One cup at a time

Bull Run Roasting Company’s new brewed-to-order coffee bar is a first in Minneapolis

In the over-caffeinated world of get-and-go coffee consumption, appreciation for a quality cup of brew often falls short.

Bull Run Roasting Company founder Greg Hoyt hopes to change that with a coffee bar launched earlier this month inside the new Rustica Bakery at 3220 W. Lake St. The bar brews coffee on a per-order basis, meaning each cup is made fresh — nothing is stored in coffee pots. Free coffee tastings, or “cuppings” are also part of the concept, which Hoyt said is focused on creating “an amazing sensory experience.”

The coffee bar is the first of its kind in Minneapolis and Hoyt hopes both coffee novices and connoisseurs won’t mind taking an extra minute or two to try it.      

“We are asking a little bit from people who come in, of their time,” Hoyt said. “So there is a little bit of a time investment. There doesn’t have to be a big time investment, but the whole philosophy around what we’re doing is more about education and less about just a transaction.”

An entrepreneurial resumé

Hoyt moved to the Twin Cities from the West Coast in the early 1990s after earning a music degree from San Diego State University, but he wasn’t destined for a career as a musician.

Three months after graduating, he happened to meet a couple launching a new coffee shop called Caribou Coffee, which today is the second largest coffee retailer in the U.S. behind Starbucks. Hoyt started working for the company as a barista and eventually managed a dozen stores.

“I was very infected with the entrepreneurial bug and I discovered that I absolutely adored coffee, especially great coffee,” Hoyt said.

Despite that, he left the coffee industry for a couple years in the late 1990s to work for another up-and-coming organization, the Minnesota Wild hockey team. But in 2000, he decided to get back into coffee after recognizing a need for quality blends in restaurants, grocery stores, country clubs and other venues that wasn’t being met.

What started as a wholesale business called Beatitude quickly morphed into Bull Run, a company that has successfully sold worldwide-sourced coffee through Lunds and Byerly’s and a number of area restaurants including the Oceanaire Seafood Room, Vincent A Restaurant, the St. Paul Grill and others. Though successful, the wholesale operation wasn’t enough for Hoyt.

“It has been my dream since we started almost 10 years ago to sell coffee directly to consumers,” he said. “We don’t have that opportunity as a wholesaler.”

His opportunity came in a partnership with former Caribou colleague Steve Horton, who ran Rustica from a space inside Java Jacks at Bryant Avenue and 46th Street. After a year of discussion, Hoyt and Horton decided to open a business together at a new location, which happened to be next to a Punch Neopolitan Pizza, a franchise co-owned by Caribou founder John Puckett.

“So here we are, right back together again,” Hoyt said.

The third wave of coffee  

Standing out among the many other coffee venues Minneapolis has to offer was a priority for Hoyt in developing the new bar.

“One thing that the Twin Cities does not need is another run of the mill coffee house,” he said.

His mission was to introduce the “third wave” of coffee to Minneapolis consumers. The first wave, he said, involved low-quality commodity coffee drunk in the 1950s and 1960s for the caffeine jolt. The second wave was the proliferation of espresso beverages in coffee shops such as Starbucks.

The third wave, Hoyt said, is direct-sourced coffee brewed professionally, on the spot by highly trained baristas.

Hoyt’s carefully selected crew spent countless hours prior to the bar’s opening learning to operate expensive brewing equipment such as a Clover, designed specifically to brew one cup at a time at a precise temperature. The machine uses pressure from a piston to extract more flavor than a traditional drip coffee maker.

Bull Run barista Justin Holinka said he and another barista spent about 20 hours prior to the business’ opening working with the Clover, trying different temperatures and doing taste tests.

Hoyt said his crew spent six months developing an espresso blend in another machine that requires plenty of training and skill to operate. One eye-catching twist on the espresso drinks is art created in the foam — leaves, hearts and other creations baristas whip up with seemingly little difficulty.

For customers interested in sampling coffee, the new bar will occasionally offer cuppings — at which they can slurp a variety of fresh coffee from spoons at a special rotating table. The activity helps educate customers and improve the business, Hoyt said.  

“What we have found is whenever we’ve been able to bring someone in to what we’re doing on the cupping table, they always leave with an experience that they’ve never imagined they’d have with coffee,” he said. “A cupping really gives one an opportunity to see the best coffee has to offer. On the cupping table, the coffee does not lie.”

The coffee shop also offers fresh brewed ice tea and sparkling water that is carbonated in-house. Everything is hand crafted.

Hoyt said customers who just want to get their coffee and go should still be able to do so in a few minutes, but he’s hoping they won’t want to.

A single-cup renaissance

Mark Inman, past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, said the idea of single-cup brewing has gone in and out of fashion for a couple decades, but several shops are making it work now in locations throughout the U.S.

“Now there’s this renaissance returning that if we want to get higher prices for coffee, we have to show the consumer that it is a cut above what they are getting elsewhere,” he said.

He said third wave coffee is a way of getting consumers to think about coffee in the same way many think about wine. The nuances are just as complex, he said, but not nearly as understood or appreciated.

Whether the concept will take hold long-term has yet to be seen, he said, and every market is different.

“The real question is not only can Minneapolis support one more coffee shop,” Inman said. “But is every cutting-edge trend applicable in every market place?”

A couple brewed-to-order coffee shops opened in St. Paul in recent years and Hoyt expects the idea to be well received on the other side of the river.

Bull Run already has a strong following from its grocery store sales, but many people who have probably had the coffee at various restaurants don’t know what they’re drinking, Hoyt said. The coffee bar will give the company an opportunity to make a direct connection with those folks and many others in a non-conventional way.   

“It’s really important at this point that we go from being this purveyor or vendor to a brand and this is the way we’re able to do it,” he said.