Interview: Handlebar Coffee Roasters co-founder Aaron Olson

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Coffee Santa Barbara

We first heard rumblings about Handlebar Coffee in 2010, when Intelligentsia’s James Marcotte said former professional cyclists Aaron Olson and Kim Anderson were planning to open a cafe in Santa Barbara. As it turned out, the couple had so much time during the construction and permitting phase that they decided to bypass established coffee companies like Intelligentsia and Stumptown, roast the beans themselves, and build their own brand. They bought a Probat, which sat in the window of a Southern Oregon roastery for 12 years. They initially started by selling bagged coffee at nearby FasTrack Bicycles, and last November, opened a small café across from El Presidio State Historic Park, Santa Barbara’s birthplace. We visited the café on February 24 and followed up with Aaron Olson via e-mail, where he shared caffeinated insights.

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

Aaron Olson: No first coffee memory, just remember enjoying cappuccino’s when I was racing in Italy in the Giro d’ Italia. Kim’s first memory was @ World Championships in Verona, Italy.

JL: Why coffee?

AO: In Europe and throughout the World, it is more than coffee, it is the experience, great coffee along with a great inviting friendly atmosphere is what it is all about. A place to meet friends and share laughs/memories over a great tasting beverage. Cyclists are known for relaxing after a hard day of training, or on a rest day at cafes.

JL: Are there any similarities between cycling and coffee?

AO: The similarities between being good at cycling and coffee come down to passion. Of course there are other determining factors, but passion for anything in life will take you a long ways.

JL: Is Handlebar your first coffee related job, or do you have previous coffee experience?

AO: No previous coffee experience other than attending the American Coffee & Barista School in Portland, OR, learning many basics on the business, latte art and gaining in depth knowledge about specialty coffee.

JL: Why was it important for you to roast coffee yourselves?

AO: Originally we were looking to buy coffee from one of the great roasters, Stumptown and Intelligentsia we both spoke with, but later wanted to focus on roasting ourselves as we both found ourselves having passion for that aspect of it. Roasting coffee from hard working farms throughout the World, to try and do their coffee justice by roasting and serving it in our cafe to the best of our ability.

JL: Would you consider anybody a coffee mentor?

AO: American Coffee & Barista School is a huge part of our success, without them we would have opened being in the dark, and wouldn’t of had the basic knowledge and skills that we learned. I would give a great deal of recognition to them as well as Tom Pikaart whom teaches for them and also took a vacation to Santa Barbara from Portland, Or to help us open in November. His knowledge and mentoring continues to this day. Great person and wealth of knowledge.

JL: What do you think it will take to make the Santa Barbara coffee scene great, if it isn’t already?

AO: I think Santa Barbara’s food/coffee/beer/wine culture is really growing with each year. We have lived here 4 years now, and have seen more great places opening with passion for their trade. Portland and the Bay Area set the bar, but Santa Barbara being a small town is stepping it up all the time, for instance our neighbors Julienne whom we are fortunate enough to be a couple doors down from buy from the local farmer’s market and prepare some amazing dinners, being recognized by the LA Times as the best restaurant in SB.

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?

AO: Coffee consumption, because we work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week is limited to testing the espresso throughout the day, otherwise, there isn’t much time between customers and other duties of running the business to enjoy a coffee at your own pace. Something we look forward to in the future, but we drink less caffeine now than previously, but enjoy the great shots….

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

AO: All coffee we have drank in the past 4 months since opening has been had at the cafe, mornings are too early and we just prepare our coffee/espresso at the cafe downtown.

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

AO: Can’t narrow it down to one city, but one country I would love to go back to, with my girlfriend and business partner Kim is Italy. I would like to explore more of the great roads by bicycle with her, enjoying great food and culture along the way. If I was to choose one city, I would choose Portland, Or for food, beer and coffee, I believe they are setting the bar and doing the best job of sustainable, local and amazing products made with passion.

JL: If you could only have one shot of espresso, who would pull it for you?

AO: One shot of espresso? like anything, depends on the day and the coffee, but it would be great to have a shot pulled by Michael Phillips of Handsome Roasters. People with passion and someone whom has reached the pinnacle of his trade.


Joshua Lurie

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

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