Words by Kelley Heider and Kelsey Sells
Video by Kevin Ihle
The craft coffee scene in Colorado Springs has been growing steadily over the past few years. Residents are beginning to understand and discriminate between aspects like single origin versus coffee blends or drip coffee versus pour-overs. It’s an exciting moment for anyone who is enthusiastic about celebrating the complex purity of something as seemingly simple as a cup of joe. SwitchBack Coffee Roasters, a small-batch craft roaster on the corner of Boulder and Institute, is one of several local institutions that can be credited with elevating the profile of the common man’s drink here in the Springs. Kyle Collins and Brandon DelGrosso, founders of SwitchBack, exude passion and dedication to honoring the beverage that has become a quotidian staple in households around the world. When I met with them to discuss the roastery they started three years ago, I was impressed by their commitment to improving the form and function of their beans, from the farm to the steaming cup.
Originality and clean brews define the SwitchBack model of craft coffee.
Originality and clean brews define the SwitchBack model of craft coffee. As Collins and DelGrosso explain, about 2,000 hours of work go into a single cup of coffee. At SwitchBack, they take each step in the process very seriously, from sourcing (fair-trade, direct-trade and farm-trade exclusively) to roasting to educating the baristas who serve their coffee and the customers who drink it. Take for example their approach to roasting. SwitchBack takes one separate bag of beans and experiments with it in its pure form to accent every subtle note and charm of the bean.
To roast the beans, they use a fluid bed air roaster, which gets the job done in less than half the time it takes with a drum roaster. The result is a batch of beans which are more aromatic and flavorful. Either Collins or primary master roaster Nathan Bland roast multiple times a day and sell the beans, ideally, within ten days of roasting because the majority of what you taste in a cup of coffee is the aroma. Regardless of who ultimately roasts the beans, the entire team experiments with and discusses their opinions of new beans together. The process is meticulous: each batch’s roasting temperature is digitally recorded and logged so the roasters can repeat the factors which yield the results they want. Collins explains that unlike drum roasting, which doesn’t distribute heat evenly, air roasting delivers consistent results, so they can count on the same taste every time.
“It’s all about changing the experience because experiences are what people get excited about.”
For these guys, the goal is not to mass produce, but to create an experience. “Coffee was a means to an end in our parents’ generation — to get caffeine — but our hope is to make coffee an end in itself," says Collins. “It’s all about changing the experience because experiences are what people get excited about.”
By constantly rotating through new coffee beans, there is always a new coffee experience to be offered. This is a stark contrast from big coffee companies whose mass production blends together multiple varieties of beans, making one medium blend that lacks subtlety of flavor.
As Collins explains, the SwitchBack coffee roasting enterprise started from humble beginnings. His interest in roasting began with him tinkering and playing around with a popcorn popper at home and roasting his own beans. Fresh-roasted beans tasted so much better, he was convinced that with one sip, no one would ever switch back — hence the name of the roastery. Kyle eventually upgraded to a small air roaster and started by selling his coffee to friends and family. When his path crossed with DelGrosso, a self-identified dreamer, these college buddies found they shared a passion for coffee. “It was a hobby and passion turned business,” says Collins. “In the beginning we just thought if it could support our own addiction and hobby it would be worth it.”
Initially, they thought about opening a coffee shop, but that dream would require more capital than they had available. Instead, Collins and DelGrosso began roasting in a friend’s garage in Old Colorado City. “You don’t know how much you don’t know until you’re diving in,” Collins explains. Due to their resilience and love of experimentation, Collins and DelGrosso are always learning and enjoy bringing that experience to others. As Collins points out, the primary goal in starting SwitchBack was to create a delicious cup of coffee for customers, not simply as a beverage, but as an event. This is a mission the men take so seriously that they even work with the baristas at coffee shops where their coffee is sold just to ensure a quality end product. The reason for this, according to Collins, is that in three minutes, the barista can disqualify all of the two thousand hours of careful work that preceded it — an egregious offense in the craft world that can be easily avoided with the proper training.
Though there have been a number of changes and evolutions in the three years SwitchBack has been in existence, one thing has remained the same: their love of coffee has never hinged on its production. In fact their biggest financial risk was in service of the passion of coffee. That risk was hiring Bland as primary master roaster. To bring Bland on, Collins and DelGrosso needed to take a cut in their pay when they were already struggling with finances. Although it made no financial sense at the time, Collins explains that Bland quickly caught the vision and brought a much-needed boost of passion to the company when they were starting to burn out. “He encouraged us not to settle for being a good roaster, but to fight to be the best we could be.”
“When we educate someone about a great cup of coffee, it’s great for everyone in town."
When I ask them about the development of the craft coffee scene in Colorado Springs, Collins and DelGrosso say they are happy about the growing enthusiasm within the community. And they are grateful for the opportunity to be a catalyst for the movement. “When we educate someone about a great cup of coffee, it’s great for everyone in town,” says Collins. “Together we can work to elevate the coffee culture.” More important, however, they recognize that with a craft company like SwitchBack, they have to continually work to stay competitive in the evolving craft culture. For now at least, these gentlemen are up for the challenge.
Speaking of challenge, Colorado Springs Craft Week is April 26 - May 4, 2014. Check the website for fun events, including the Crafter's Festival Roasting Competition on May 2 and the Home Roasting Class on May 3. In addition, SwitchBack has partnered with local breweries Nano 108, Fieldhouse Brewing, Pikes Peak Brewing and Fossil Brewing for a selection of collaboration coffee beers, which you'll have the opportunity to taste at the Crafter's Festival and at different taps around town.