Uncle Leroy's Coffee Interview
Here's our next interview with Austin Schwartz of Uncle Leroy's Coffee. We chatted a little about the Chicago coffeehouse scene, how to go about setting up or doing your own tasting, and more. Enjoy the interview!
There might be some people reading this who know a bit about your story but start by telling me a bit about yourself, Uncle Leroy's Coffee, and how you got started?
I’ve always been a big fan of coffee; the taste, the feeling, and the places that serve it. And, several years ago, while visiting Portland, my wife took me on a tour of boutiques in the Mississippi District. There, I discovered Mr. Green Beans, which was a DIY coffee shop. I bought a few pounds of green beans. Leaving the store, I felt like this was going to change things for me.
When I returned to Anchorage, I began hobby roasting. But, within a month, I noticed a posting for a 1968 bus. At that moment, I had the idea of repurposing that rig into a mobile coffee bar. So, that’s what I did. In the beginning, we pan-roasted on the road. We traveled to Anchorage area farmers markets.
I still desired something I thought was missing from Anchorage. I am from Chicago and longed for their coffeehouse culture so we created a team to open our brick and mortar in Midtown, Alaska to roast slightly more coffee. It’s a divey sort of joint offering small-batch coffee. And, we recently opened another shop on the Eastside.
So, now we run a pair of shops and a bus during the summer. It’s a lot of work considering our leadership team all have day jobs too. We are the new guys; the underdog. It takes a lot of grit and determination for us to move forward each day. We enjoy what we do. We enjoy a good cup of coffee and the places to enjoy it. The places in the community that bring people together.
Gotta love an underdog story! I really like that idea of community and bringing people together through a good cup of coffee. When you talk about recreating Chicago's coffeehouse culture, is that what it entails?
In Chicago, there was an existing coffeehouse culture as well as an emerging coffee bar scene that was very robust. In Anchorage, Side Street Espresso was the only place that resembled the brand of coffeehouse I was used to.
I missed many of the coffeehouses; for example, The Grind Cafe, in Lincoln Square, as well as third-wave coffee bars like Dark Matter’s Star Lounge in Ukrainian Village, that were trending in my hometown. I personally like edgery establishments with a bit of grit. I missed hanging out at those sort of joints either by myself, while reading a book, or with my buddy, Ben, where we’d talk about everyday stuff to pass some time. We were loyal to existing establishments that we were nostalgic about, but were always excited about checking out the places that were written up in the Chicago Reader. We lived within the balance of the new and old.
Do you remember the first cup of coffee you ever had? How did your love of coffee develop after that first cup?
I’ve romanticized about coffee since I was in high school. Coffee profiles have changed quite a bit since the ‘90s. In high school, I enjoyed hanging out at Kaffeine in Evanson. Longbranch Coffeehouse was a fav in college. At that time, the smoking section was in the front room. And, non-smokers were treated like second class citizens by being asked to sit in the backroom.
Those were some of my favorite coffeehouses in the early days. But, my first “best cup” of brewed coffee was from The Grind Cafe, in Lincoln Square, Chicago. I’d often walk there after yoga on Saturdays. They were one of the first to brew Intelligentsia, which is a local roaster.
Over the years, what has your process been like when it comes to new beans and blends?
We are an independent coffeehouse and small-batch roaster of the scrappy sort. We’ve learned everything from the ground up with few resources available to us. So, in the beginning, we simply roasted Colombia; then, Sumatra. As we have expanded our palate, we now offer about ten single-origin coffees at a time. Being playful helps us create new blends that are generally inspired by each season. Well received blends tend to become mainstays.
When you talk about learning everything from the ground up, what are your recommended resources (whether that's books, people, etc.) for a beginner or even just someone looking to stick with roasting as a hobby?
Hobby roasters should search Sweet Maria’s website to learn more about the roasting process. Home Coffee Roasting by Kenneth Davids is a good read. And, Fresh Cup is a magazine I regularly read. Pick a founder and follow their story. Make a case study of it. I was intrigued by James Freeman, who is the founder of Blue Bottle, for a bit. Learn what others are doing. And learn by doing.
I've never been much of a coffee drinker and when I do drink it, I typically just have an Americano. When it comes to branching out and developing your palate, do you have any ideas or tips?
I think the Buddha said that there are many paths to enjoy a good cup of coffee. That being said, I respect the Americano drinker. And, I’m a slow brew man myself; for example, I'll drink a pour-over or French press in the mornings. And, I enjoy a small latte in the afternoon. That’s my ritual anyway. I’d suggest that people take their first sip of coffee, black, before adding cream and sugar. This way, they can taste the subtle differences of each brew. That way they can begin asking themselves what notes they are tasting. Tasting coffee notes will come through with smaller milk-based drinks too so treat yourself to a cortado.
Say someone wanted to put together a coffee tasting. Your tip about having coffee black first makes sense so the subtle flavors come through. Do you have any other tips for someone wanting to put together a coffee tasting with their friends?
We offer coffee tastings at our shop. But, folks can taste coffee at home with friends as well. A great coffee journal is put out by 33 Cups of Coffee. It has a flavor wheel to help guide peoples’ palate; just like the professionals. We provide this journal with our coffee subscriptions.
Do you have a favorite brew method (or methods) and why?
I really enjoy slow brew. My morning ritual during the work week involves brewing a French press to share with my wife, Jamie Sue. Otherwise, I enjoy a pour-over at a coffee bar. I like slow brew because the variables to a good cup of coffee are dialed in.
Do you have any tips for up and coming roasters, things you wish you knew back at the beginning?
Co-roasting facilities are emerging at the moment; especially in larger cities. I’d suggest reaching out to such a facility or contacting a small roaster in your community to see if there is an opportunity to take a class or collaborate in a way where folks are able to share resources.
I imagine this is something that isn't easy to answer, but I want to try. Out of the roasts that you've done, do you have a favorite?
Here, you pose a good question. I’m a huge fan of light roasts so I love our Ethiopia #1. Though, I like to try something different every day, so I often rotate between such roasts as Hondurus #3, Bus Blend, and Sumatra #4.
Is there anything new that you're working on that you can tease?
Coffee beans aged in a bourbon barrel is a recent thought...
When you're not knee-deep in the business, what do you like to do with your time?
When I’m not knee-deep in coffee, I’m working my day job. I’m a school psychologist, so that keeps me honest. Otherwise, I’m spending time with my wife and our dog named Maggie. Pre-coffee, I loved to hike, camp, and kayak.
What was it about The Bear Box that made you want to be a part of it?
I met LeeAnna at AK Chicks Vintage Market as we were both vendors about a year or so ago for their spring show. I loved the fact that Bear Box was promoting small businesses with their boxes. Small mom and pop shops are really what gives a place its charm. ULC's mission is “More Than Coffee” meaning that we want to be about more than the coffee we roast and brew. We want to be the place where people gather because it feels like an extension of themselves. We are excited that we can share our story with your subscribers.
Do you have an inspirational quote or any words of wisdom?
I think Bob Dylan once said, “Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.”
Is there anything else that you haven't mentioned yet that you'd like to?
We hope that you share a cup of our coffee with a friend.
A big thanks to Austin for being a part of all of this and sharing their amazing Bus Blend in our box. Make sure to connect with Uncle Leroy's on Facebook and Instagram, or visit their website for more coffee. :)