Interview: Verve Coffee Roasters co-founder Colby Barr

Coffee California

Colby Barr frequently connects on the Farmlevel at origin. [Verve Coffee Roasters]

Colby Barr co-founded Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz with Ryan O’Donovan in 2007. Since then, the partners have emphasized impeccable sourcing at the Farmlevel and high engagement at the Streetlevel. This holistic approach has led to 11 thriving Verve cafes across California and in Tokyo, with more locations in the works. To stay at the forefront of the craft coffee movement, Barr and O’Donovan continue to innovate, whether that means investing in company culture, upgrading their food program, or launching new products like canned Nitro Flash Brew Coffee. I recently traded e-mails with Barr and he shared insights that helped to explain Verve’s coffee world success.

Joshua Lurie: What’s the very first cup of coffee you ever remember drinking?

Colby Barr: Probably the first coffee I ever had was some of my dad’s bottomless cup of percolated Folgers that was a staple in the house 24/7. That could also be why I wasn’t initially drawn to coffee! My first “a-ha” cup was much later in life when I tasted my first properly roasted high-grade washed Ethiopian. It blew my mind to taste what coffee could be and sent me on the course to eventually start Verve.

JL: Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?

CB: Growing up farming pears and wine grapes in Northern California, I was raised under a roof of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, so I always knew I would work for myself. It ended up not being on the family farm, but those roots built my mindset of not just “clocking in,” but to always treat my work as if it were my own. I had a few jobs in college waiting tables and working at a record store, but was always drawn back to trying things on my own, like setting up my own business at the farmer’s market, or starting my own contracting company where I worked on wildland fire and hurricanes using my environmental geography / GIS education. That said, coffeehouse culture was something I always had an affinity for through school and beyond, and was in the back of my mind as something I could see myself getting involved with. And so I did.

JL: How do you and Ryan divide Verve’s managerial duties? What are your respective strengths?

CB: Ryan and I are quite different on some levels, but similar in a lot of ways as well. In the beginning, Ryan developed our approach to roasting and blend development, as he had been home roasting for years and has an innate sense for it. While Ryan focused on roasting, I became obsessed with coffee sourcing. I travelled the world (and still do) to find the best coffees out there. I knew from my background how different one farm or farmer can be to the next and I was determined to go find those producers who were as obsessed about quality and their farm as my family was growing up. I knew they were out there and I just had to find them and give them access to the marketplace.

Besides roasting and sourcing coffees, Ryan and I have shared responsibilities in retail, education, wholesale, marketing and brand. We love these elements equally and really are aligned with our perspective on how they can be reflected in Verve.

As co-founders, we are lucky to have each other and to have the great leadership team we have at Verve. Roles and responsibilities are divided amongst such an amazing set of people that it really is what makes Verve tick. Ryan and I help on any projects or initiatives that require it, from new retail site selection and design to media content and business development. Wherever the team needs us, we want to be there. But also sometimes just get out of their way!

JL: What motivated you and Ryan to start roasting that very first time, and how did your very first batch turn out?

CB: The creation of Verve was half based on luck, half on skill and all on passion. As a college student, I developed what some might call a mild obsession with coffee and became a regular at one special local coffee spot there. When the opportunity to buy said shop arose, I jumped at the chance. I very quickly fell in love with the intricacies of coffee and the incredible process from green coffee to brewed beverage. After a year of growing this business, I called my college musician friend and fellow coffee aficionado, Ryan O’Donovan, with the idea to start our own coffee roasting company. He had been super in the weeds learning about craft coffee, and had traveled all over the Bay Area, Portland and Seattle working, and trying out other emerging third wave coffee creators. Ryan was the true coffee nerd and jumped at the chance.

We searched for months to find the right location to roast and serve our own point of view on coffee, first looking at San Francisco and Berkeley. Ryan, who is all about surfing, mountain biking and fly fishing, concluded that the city life wasn’t for him, and decided to move to Santa Cruz – I honestly thought that would be the end of our idea. However, on the very same day we decided to throw in the towel, a retail space in Santa Cruz that Ryan had been eyeing for several years opened up – we both saw it as a sign to pursue our crazy pipe dream to craft the next wave of coffee.

JL: What distinguishes Verve’s approach to sourcing and roasting coffee from other roasters?

CB: For us, coffee sourcing is critical. You can’t make coffee better, you can only mess it up. So terroir, variety, process, and passion are critical in finding the highest quality coffee as possible. In fact coffee is a fruit. A lot of people don’t know that. We brew the seeds of that fruit, but the sugars, density, complexity, and overall flavors and quality of the fruit are imparted into these seeds – the coffee we roast and the coffee you drink. We take coffee seriously throughout the entire lifecycle – this includes everything from incentivizing suppliers at Farmlevel who are consistently produce the highest quality coffee in the world, to prioritizing customer service and atmosphere in our cafes at Streetlevel. Our coffee team travels year-round sourcing coffees and meeting with our producer partners and though we taste thousands upon thousands of coffees each year, we only buy about 1% of them.

When it comes to roasting, our end goal is to roast the coffee to highlight the varietal characteristics without blanketing it in excessive roast. That’s like taking ahi tuna or Kobe beef and cooking it well done. Why would you ever do that?! We want clean, sweet and vibrant single-origin coffees, and clean, sweet, and balanced blends.

Also while other coffee purveyors get bought out and aggregated into larger multinational supply chains, we’ve proudly stayed founder-run and mission-driven. Because of this, our mission has stayed our passion, and we’ll always be relentlessly dedicated to sourcing, roasting and serving the world’s greatest coffees. We still roast coffee by hand in small batches on vintage roasters and taste everything blind to ensure our quality and authenticity remain true to our roots.

JL: In what ways has the Verve café experience evolved in the past decade?

CB: While we’ve always focused on a warm, residential-inspired and design-first aesthetic in our cafes, we’re constantly focused on innovation that will create the best experience possible for our communities. We know people come to Verve to work, catch up with friends or just take a break from their busy days – we want that experience to be as multi-sensory as possible. We’ve started introducing a really solid food program in our cafes – our menus include everything from elevated avocado toast with chives, radish, pickled shallot and cultured butter to coconut chia pudding with ginger pear purée and edible flowers to prosciutto sandwiches with bread from local bakers such as Manresa Bread.

We’ve also created our own unique aesthetic over the years – we emphasize a clean, minimal, California meets Scandinavian style design with tons of natural light and plant life. We’re also really proud of our transparent approach to our coffee – we put the espresso machine up front so it’s visible as soon as the customer comes in to order coffee – we were actually one of the first shops to do that back in the day. It’s an homage to the open kitchen concept and a way to make a connection between our team and our customers. Plus, who wants to stare at someone’s back while they prepare your food!

Looking ahead, we have some exciting things in the works for ordering and how we want people to live in our spaces. Also some new looks at beverage development and coffee education are coming over the next year in our store.

JL: Where do you see the California coffee scene in five years, and how does Verve fit into that vision?

INTERVIEW CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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