Interview: coffee pro Ryan Knapp (MadCap Coffee)

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Barista Michigan

Ryan Knapp has been a key part of MadCap Coffee's expansion from Michigan to D.C. [Tommy Valdez]

MadCap Coffee opened in Grand Rapids in 2009 and recently expanded to Washington, D.C. Ryan Knapp is helping to mold the company’s flavor profile in both markets as their Head of Roasting Operations. He’s also an accomplished barista. In February, he outperformed fellow coffee pros at the North Central Regional Barista Competition to capture the crown. Knapp recently shared more caffeinated insights, which hint at why he’s been successful.

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

Ryan Knapp: When I was in college I was always intrigued of the idea of running a coffee shop, but I always thought of it as more of an idea than actually a feasible job. I studied theology in college without really knowing what I wanted to do with it and towards the end of my time in college I started working part time as a barista. When I finished school, all I really wanted to do is make coffee and learn about it. Since then it seems like I’ve dove head first into this journey without looking back.

JL: Do you have a first coffee memory, good or bad?

RK: My Dad’s Folgers coffee. He would make a pot every morning and drink it throughout the day. The smell was definitely intriguing, and I remember giving it a sip about once a year from the time I was about 5 years old to 15 just to see if I would like it (I actually did the same thing with my Dad’s go-to beer Milwaukee’s Best). I hated it every time, but just figured it was a grown up’s thing that I would eventually acquire the taste for. Years later, I still haven’t acquire an appreciation for my dad’s coffee or beer preference.

JL: What was your very first day like working behind a coffee bar, and where was it?

RK: Crazy. It was in a small town about an hour south of Chicago called Bourbonnais. The name of shop was Moon Monkey Coffee Company. I just remember feeling really overwhelmed. So much new language, had no idea what a latte even was, whew, it was like going through a syllabus at the 1st day of class.

JL: How did the opportunity come about with MadCap Coffee?

RK: I worked with Trevor Corlett in Illinois. After a while we got some ideas and dreamed of what it would look like to start something like Madcap. With a lot of brainstorming, a lot of helping hands from other madcap friends of ours and a few trips to Michigan we decided Grand Rapids needed a place like Madcap. That’s been almost 4 years ago now.

JL: Would you consider anybody a coffee mentor? If so, what did they teach you that was so valuable?

RK: Trevor has definitely played that role. I started working with him during my last semester of college. He was the first person I met that was a true coffee person. It gave me this crazy idea that I could actually make coffee for a living.

JL: Walk me through a typical coffee consumption day for you. What would that be like, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed?

RK: I like to start with an espresso in the morning and then I drink about 8oz or so of a pourover late morning early afternoon. Typically there is a table or two of cupping in the mix too. When I’m not working bar I usually try to limit the consumption to less than 3 drinks. If I’m working bar I choose not to count…it’s a lot of coffee.

JL: What’s your preferred brewing method at home, and how come?

RK: I typically go with the Chemex. I’m a huge fan of the clean cup, but there’s also something really romantic and peaceful about the brewing process (and appearance) of the Chemex that keeps me coming back.

JL: If you could travel to any city in the world right now, primarily to drink coffee, what would it be and why?

RK: Hard one. I think I would go with Tokyo. I don’t know a lot about the coffee culture honestly, I just know it is so wildly unique compared to what I’m used to seeing. I’ve seen enough coffee bar photos on flickr and seen the commitment Watura (and other Japanese coffee buyers) has to buying incredible coffee that I’m confident I’d have a great time.

JL: If you could only have one more shot of espresso, and you couldn’t pull the shot, who would pull it for you?

RK: Oh man. There are so many great baristas out there. This isn’t easy.

I’d probably have to go with Trevor Corlett. He pulls a mean espresso, and half of a good shot has to do with the overall experience and I must say I love watching Trevor on bar. He’s been doing it for over 10 years now, and there’s nothing he enjoys more than making coffee. 10 more years from now he’ll still be working bar shifts because that’s what he loves.


Joshua Lurie

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

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