A morning buzz with Magnolia Coffee

A morning buzz with Magnolia Coffee

Light lagers, fruit-flavored seltzers and plunges in the pool are all trending this time of year, but before you unload that icy cooler under the poolside umbrella, the day simply cannot start without a freshly brewed cup of coffee.

Like locally produced craft beer, the Charlotte-area has seen an explosion in new and emerging craft coffee roasters. Though compared to craft beer, access to local craft roasted coffee is limited to coffee shops, bodegas, specialty grocers and high-end restaurants that may only carry one local brand exclusively.

One way to discover local craft coffee, and a brilliant method to boot, is to seek collaboration beers between local roasters and craft brewers. Enter Magnolia Coffee. A regular participant of QCBF, we ask Founder and Director of Coffee Jay Gestwicki about the Charlotte coffee scene, nuances to roasting, brewery collaborations and his desert island essentials.

About 10 years ago we saw the beginning of the Charlotte craft beer scene emerge from basically 0 to 60+ today. Tell us about the present day Charlotte-area coffee roaster community.

Ten years ago was also the beginning of what has been an exploding craft roasting scene in Charlotte. I’ve been in specialty coffee in Charlotte since 1996, and the period from 2011 until now has been by far the fasting growing, most dynamic phase yet. Even though COVID-19 has slowed the market tremendously, I’m still seeing new roasteries open or in development and that’s interesting because in my opinion there is really no underserved market niche for local coffee roasters.

Magnolia is well-embedded in the Charlotte community with a loyal and growing customer base based on our 10-year history here. When I established Magnolia Coffee in December 2010, there was a clear open market niche for craft coffee in Charlotte. That is no longer the case. While there is plenty of room for sales growth from people discovering and converting to drinking craft coffees, it would be very tough in my opinion to crack into creating a solid, profitable, long term micro roastery here. I certainly wouldn’t try it right now based on my experience and perspective, but there are always entrepreneurs who think they can do it better. And that’s cool of course and I respect it, but I’d head to a smaller market.

I stopped tracking the number of roasters a couple years ago when my count in the Charlotte region surpassed 40. At that point, I just remained ultra-focused on what Magnolia was doing to grow. Are you entering the market for fun or as a part-time hobby? Are you investing with a sound strategy and plan for getting your investment back while building a long-lasting brand? A swarm of coffee brands has made it tougher on the local consumer. They really have to do their research about local roasters, their quality, sourcing habits and what they are doing to support the local community.

A spectrum of flavor selection. Photo by Magnolia Coffee.

Some new beer releases are now being called out for the hand-picked hops used in a particular IPA for instance. How do you approach your pursuit of world-class coffee beans, and how has that process evolved since you started Magnolia?

I did not fully realize how critical traveling to origin was for sourcing exceptional green coffees. We were very good at roasting after many years of refining the art and science of roasting on our own unique equipment. But we elevated our game when I began traveling to countries and regions I had been sourcing from, and literally tasting or “cupping” hundreds of coffees first hand at harvest and determining what the best taste profiles were for Magnolia. So, with that knowledge, direct sourcing is the most important aspect for our quality — with the exception of the culinary roasting which is what we do. Our roaster Ben Alleman is an exceptional culinary roaster because of his culinary skills blended with the science of caramelizing coffee for optimum natural sweetness and flavor nuances. If I don’t source amazing coffees for Ben, he can’t make magic out of mediocre.

Producer Oscar Chacon and Jay Gestwicki at the Cumbres del Poas Farm, Las Lajas, Costa Rica. Photo by Magnolia Coffee.
Coffee buyer Jay Gestwicki picking ripe coffee cherries in Antioquia, Colombia. Photo by Magnolia Coffee.
The Magnolia team as seen at QCBF 2018. Photo by Richard Groves.

Tell us about the nuance that goes into craft roasting.

Craft roasting is all nuance to create exceptional tasting coffees. And we aren’t fully creating them in the roasting process. The natural flavor nuances in the green coffees we’ve selected per “lot” per farm are already there. It’s just our job to highlight them at their peak. That’s our craft. Honestly, after years in the business, it’s not an easy thing to do consistently for each coffee and batch every day, every season down here. It takes an extremely skilled roaster to create consistent roasts in summer vs winter, with differently aged crops from all over the world. Time and temperature are so critical in the roasting process that the incorrect amount of heat applied at the wrong time in seconds is the difference between remarkable coffees and average tasting coffees where the roastery’s finished product still needs to be doctored up with cream and sweeteners. Exceptional tasting coffees need no additives. Then it’s just up to the consumer to understand what taste profiles and characteristics per region are most pleasing to them. That’s coffee at its best — and healthiest.

Photos by Magnolia Coffee.

You’ve worked closely with a number of Charlotte breweries to supply coffee for several memorable beers over the years: Triple C’s Up All Night Breakfast Porter, Divine Barrel’s Spatial Awareness and D9’s Dark Coffee Ale to name a few (you also have a new beer in the works with Heist). Describe the process you and the brewer work through to achieve the flavor profile desired in a coffee-inspired beer.

Collaborations with local breweries are so much fun! There are many similarities in our respective industries. For Magnolia, which is literally Ben and me, the brewing collabs are relatively easy. The brewers come to us with the flavor profile they are looking to achieve for their coffee beers. Nowadays there is such an interesting and far broader variety of what people are looking for in a coffee toned beer.

Years ago coffee beers were fairly one or two dimensional — meaning you’d expect a full-bodied beer with notes of dark coffee in a dark ale or porter. That has changed as brewers have gotten so great at their craft. Up All Night may be one of the most complex beers I’ve ever had. Yes it’s a porter, but the combination of the right coffee and roast level, local Cloister honey, and chocolate malts yields an amazing complexity of flavors. And yet the brewers at Divine Barrel Brewing absolutely nailed a very different and exceptional stout by using a fairly low amount of our Jade Espresso with cocoa nibs and vanilla for their Spatial Awareness. Both beers are amazing yet very different. Our part is easy — we just select the right coffee and roast level and then have the brewer add to their beer in the correct volume at the coffee’s optimum peak flavor — which is several days or even weeks after roasting, depending on the coffee.

Stemmed glass or not, Triple C’s Up All Night Breakfast Porter release is a Charlotte beer tradition. Photo by Magnolia Coffee.

Bonus question: Your Magnolia Blend was just named a “Desert Island coffee” by Coffee Review. If you were stranded on a deserted island and could pick one coffee, one beer and one food to arrive at shore in endless supply, what would they be?

Ha. That’s a super tough one. If I can just choose one beer I’m going with Triple C’s Golden Boy Blonde. It’s such a great easy drinking session beer. If I’m stuck on a desert island, I want one I can drink all day, every day.

For my food pick, I love fresh seafood, particularly shellfish. There is just nothing like a freshly caught lobster, properly boiled with just the right amount of butter. I’d like to think I could get my “Cast Away” on and be able to spear some.

Coffee — now that’s very tricky too. I’ve had some absolutely exceptional single origin coffees from other roasters around the country. But I would truly pick our new “Magnolia Blend.” The profile was a concept I had for years — I just couldn’t quite finalize it in the cup to my satisfaction. Then this quarantine happened and we were given the task of creating the best coffee possible if you could only have one and you’re stranded on a desert island or stuck at home. Our passion came out and we refined it to where it’s the most complex and versatile coffee we’ve ever created. But it’s still what we call an everyday drinking coffee. All day, any day, any brew method. The ratings experts agreed as it made their Top 5 Best Coffees in the nation if you can only choose one! (May 2020, Coffee Review).

The Founder’s go-to coffee. Photo by Magnolia Coffee.