Kickapoo Coffee co-owners Caleb Nicholes and T.J. Semanchin go to great lengths for great coffee. Like shoved-in-the-back-of-a-Jeep, down-a-mountainside-in-Colombia great lengths. Semanchin recalls when, during one of his meetings with a farmer co-operative, an unmarked vehicle entered the premises and caused a security breach that sent the meeting on the run.
"I kind of put my neck on the line, and they did the same for us," Semanchin says, all in the name of coffee: organic, fair-trade, artisan-roasted.
Kickapoo Coffee is located in Viroqua, 95 miles west of Madison, but works directly with farmers across the globe. The goal is to secure long-lasting relationships and sustainable livelihoods for farmers, and to cultivate the best possible bean. In Wisconsin, the goal is for customers to see that what's good for growers and the environment can also meet the most rigorous quality standards.
Semanchin brings a passion for social and environmental justice to his job. He's spent a great deal of time in Latin America to study both. He now has 12 years of coffee behind him. A mutual friend brought Semanchin together with co-owner and head roaster Caleb Nicholes. Nicholes started the company in 2005, and, within a year, Semanchin bought into it.
Nicholes' past experience as a boutique wine importer had sent him throughout Europe, where he fell in love with the French concept of "terroir": "It's the idea that the earth is speaking to us through flavor," he says, each region's physicality infusing flavor attributes to wine grapes - or coffee, for that matter - that are endemic to the unique growing conditions where the plant takes root.
Nicholes offers a trained palate and scientific method to answer a question that the relatively young coffee industry is still trying to answer: "What are the most important factors that ultimately shape what is in the cup?" Kickapoo Coffee has done its homework.
It is a 2012 winner of a Good Food award; nabbed micro-roaster of the year from Roast Magazine in 2010; and its "Fondo Paez" Colombian received 95 points from Coffee Review in 2008 - the highest any Colombian has ever ranked.
"We try to coax as much flavor out of the coffee as possible," Nicholes says. To highlight the beans, he tends to stay with light to medium roasts. Kickapoo does a few dark roasts, which are still comparatively light.
Nicholes doesn't want to knock dark roasts, but when coffee beans are roasted dark at high temperatures, the resulting flavor is more from the sugars that caramelize in the bean, rather than the bean itself. This has enabled some roasters to obscure lackluster beans. "We're trying to bring people back to how unique and complex coffee is," Nicholes says.
Nicholes recently returned from Africa, where Kickapoo sources a number of heirloom bean strains, a rare feat for a small company. The beans are harvested at the peak of their flavor and only sold when seasonal and fresh; a 1930s vintage German roaster takes them to their prime finish.
But the final result lies in the hands of the person who makes the cup. Semanchin and Nicholes observe that people often brew coffee too weak, grind the coffee too coarsely and skimp on good water, brought to the proper temperature (just below a boil).
Madison's water supply, in particular, is harder than optimum, so Nicholes suggests blending in reverse osmosis water if available. He's also a proponent of the pour-over brewing method for the best clarity.
Kickapoo Coffee is brewed in Madison at Bradbury's and Java Den, and sold in beans at the Willy Street Co-op and Whole Foods. Kickapoo hosts public cuppings and a tour of the roastery at 10 am every last Friday of the month at 305 Railroad Ave. in Viroqua. The next one is April 27. For more info call 608-637-2022 or see kickapoocoffee.com.