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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair
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Meeting for coffee: Just Coffee and Ancora combine roasting operations
By shifting roasting responsibilities to Just Coffee, Ancora will be able to concentrate on expanding its retail and cafe spaces.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Matt Earley wants to be clear about Just Coffee's new relationship with Madison's Ancora Coffee Roasters. "The most troubling thing I've heard is that we somehow 'bought Ancora,'" says Earley, a cofounder, who works with farmer relations and outreach. "Just Coffee doesn't buy companies. We're not interested in doing that. It's also not a merge. As a worker co-op, we don't do that either."

The new relationship between Just Coffee and Ancora is more of "an alliance," says Earley, that lets both companies -- which remain separate -- do what they do best. Just Coffee, having outgrown its digs at 1129 E. Wilson St. on the near east side, needed a bigger roasting facility. Ancora, with a large roasting facility at 3701 Orin Rd. (just off Stoughton Road near Madison College-Truax), was "not roasting enough to justify that space," says Earley.

So the two are combining their roasting operations in the Orin Road space, which will allow Just Coffee to produce three times the volume it can currently. Ancora's beans will come from Just Coffee -- all fair trade and organic, from Just Coffee's grower-partners -- making Ancora Just Coffee's biggest customer. And Ancora's master roaster, Casey Blanche, will go over to the Just Coffee side.

Bottom line: "They don't own us and we don't own them," Earley affirms.

"Our strength is wholesale; Ancora's roots are in the cafe," says Earley. By shifting roasting responsibilities to Just Coffee, Ancora will be able to concentrate on expanding its retail and cafe spaces.

Earley believes the Orin Road site will be the only coffee roasting facility in the Midwest with both a drum roaster (Ancora's equipment) and an air roaster (Just Coffee's method). And Just Coffee is investing in a new air roaster that will use 80% less gas and emit 80% less particulate into the atmosphere, says Earley. The roasts specific to Ancora will continue to be produced with the drum; Just Coffee's will continue to be produced with the air roaster.

There are no plans to have Just Coffee roasts or signage in the Ancora cafes. There are no plans for a Just Coffee cafe. The bicycle deliveries that helped make Just Coffee's reputation will continue from its new base, even though it's much further east. "The delivery guys will have to plan out their routes more carefully because they won't be able to go back and forth so much," says Earley.

The company's mission, trading fairly and transparently with small farming cooperatives in Latin America and Africa, "will never change," says Earley. "It's why we do what we do."

Tom Walzer bought Ancora from founders George and Sue Krug in September 2012. The Madison native and former senior vice president at Spectrum Brands wanted to take Ancora "to the next level." At the same time he realized that the Orin Road facility, complete with a barista training room and cupping lab, was "too big for us alone." Now, with the deal with Just Coffee, all Ancora's beans are fair trade and organic; it can own "farm-to-cup" as well as artisan roasting.

The original King Street cafe underwent an attractive redesign, and Walzer upped the food ante with bakery offerings by Willy Street's popular Batch Bakehouse. Its University Avenue and Dane County airport cafes are currently being remodeled, and Walzer is looking to "grow smart," as with a new coffee kiosk in the lobby of the UW Children's Hospital that will be serving Ancora roasts.

The King Street Ancora is in the process of applying for a liquor license. Documents filed with the city indicate plans to expand its hours into the evening, augment its dining options, feature live music, and serve local wines, beers and liquor-infused coffee drinks.

The elephant in the room is Milwaukee-based Alterra, whose new Tenney Plaza cafe a half-block from Ancora's flagship King Street cafe opened April 5 and has been buzzing ever since.

Alterra's status as a local Milwaukee coffee roaster has been under question by some since a 2010 agreement under which the company sold naming rights to Mars Inc., to use in branding its single-serve coffees placed in its "Flavia" (Keurig-like) coffee machines. Alterra co-owner Lincoln Fowler explains that the company still "is 100% locally owned." He and partners Ward Fowler and Paul Miller "continue to operate it as an entirely independent company."

Furthermore, Fowler says that Mars has no interest in opening any cafes. Alterra's dozen cafes are all in greater Milwaukee save for the new Madison outlet.

Still, the idea that Alterra is now a subsidiary of Mars, the third-largest privately held company in the United States, persists. (A Mars company logo on Alterra's web page doesn't help counter this perception.)

Both Just Coffee's Earley and Ancora's Walzer see Alterra as a company that is closer to a Starbucks than it is to their definition of local, but ultimately feel that the quality of their product and its 100% fair-trade sourcing give them a boost.

[Editor's note: This story was corrected to clarify the name of the brand of single-serving coffee maker.]

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