What does a coffee roaster with a heart look like? How does one dance to that particular beat? La Colombe’s co-founder Todd Carmichael puts his heart on his sleeve as he takes on ethics, global impact, and…well…beautiful coffee served up with love.
Ray: I’m Ray.
Kandace: I’m Kandace.
Ray: Welcome to Unpacked and Coffee. This week-
Kandace: La Colombe.
Ray: … Of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Take it away music. Kandace, I am genuinely excited to cover La Colombe again. Now, we covered them once before in Episode 5. I discourage you from going back and watching because it’s kind of embarrassing. It’s like a awkward high school photo.
Kandace: This episode’s like going to the prom with the prom king.
Kandace: Hey, I don’t know.
Ray: JP Iberti and Todd Carmichael founded it in the early 90s. They met in Seattle.
Todd: La Colombe is a company that was founded on a friendship. It was two young guys. We both had fake IDs. We had a shared passion for music, for coffee, and for girls. Ultimately, we became best friends and we concocted an idea to start a company that was founded in a high quality coffee.
Todd: My name is Todd Carmichael. I am the founder, CEO, and Head Innovator for a company called La Colombe.
Kandace: They met. They bonded over their love of coffee, and they’ve created something pretty amazing.
You started with a goal of making “culinary coffee.” What is this?
Todd: Now, imagine this is like 1992 or 1993. This is a time that in America there were no micro roasters. The terminology specialty coffee hadn’t been invented yet. The idea was very simple, it was decommoditize coffee.
Coffee at the time was a commodity. It was like salt and pepper on the table and what we wanted to do was reach for those grades that were much higher, grades of coffee that were growing at high altitudes, with different growing conditions, with different varieties, with different processes, and create unique flavors. We called that culinary. Just as you have kind of common everyday food, there was this high-end culinary food, and we wanted to do the same with coffee.
Fast forward to today, what are you doing with the draft lattes?
Todd: I remember in 1995 someone came into the cafe and ordered an iced latte. It was the equivalent of someone asking me for a, let’s say, piping hot pint of beer. I made it for them and, as the years went on, that percentage…the amount of cold products grew. Right now, we’re at 62 to 65% of all coffees that we brew on premise in 34 cafes across the United States are cold. That transition is probably the most dynamic that I’ve witnessed among all the different changes that you’ve seen in coffee over the last 25 years to the shift in hot to cold or, in other words, the Ice Age.
Let me just rewind a second and let’s look at what a hot latte is. A hot latte is a beverage made of three components. The first one is concentrated coffee, second one is milk, and the third component is vapor. We take vapor, we vaporize the fluid, and we texturize it. Now this vapor, and this texture, has been the driving force behind a lot of what we see in coffee: the cappuccino, the macchiato, the lattes.
I looked at the cold platform and I realized that third component, that vapor, was missing. So this time, I take concentrated coffee, cold-brew espresso, really really concentrated coffee, real milk, and I inject nitrous oxide into the mix to give it that third and final component so it’s a true cold latte. People want to be able to have a beautifully crafted cold latte or cappuccino or cold brew in their backpack with them.
Ray: Going to take a little break and drink some.
Kandace: You’re taking my latte. Hands off dude.
What does it mean to you to be an ethical company?
Kandace: They’re using this coffee company to create more good in the world.
Todd: Why a company should be decent is at the root of it all. Why do things that are fair for other people? In our early years, we looked at business as a vehicle for not only creating beautiful flavors, but creating a better world. There are many stakeholders that are key to the success of a company, not just shareholders, and that means employees. The average employee should be able to work a full time job and live on it.
And, $7.25 an hour is pornographic. It’s indecent. It’s wrong.
It also means paying decent prices to farmers so they can maintain their families. It means not leaving a big dent in terms of a carbon footprint or unnecessary amounts of plastic in the hemisphere.
I mean, the whole picture really started out as trying to be a sustainable decent company at a time when we didn’t have the words to describe that.
Ray: All right. We just found out that they are going to be donating at least $100,000 to the National Park Foundation, which is amazing. We’re actually just visiting a bunch of national parks, and they’re awesome. We should keep them.
What is going on with your Haiti Coffee Academy?
Todd: Yeah, the Haitian project started innocently enough. [I] was creating a blend for the South for a guy named Sean Brock (who a celebrated chef down below the Mason-Dixon Line). Historically, when you look at the coffees that have been consumed in that area of our country, there were always Haitian coffees. So, I went looking for Haitian coffee within the United States. I couldn’t find one single bean.
So, I did what we do. And, that is I just went to Haiti looking for it. When I got there, I discovered a disaster in the mountains. The overwhelming majority of all the coffee farms were still there, but they were all abandoned.
Haiti in so many ways is broken. It’s been broken due to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, but also because of policies initiated by the U.S. government. When the embargoes were placed on Haiti, the Haitians needed to find fuel, and they found fuel in the source of wood is coffee plants. So, a big portion of the coffee plants that existed at the time were leveled in order to create heat for food and heat for heating homes. I’d like to see if we can’t reverse that.
Take the time to locate the owners of these farms like I did. I found one in Toronto in Canada who was driving a cab. Meanwhile, he had this farm that was just growing wild and he who couldn’t maintain the farm on his own. So, we started partnering up with these farms returning the farmers to their lands. We created a nursery as well as an institution that these farmers could rely on: microloans, and macro loans to reignite coffee growing in that region. Right now, we’re generating coffee that it’s been six years in the making that are cupping out at the 87 to 88 range, which puts them well within that specialty coffee. Ultimately, it’s a collaboration between coffee roasting company with a heart and a historical coffee growing region. We leaned on each other and we created something that’s very special.
You’ll ben in Seattle as the La Marzocco Roaster in Residence soon. What do you have up your sleeve?
Todd: My journey began in Seattle and it’s so exciting to me to come full loop and return home. And you know, this month at that café I’m going to make sure that not a minute of it’s wasted. I’m bringing the best of my voyages with me: best of our innovations, best of our concoctions. I’m focusing very dominantly on the on-tap system. I’ll be pulling some things out of my hat to really can this surprise Seattle with what’s possible with coffee on tap. I’m bringing some amazing coffees along. I’m also bringing the entire line of ready to drink draft lattes, and then I’m also bringing my favorite band. There’s this band in Philadelphia, and this is some serious Seattle hardcore rock. They’re called ill Fated Natives. So, they’ll be opening the cafe with us. I’m pretty excited.
I’m coming in with a full bag, and I’m going to unload the entire thing at this cafe on the people of Seattle.
Ray: So if you are in Seattle you should visit La Marzocco Home because the day that this episode drops is also the day that La Marzocco has their opening party for La Colombe. Because today when this episode drops is also the day that La Colombe shows up and has their opening party at La Marzocco’s Home Cafe in Seattle. La Colombe Coffee Roasters of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Archival and Haiti Coffee Academy photos courtesy La Colombe.