Tropical Storm Irene presented Mané Alves of Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea with a dilemma: He could rebuild his factory, which would require him to elevate all his machinery out of the floodplain, or he could look for a new location. He chose the latter option and selected a spot on Cabin Lane Road off Route 100, next to the Green Mountain Club’s visitor center. The new location gave him the opportunity to open a café where he could not only sell his coffees and teas but also allow visitors a glimpse into the coffee-making process. The European-style coffee bar is open weekdays from 7am to 5:30pm and on weekends from 8am to 5:30pm.
Born in Portugal, Mané’s background is in the wine industry. He moved to Vermont from California after marrying his wife Holly and in 1995 founded Coffee Lab International. Mané would like people to view coffee the same way they see wine, and the café allows him the opportunity to facilitate that process. He believes people are starting to develop more sophisticated palates for this country’s favorite beverage, and he hopes consumers will learn to order coffee based on its country of origin or varietal.
“We have some really expensive coffees that would be impossible to sell by the pound,” he says. “We roast them in small batches, and people experience them by the cup. The coffee is brewed in front of you, and the baristas explain where it came from and the process.” Those visiting the café also have the opportunity to walk through the building and see how coffee is made. Those “factory” tours have become a very popular part of the business.
Mané’s Coffee Lab International was the first laboratory to be certified by the Specialty Coffee Association. At his initial location, he taught a course on coffee tasting (referred to as the Q course), but at the new location, students can also learn roasting, cupping, brewing, and how to become a barista, with different teachers providing instruction over the course of several days. For more casual customers who want to spend time learning about the process, classes ranging from two to three hours are available on weekends.
The café offers a variety of coffees and teas as well as Caff Draft; a coffee drink infused with nitrogen; it looks like a black beer and is very popular in the summer. Initially Mané hoped to have a baker on the premises, but he has been purchasing pastries from others and just rented out the area designated for the baker to Whistle Pig for their tasting room. He’s hoping to add a new line of coffees infused with alcohol to sell at the café, but that plan is on hold while he pursues licensing. Another very popular item is an espresso-based drink, and Mané says he has had to educate customers that espresso is a method of extraction, not a roast level.
Mané buys his coffee directly from farmers, and every few years he visits the coffee producers so he can talk with them directly. He purchases beans from countries in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea currently offers between 15 and 20 different varieties. Because he purchases from across the globe, the coffees are always fresh and the beans harvested at their peak.
Mané says the café goes through between 250 and 300 bags of coffee a week with tourist season in the summer being the busiest time. He would prefer not to sell retail because traditional 10-ounce coffee bags are not environmentally friendly. At the café, people often buy in bulk, so he can put the coffee in paper bags, something that can’t be done at retail locations. Mané is hoping that a compostable coffee bag will be developed, and if so, he’ll happily make the switch. That environmental ethos extends to the new building, which receives 98 percent of its power from the sun and includes solar carports. It’s heated by wood pellets, also locally sourced.
Twenty to twenty-two people work at the Waterbury facility, with six or seven at the café and the rest doing production or office work. The two separate businesses work well together. Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea is the umbrella for production and the café, while the Coffee Lab and the school are a separate and distinct part of the company. “For the outsider, it may look complicated,” Mané says, “but everything is working well together.”
Mané truly enjoys teaching people about the coffee-roasting process, including leading impromptu tours of the facility. “We explain the different variables that are important for getting the best coffee,” he says. “You start by analyzing the water, rectifying it if necessary, and then preparing our recipe for the coffee. There are small steps that make a lot of difference down the road.”
At a recent roasting class, Mané taught some people who were talking about opening their own roastery, but that doesn’t bother him at all. “If I can’t compete against people I’m teaching, I shouldn’t be in business,” he says. “That’s a healthy way to keep yourself on your toes and walk the walk.” We’ll raise our coffee mugs to that!