Within the past decade, North Tahoe has become home to four separate coffee entrepreneurs. In the post-Starbucks era, younger generations have transformed into the “coffee-shop generation” with more and more people seeking out unique, single-origin coffee to boost their morning rather than the sugary lattes of coffee-shop chains.
On a journey to dominate their niche in a fast-growing industry, four local roasters opened up to Moonshine about their journey to becoming independent roasters as well as their goals for future growth.
DRINK COFFEE DO STUFF:
Active Lifestyle Meets Specialty Coffee
The name DRINK COFFEE DO STUFF started as a tongue-in-cheek inside joke between friends, but evolved into a mantra by which to live. Husband and wife team Nick and Laura Visconti started DCDS in December 2017. Between the ages of 18 and 28, Nick was a professional snowboarder and one of his favorite pastimes during European competitions was to refuel with coffee at the bottom of the monstrous mountaintops.
This love of coffee and mountains proved lucrative. Five years after apprenticing in the coffee industry, the couple decided to move back home to Truckee and start their own business. “You see it in consumer marketing across the board — fuel, gear, beer,” Nick told Moonshine Ink. They wanted to capitalize on the outdoor lifestyle they love and focus on natural ingredients: No sugary or processed drinks for this duo. As a professional snowboarder, Nick “was getting recruited by some of the energy drinks for a multi-year sponsorship,” but he “just couldn’t get behind the artificial, synthetic fuel.”
DCDS’s goal is to source all of their coffee from high altitude (6,000 feet and above), often mountain-grown, areas. For example, Rutas del Inca from Peru is grown at just below 9,000 feet in the Northern Andes. According to Nick, the winds and temperatures at higher altitudes produce grit and tenacity. The more strained the plants are, the deeper the roots have to be, thus extracting more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients going into the fruit.
Nick said the company’s most unique feature is that it functions as a lifestyle brand as well as a coffee roaster, saying of their clientele: “It’s your marathon runner in San Francisco, it’s your centennial bike cyclist in Sacramento, it’s your trail runner in Reno, it’s the skiers and snowboarders and kayakers in Tahoe.”
DCDS won four national awards in 2019.
DARK HORSE: Riverside Indie
Upon walking into Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, you can’t help but catch a certain vibe. There’s a diverse collection of local art on the wall, houseplants scattered about (a collection started because employees kept bringing their pet plants to work), rustic exposed-stone walls, and a small-batch roaster in the corner. The lighting is low, yet there’s a disco ball hanging in the middle of the room, coffee-table books covering topics from the Rolling Stones to Airstreams are stacked around the shop, and vinyl records spin all day long. Eclectic and laid-back, casual yet ultra-hip, Dark Horse’s atmosphere belies its history.
In 2013, Drew and Cassie Taylor moved from San Diego to Truckee to be closer to family and embark on a new coffee roasting endeavor. Years ago, Drew and a friend started roasting coffee in a little popcorn popper in his house. That roaster has sat by the front door since Dark Horse opened in 2014.
“The beauty of coffee is that it’s an art, it’s a craft, it’s something you have to put a lot of time into,” Drew said. “We’re passionate about it, so we’re always striving to learn and be better at what we do.”
The Dark Horse team strives to live up to this ethic by incorporating cutting-edge practices, equipment, and sourcing in order to make the best cup of coffee possible. They primarily roast arabica beans, which are of a higher quality than oft-used robusta beans.
Drew’s business strategy comes down to emphasizing the “fact that people are creating it instead of machines,” he said. For example, the farmer who grows Dark Horse’s El Salvador coffee has visited the shop a few times in person. Drew likes to form “a direct trade connection with the people that actually grow the coffee,” he said.
PACIFIC CREST COFFEE: Local Chillers
On Christmas Day in 2009, Ralph Backstrom (like Drew) tried roasting his first batch of coffee in a Whirley Pop popcorn maker. His brother had already dipped his toes in the coffee-making scene, so Ralph wanted to try it out for himself. In his own words, that first attempt tasted terrible. But lucky for Truckee locals, the two joined forces and persisted, and in June 2018, Pacific Crest Coffee opened to the public.
The original plan was to focus on e-commerce and wholesaling beans, but after finding their current space in Truckee’s Pioneer Commerce Center, the brothers started crunching some numbers, bought a fancy espresso machine, and tried their luck at retail. “We flipped our whole business model upside down,” Ralph said.
A word-of-mouth marketing strategy has led to a primarily local customer base ready for a good morning chat over coffee. “People hang out and talk with us a lot, and I enjoy that,” Ralph said.
Upon entering the shop, one of the first things you’ll see is a big wooden fridge, made by the team at the Truckee Roundhouse from donated wood. “That refrigerator used to be a shed when I lived in Squaw, and I took it down, bought a refrigeration unit, bought a replacement refrigerator door, did a spray foam insulation,” Ralph explained. “It took six months extra build out, but it’s a place that I feel really happy coming into every day.”
All the art in Pacific Crest Coffee is done by their barista, Beau, and their mugs were made from friends in the area. Pointing to my mug, Ralph said, “Oh yeah, Ally made that one.”
TWISTED TREES COFFEE: Coffee with a Cause
Gale Klenk, former professional alpine ski racer and coach of 25 years, knows her mechanic by name and makes sure he leaves her business with a bag of beans to take home for his family. She cares about local, in terms of supporting both Tahoe businesses and the people growing her coffee beans.
Because of this, Gale recently got involved with Café Femenino, a nonprofit with a mission to empower women in Third World countries by giving them financial stability. She explained that when women are able to be financially stable, 90% of their income is invested back into their community in some way, be it education, health, or nutrition for themselves and their families.
Gale was originally part of Sierra Pacific Coffee, now an umbrella company to the new, smaller Twisted Trees line — still supported by the larger brand — which is all fair trade, organic, sustainable, and dedicated to furthering women in the workforce in Third World countries. “This isn’t just about empowering women, which is incredibly important, this is about really good coffee. I mean it’s wicked good, and these women are badasses,” Gale told Moonshine.
Twisted Trees is a wholesale coffee roaster, meaning they don’t have a brick and mortar store front, but the coffee supporting their mission is sold at Z Market in Tahoe Donner, Tahoe Food Hub, Zuri Coffee, and 19 Nugget Markets.
“The mission of Twisted Tree is to support women farmers at all levels who really grow great coffee beans, Gale said. “I want to spread their missions to others in our area, outside the area, who can really get behind paying that little bit more for fair trade, organic, quality, specialty coffees. In our area, we’re conscious people; we care about the environment, we care about mankind, and I just would love to see people get behind this model.”
Main Image Caption: ROASTING IN PROGRESS: Drew Taylor conducts daily roasts to keep the coffee fresh for his dedicated customers and accounts. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink