee Roasters (Ames)
Website - Founder Nadav is just a precious jewel of a human being. We connected a few years ago and before the end of our first conversation he said, "If you're ever in a pinch for coffee, let me know" - And I've had to take him up on that offer once! :) Their recent (2019) expansion on Old Main St. in Ames has given them a wonderful café space one the front of the building where you can see through a large plate glass window into the roast production area.
Nadav is also a wizard when it comes to cold brew, consistently cranking out delicious cold brew drinks flavored with natural ingredients. Paired with the lever-operated espresso machine on the bar, Morning Bell is an awesome place to hang out and get some great coffee in old downtown Ames.
Roaster buddies Brian & Nadav
Sidecar Coffee (Cedar Falls/Waterloo)
Website - Sidecar holds a special place in my heart because they got into the game before I did and I look up to them and the successful roastery/local café chain that they've set up in the CF/W'loo area. Roaster Jed and I have bumped into each other a few times at coffee events, including our shared sourcing partner in Minneapolis, Café Imports.
Sidecar was also the inspiration for me in the realm of barrel-aged coffees. Jed's was the first barrel-aged coffee I ever tried, I believe it was even before I started roasting. I don't get up to CF/Waterloo too often, but Sidecar is definitely a must-stop for me when I do!
Stone Bru (Sioux City)
Stone Bru is new to me, and I just came across them earlier this fall (2019) at the Siouxland Coffee Fest, where they were a major sponsor. After chatting with one of the owners, we did a bag swap and I got my hands on a natural process Costa Rican coffee of theirs and OH MY GOODNESS, it was fantastic. I love naturals, and this one did not disappoint. Sweet, fruity, juicy, delicious. We tore that 12oz bag at the shop in less than a week, which is pretty rare. They don't seem to have a website at this point, so if you're up in that part of the state, definitely check them out. If I'm remembering their story correctly, they started their life as a café and only recently got into roasting their own. If that's true, they're off to a great start in the roasting biz!
Swed & Co. Coffee (Fort Madison)
Website - Founder Chris Swed has a delightful roastery way down in SE Iowa on the Mississipi River, where he sells direct to consumer through his website and also supplies a few grocery stores in that part of the state. He's also been able to make it to a number of coffee events closer to us, so we've bumped into him a few times. Great guy, roasting great coffee!
They also highlight local artists and photographers through their bag labels, which is a very unique touch with their products. Very cool!
Windmill Coffee Roasters (Ames)
Website - These guys have become friends over the past year or so, and Andrew and Robb are knowledgable, kind, and fun to hang out with. I've had the chance to pop into their production space in time for a cupping session, which was a lot of fun. Our production grinder came from Andrew a few years ago after he rehabbed it with a new burr set (which was damaged in 2019, see story above).
There are a few that I didn't do write-ups on, but that's not due to any ill will on my part! Some up and comers that I'm not as familiar with, but y'all should definitely look out for...
- Black Silo Roasters, Ankeny/Altoona - These guys started up a year or two after us and have the same model of roaster! So we've traded notes and questions over the years. They supply Porchlight Coffeehouse in Ankeny, where I have friends and family, so I enjoy popping in there for coffee when I'm in town.
- BLK & Bold, West Des Moines - I found out about these guys through our design/branding consultant, Adam at Avidity Creative. Their one of his clients, and look to have an awesome social entrepreneurship model with a mission to promote "initiatives aligned to sustaining youth programming, enhancing workforce development, and eradicating youth homelessness"
- DreiBerge Coffee, Des Moines - Brand new roastery/café as of 2019, located in Des Moines' East Village. Great couple that owns it, awesome commitments to sourcing, roasting, and a great café atmosphere
- Happy Home Coffee Roasters, Des Moines- I ran into owner/operator Carlos Simms at DeiBerge and his roaster startup has a commitment to the values of Joy and Belonging, which they derive from how coffee commonly connects people across cultures
- Kojo Roastery, Stacyville - I had to look up Stacyville, it's waaaay up in northern Iowa near the border of Minnesota. We purchased a bag from Kojo to feature at our Saturday Café Hours one weekend earlier this year, and it was a fundraiser coffee for one of the founders local friends. We haven't had a chance to connect with them yet, but they seem to be growing fast and off to a good start!
- Wake Up Iowa, Iowa City - I've not run into these folks too often, but I have had a chance to chat with their roaster and he's a great guy. I believe they roast on a fluid bed roaster like us!
That's my take on Specialty Coffee roasters in Iowa, folks! There are probably some that I missed, and I'm sorry for that. I intend for this to be a post that I update each year, so reach out to me with any additions and corrections.
Happy Roasting, fellow roasters - And happy brewing, Coffee Friends!