WILMINGTON — Will Chacon sees the increasing popularity of craft coffee in Wilmington as a sign that more and more coffee drinkers care not only about how their coffee is prepared, but how the beans are roasted and where they come from. Like the rise of craft beer in the Cape Fear region, craft coffee seems to be following suit.
And to give his shop on Castle Street more control over the quality of his product, Chacon is eyeing a December opening of his own bean roastery a few blocks east of the cafe. Although it won’t won’t be open to the public, customers and other serious coffee drinkers will be able to sign up for tours and ‘cuppings’ — coffee tastings where a group observes the change of aroma and flavor at different phases, from whole beans to when they are grounded and steeped with hot water.
For Chacon, who first began serving coffee to parents of his drum students when the building served as a music studio — he still teaches students in a small room near the outdoor patio — the choice to broaden his focus to the supply side was both a natural progression and a reaction to industry trends.
“I’ve been doing this for six years, it was a natural next step,” Chacon said. “Plus, if everybody else is doing it, why can’t I do it?”
The roastery will also give him more flexibility with the quality of his coffee. Where he now orders beans in larger quantities from different roasteries, he will soon have the ability to roast batches from farms and regions of his choosing to meet demand, and in that way keep his product fresh.
The rise of local, craft coffee
To his knowledge, Luna is only the fourth coffee shop in Wilmington to begin roasting its own beans, following Folks Cafe on Princess Street, Casa Blanca in Ogden, and the regional chain Port City Java. But the amount of mom-and-pop coffee shops is growing.
“When we first opened we were the fourth local coffee shop,” Chacon said. “And now I think we have 12 to 15 — within six years.”
Krysta Kearney, the manager of downtown’s 24 South Coffee House who is helping Chacon organize the Wilmington Coffee Fest in February, said the growth comes from a gradual change of mindset among the industry’s customers.
“Even in the past couple years, I think you’ve noticed a shift in the culture of the coffee drinker,” Kearney said. “People are definitely more interested in the craft. Even five years ago, most people just wanted dark roast coffee. There wasn’t much of a demand for different varieties. And I think that trend has been slowly traveling to the southeast.”
She points to Starbucks, a company that has changed Americans’ conceptions of coffee since it successfully developed the European coffeehouse culture in Seattle during the eighties, as a sort of reaffirmation of the industry’s gradual acceptance of the craft approach.
“Starbucks always follows what the smaller, hip coffee shops are doing,” Kearney said. “Starbucks is now serving nitro cold brew. They weren’t doing that a few years ago. They’re catching on because they know it’s popular now.”
Chacon said he will be using a green bean importer in Raleigh, Raul Ramador, who imports coffee from his family’s farm in the highlands of Honduras, as well as other importers in Charleston and California. The Honduran supply represents what is called micro-lot sourcing — beans that come from a single plot of land.
This reflects a coffee supply chain hierarchy that continues to become more localized at the top. Where not long ago, single-origin beans were considered by many as the industry’s premiere beans (those that come from a single region), micro-lot beans have since risen to the top among serious coffee drinkers, Chacon said.
“They tend to be more expensive, because the farm itself is supplying the coffee,” Chacon said. “They might even ship it themselves to get it to you directly. But it’s also better for the farmers, giving them more money by taking out the middle man. And they’re not blended with beans from other farmers who may not know what they’re doing.”
Wilmington Coffee Fest
Chacon and Kearney are getting ready for the third rendition of their Wilmington Coffee Crawl — now changed to the Wilmington Coffee Fest — on February 1.
The event will take place on Saturday, February 1 at the Hannah Block Center and nearby Waterline Brewing Company. Although the ‘crawl’ format was popular and attended by an estimated 2,500 people last year, Kearney said many also complained about having to walk from cafe to cafe.
Hosting the third annual event as a festival format with booths and tables at two centralized locations will also allow them to invite all local coffee shops, not just those in downtown Wilmington.
“It’s nice to invite more aspects of the coffee culture here. Especially because it is growing, and there are more roasteries opening, and it will only continue to grow,” Kearney said. “We hope there’s more of a coffee culture as time goes on. The craft beverage world in general, here and throughout the U.S., is growing.”
Luna Caffè is located at 604 Castle Street, a few blocks east of where the roastery will be located (on the corner of 9th and Castle Street). When the roastery is opened, people can sign up for tours and cuppings (tastings) at the cafe and also on lunacaffe.com.
Mark Darrough can be reached at [email protected] or (970) 413-3815