Ultimo brand coffee beans

When Drew Crockett launched the HubBub Coffee truck on the corner of 38th and Spruce in 2009, he was first in the city to embrace the new high-end coffee wave, serving java drinks meant to be appreciated like a fine wine or artisanal beer.

Then the scene exploded. Seven years later, Philly drinkers have an opulence of options for where to cop a great cup, whether it’s a single-origin brew, a pour-over, a precisely-pulled espresso or a flat white with an intricate illustration drizzled through its foam. And this mature, robust landscape has given rise to a new trend.

Welcome to the next big thing in Philadelphia coffee: Cafe owners who roast their own.

The growing field of small-batch dual cafe/roasting operations includes Elixr and Ultimo — which both began life as retail storefronts and then added manufacturing arms — and Green Street, ReAnimator and Rival Bros., which started as wholesale roasteries and then opened retail shops.

And HubBub is getting into the game, too. Crockett, who now runs three bustling (and gorgeous) brick-and-mortar coffee shops and a catering business, is preparing to launch a roastery.

He’s currently evaluating potential spaces for what he envisions as a combination roasting plant/cafe, but he isn’t waiting to pin down an address to get started. A few months ago he joined the Pulley Collective, a coworking-like coffee facility in Brooklyn, and hired ex-Intelligentsia staffer Jonathan Lomax to roast for him. If you walk into any HubBub location, you can now buy a bag of that house-roasted coffee, or get a cup brewed with HubBub brand beans.

“Back when I started the truck, roasting was already on the horizon,” Crockett says. “It’s something I always knew we’d get to.”

Aaron Ultimo feels the same way. From the time he opened his first South Philly cafe in 2009, transitioning into roasting his own was part of the plan.

“It was one of the five-year goals when we wrote our business plan,” he says. “It took a bit longer — we’re about seven years in now — but it’s always been something I wanted to do, something near and dear to my heart.”

The Ultimo roastery officially launched last month on the second floor of an industrial rehab located a block and a half west of the original cafe (a second cafe opened in Graduate Hospital in 2012). Unlike Crockett, Ultimo doesn’t have plans to weave a retail coffee shop into his manufacturing space, but he is building out a room to host seminars, cupping sessions and classes.

For now, that room holds a mini roaster, where he does test batches to determine which green beans he wants to brew and sell.

Samples of green coffee beans from Cafe Imports, a supplier to small-batch roasters
Samples of green coffee beans from Cafe Imports, a supplier to small-batch roasters Credit: Danya Henninger

Sourcing green beans is easier than ever, notes Chris Molieri of Green Street. “The relationship a roaster has with a grower is as easy as connecting on Facebook/email to get started and establish transparency,” he says. Fifty percent of Green Street’s production is what’s referred to as “relationship trade” coffee, where the roaster buys directly from the grower. Green beans obtained this way often cost more — think of it like buying vegetables at a farmers market versus a grocery store — but they’re more likely to be unique.

Being able to get ultra-choosy about what beans he uses and how he roasts them — rather than simply picking from what’s offered by Counter Culture, a well-regarded wholesale outfit based in North Carolina — is one of the main reasons he went into roasting, Ultimo says.

“I still consider Counter Culture my family,” he adds. “But this gives us the opportunity to be really specific about what we serve.”

Rival Bros. co-founder Jonathan Adams agrees. “That’s been our battle cry since the beginning,” he says. “[Roasting our own] makes us unique — not necessarily better, per se, but it allows us to create our own representation of coffee.”

It can also be good for the bottom line. Since Elixr started stocking its house-roasted brand, single-origin coffee has flown off the shelves at a rate of 200 bags per week, where it used to hover around 50, per owner Evan Inatome.

“If you can get a particular coffee in 10 cafes in the city, but you are the only place to sell your product, sales increase,” he says. He also points out that wholesale green beans cost a lot less than wholesale roasted beans — to the tune of  $4.50 per pound vs. $13.

“From a financial perspective, we probably could have justified roasting a long time ago,” says Crockett, “but you have to have the expertise and ability to execute. Our customers are used to a certain quality of coffee, so if we didn’t do it right, we’d risk devaluing the HubBub name.”

“Part of the reason I got into roasting is so I could learn something new, but I threw away a lot of bad coffee at the beginning,” says Ultimo, who bought a 24-year-old Probat roaster and rehabbed it himself over the course of a year. Expensive machinery can be another startup hurdle, as is overhead for the space, which must be well-vented, and paying employees to run it.

But being able to employ a larger staff is one of the main reasons he’s roasting, Ultimo says.

“We wanted our company to continue to grow. Roasting brings wholesale opportunities and other ways to make the business bigger, and will give us chances to promote great people who are already working for us.”

He’s careful to clarify: “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a barista. But sometimes you want more.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...