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Coffee Intel
Drips and drops of data, all from the underbelly of Milwaukee’s coffee scene.

How the two largest of the city’s local roasters stack up, in employees …

Alterra – about 300

Stone Creek – about 80

… roaster capacity …

Alterra – 135 kilos, or about 298 pounds, between the company's two Probat-brand roasters. Alterra cranks out about 25,000 pounds of coffee a week, according to co-founder Lincoln Fowler. “There's not a lot of slack in this system,” he says.

Stone Creek – about 125 pounds, otherwise known as a “one-bagger” because it fits a 150-pound bag of green coffee. According to a 2011 report to customers, Stone Creek roasted an average of 5,865 pounds of coffee a week in 2011.

… locations …

Alterra – about a dozen outlets, between kiosks, cafes and flagship locations, with more on the way

Stone Creek – eight outlets with a ninth at the Stone Creek Factory headquarters set to open in late summer

… and training regimens.

Alterra – rates its baristas on a tiered system, up to “lightning rod” status. These are Alterra ambassadors and barista-mentors who are strategically placed at each location (ideally) to further the coffee company's brand.

Stone Creek – places a huge emphasis on sorting through a large field of job applicants to find the right people. Potential employees are interviewed in groups at the Factory and asked to bring a short essay on something they're passionate about. Most interviewees are rejected. Barron says the company looks for “immediately likable people.”

Anodyne owner Matt McClutchy 
Why Anodyne could be catching up.

This summer, the Anodyne roasting team was really sweating it, tossing out loads of roasted coffee all day, and the head roaster was coming in some nights to work an extra two or three hours to meet demand. “When you're up against the wall, you've got to get the orders filled,” says Steve Kessler, director of wholesale operations.

Stone Creek's customers are barn-stormers.

In overhauling its cafes, Stone Creek is designing a runway for customers to come right in, order their coffee, stop at a station for additives and buzz back out the door in a single graceful motion. Owner Eric Resch commissioned a study in 2010 (by the Kubala Washatko architecture firm) that found that 70 percent of customers were stopping in just to purchase, not sit. To learn this, a representative of the firm sat in cafes, sly-like, and traced each customer's course on a map of the store.

The coming wave of Dunkin' Donuts is really a threat.

A group of six Dunkin' franchisees from the East Coast, where they collectively own more than 300 stores, are opening another 20-25 in the Milwaukee area over the next three years, according to John Clark, their man on the ground in the Brew City. Dunkin' was strong in this city in the 70s and 80s, but fell by the wayside long before the specialty coffee movement got off the ground here in the early 90s.

“We offer a cup that's different in flavor profile. It's a consistent recipe,” he says. “It's the same day in and day out. If that's what you're looking for, that's what you get.” That might be what Milwaukeeans are looking for – Clark says the first stores are meeting their sales targets.

And don't forget the other chains.

Starbucks still has 50+ locations in Southeastern Wisconsin and the muscle to drop in another dozen on a whim. Minnesota-bred Caribou Coffee is another player to watch. It has a few sophisticated outlets around the metro area (Glendale, Wauwatosa, Waukesha and Racine) and is still growing apace. A company official says Caribou is expanding its worldwide store count by 10-12 percent in 2012, though he couldn't say if that would mean another cafe in Milwaukee.

Pulling a shot of espresso the Stone Creek way, as told by Retail Director Kendra Barron and other company officials.

Mound 18 grams of freshly ground espresso into the “brewing group” and tamp. Ensure that the espresso pump is set to deliver water at 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit and at 8-9 bars of atmospheric pressure. If needed, adjust for prevailing conditions. Initiate the extraction. In 14 to 25 seconds, the “mouse tail” of the downward flowing espresso liquid will turn from light brown to camel, signaling that the extraction has finished releasing the best of the coffee’s oils, alkaloids and flavors. Cut off the flow.

Is Riverwest's Fuel Cafe as cool as it used to be?

A point of intense debate. The cafe that started as the city's first uber-cool coffee shop still holds the title, by most accounts, but has it slipped? Years ago, owner Scott Johnson gave up displaying art and installations on the walls, surrendering part of the old Fuel's philosophy of throwing stuff, in a metaphorical sense (usually), at the walls and seeing what sticks. “After a while, it got kind of tedious,” he says. “A lot of people didn't put that much care and time into their artwork.” Now, the décor is given over to motorcycles, and mostly recently in the form of a photo mural of dirt track racers from the mid-1970s.

Could there be another Fuel Cafe someday? Is a chain in the works? “We talk about it all the time,” Johnson says. “I sort of wish we had moved on it more back in the day, but I think the Milwaukee market is pretty saturated as far as chain coffee shops go.”

(photo of Matt McClutchy by Adam Ryan Morris)

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