Coffee Query: Jordan Michelman, Sprudge
What got you into coffee and what’s kept you in coffee?
So, my background for coffee is very much as a consumer and cafe hanger-outer, and somebody who, from when I was a kid to when I was old enough to know that cafes were these cool places where very cool older people went to hang out away from their parents! I was always sort of obsessed with cafes.
So, I feel like that’s definitely been a major thing in my life really since I was a kid..but for Sprudge, what got me involved initially is my business partner and my best friend - a guy that I’ve been friends with since I was 14 years old. We met on the first day of 8th grade - his name is Zachary Carlsen. Zachary and I co-founded Sprudge back in 2009, and we own the business together still as 50/50 partners in it, so everything that’s happened since then has been from us growing it.
We went to high school together, and would hang out at cafes and stuff when we were teenagers, but when we graduated we both went to some school, and I kind of got really into doing school stuff and all these other things, and Zachary ended up falling in with a group of really interesting coffee people out on the East coast - some folks that owned and worked at a really influential cafe that was open in the mid-2000s in Washington D.C. called Murky Coffee.
Murky Coffee was owned by a guy named Nick Cho, who is now one of the co-owners of Wrecking Ball Coffee in San Francisco, and there were some really interesting people working there at the time - like Katie Carguilo, who went on to be a U.S. Barista Champion; a guy named Aaron Ultimo, who owns a couple really great cafes in Philadelphia; lots of other people, too!
So, Zach kind of fell into this world and got really into it, and is a very talented barista, a really gifted barista, and I kind of got brought into it a little bit by him - at that time I was going to college and travelling a lot and playing music and things..I was in some bands that would go on tour over the summers and stuff, and sometimes Zach would tag along for some stretches of the tours or I would stay with him in Washington D.C., and when I was there he’d say, ‘Oh, well, you have to come see my cafe,” or, “When you’re in Chicago, there’s this cafe called Intelligentsia, you have to go visit it!’
And so it was really him that made me think about coffee in a way that was more than just study fuel or something social to do with friends - although it's still great for fuel or something social - but he was the person that made me think about it a little bit like, ‘Okay, maybe this is, like, something that also tastes really good, and you can think about how good it tastes, and how it comes all the way from another part of the world,’ and all this interesting stuff.
Um, so, I guess that that’s sort of how we started the site together - he was living back in Seattle in 2009, and I was also back in Seattle - the band that I was on tour with had broken up - the keyboard player and the guitar player were a couple and they broke up, so the band broke up! So, I was hanging out in Seattle, I was 25, and I kind-of-wanted-to-maybe go back for more school, but I also sort-of-really didn’t want to, and I was sort of playing music with other bands and waiting tables and things..and Zachary was working at Stumptown Coffee Roasters, so I would hang out with him all the time.
We lived in different cities through our early twenties and then we were back to living in the same city again, and so we started hanging out together all the time, and I came into Stumptown one afternoon, and he had this big idea which was, well, there’s all this writing happening online about coffee, so what if we put it all in one place, so people could see it all in one place. He had a name for it, which was Sprudge, and he had a template for it, which looked like the American Conservative news website called The Drudge Report - it’s more of a Gen-X thing now, but we grew up thinking that sort of stuff was funny or interesting through the 90s.
And he said, ‘I need someone to help me write jokes and help me write headlines and stuff.’
So we went to drink some beer across the street at a bar called Linda’s, and wrote a bunch of jokes and started a website! And because Zach’s worked in the industry for many years, and had been involved in doing some kind of livestreaming projects for the World Barista Championships previously, he sort of knew who to target it at. He knew some kinds of people who were influential in coffee that we could make fun of or were worse than the two or whatever..!
We ran the site as links for a few months, and then in the beginning of 2010 we switched over to it being original news reporting, and that’s been the girth of what we do now today for how the site’s published.
So you asked me how I got into it, and then why I stayed into it.. um, I think for me, personally, y’know, I don’t really know if I think of myself as somebody who works in the coffee industry, because reporting on a culture or an industry is very different from working in it, and wanting to have a little bit of that respectful distance has always been something I felt like I had to do, because I didn’t have the barista background, and I always wanted to be very clear with people about that. And I think I also felt like a bit of a poser because of it!
I still think it’s all magic! Like, when I go to new cafes or watch a barista competitor, it’s all still magic, because I never did it for work! So, for me, I think it’s very rare for a music critic or a music journalist to also have a whole successful music career - that’s not typically how it works..!
There’s usually an idea that it’s set apart, and figuring out how to talk to them for a wider audience, and coffee’s been really rewarding for me to get to do that with, and I definitely still get that kind of excitement and love when I go to cafes, as I did when I was a kid!
Like, when you know how the sausage is made..I’ve talked about this before with baristas, but really to people who are chefs or cocktail people, or any of it, which is - if you work professionally making cocktails five nights a week, and on your off night, maybe you do go to someones else’s cocktail bar because you love the culture, or you should go see your friend’s new bar, or it’s fun or whatever, but you can’t turn off that thing in your head that says, like, ‘I would do maybe this somewhere different,’ or ‘Why are they using this?’ - you’re kind of evaluating it the whole time.
And that’s how I feel when I read websites, because we spend so much of our time in the backend running a website that I feel I read other websites differently than somebody who doesn’t work publishing a website does, but when you don’t have any of that, you can just go in and appreciate it, and that’s how I feel about coffee. I don’t have the right to feel jaded about cafes because I never ran one, y’know?
What have been your favourite coffees, both in filter and as espresso?
Wow, that’s an awesome question!
That’s really hard..
So, I do have a very distinct, like, ‘godshot’ story from 2007 - that summer I was out on tour playing music, and my friend, Zachary, had told me, ‘Oh, when you’re in Chicago, go to this Intelligentsia cafe..’
So I did - I sort of wandered past and realised it was the cafe I was meant to go into. I wandered into the Millennium Park Intelligentsia and had a shot of their Black Cat espresso, and it was the first time that I’d ever tasted espresso, or really any coffee, that tasted like something other than coffee to me, or tasted like it had that kind of magic to it.. and I remember drinking it, and it was really, sort of, as stereotypical as you can get with this - it was like somebody turned on a light switch..!
And I got back up and ordered another one, and drank the second one, and the second one was good, too.. I think it’s hard to have two espressos back-to-back and have them both change your life, but that first one.. I was very primed for the experience, but also very ‘a babe in the woods,’ and didn’t know what anything was, and just sort of drank this one espresso.
I’m still mad today - really love that mix of people trying to do very progressive, interesting things with espresso, but with a blend, sometimes, I find better suits my own palette. Maybe, conceptually, a single origin is interesting to me, and we’ve certainly written many stories about interesting single origin espressos, but as a consumer it tends to be those iconic house blends that I always want to go back to order.
So, that was really the one for me!
And then filter coffee.. I’ll give sort of a cheeky answer, which is that I have a Technivorm Moccamaster in my home, and we’re really lucky, as the people that publish Sprudge, that people are kind enough to send us coffees all the time to get to drink and enjoy..! So we get to drink - my wife and I - get to drink a lot of really awesome coffee at home from our little filter machine, and that is perennially my favourite coffee: whatever it is that we have that week that we get to make at home.
Because, y’know, having a batch brew in your home is something that’s really lovely, and I recommend that people do it! Technivorm is certainly not the only brand that makes nice equipment - I feel I should shout out all the other ones, but that’s what we have in our home.
And I love filter coffee. I love having that ritual of waking up and making a pot of filter coffee.. so, whatever the latest is this week.. I have some really delicious blend for filter from Caravan Coffee. The folks there, those Kiwis in London who run the cafes there - I think I’d rate their roastery quite highly, and I have their filter blend in my home right now, and I was drinking it today, and that was really nice!
What’s your home coffee setup?
The other thing that we’ll do sometimes.. my wife has worked professionally for many years in coffee, and worked as a trainer and a barista and all these kinds of things, so she brews really beautiful hand coffee, especially from Chemexes, and it’s always something that we’re on the hunt for to find: vintage and authentic Chemexes!
That company makes wonderful products here in 2015, but has a long legacy of making those brewers all the way back to around WWII, and here in the States you will occasionally find an early '50s vintage Chemex in a vintage store or stuff like that that we’ve collected, and we have a big, early '60s 12-cup Chemex that will brew coffee, but is also good for decanting wine or as a flower vase..or anything to get that thing on your table because they’re so beautiful!
So, yeah, so I think that’s really the common one - the vast majority is that filter coffee that we brew, and then having some Chemex stuff for import coffees.
I think it’s really important also: I really try to go to cafes, and I think it’s really important for what we do at Sprudge to always be out in cafes, and spending money, and leaving nice tips and chatting to people, and, sort of, being out in the world - because if we’re going to write about it for a living we should support it, and be out in it.
It’s also a lot of times where we find out tips or leads and things for stories, so I make coffee at home, but I really try to go to cafes all the time here in Portland. And then especially when we’re travelling, that’s something I’m doing almost the whole time: making sure to go to cafes and do that kind of stuff.
Where do you want Portland/USA’s coffee culture to develop next?
Well, I’ve been lucky to have some really cool experiences with coffee in restaurants, and I would love to see more of those experiences grow from each other and become more widely available for people.
And that’s something I think we’ve really tried to champion on Sprudge, over the last couple of years especially, is trying to find those cool restaurant coffee experiences and really shine light on them and interview the chefs, and talk to the staff at restaurants, and make a big deal out of it!
Because not only do we think it’s interesting, but as advocates for the power of coffee being delicious and interesting, restaurants are such a potentially enormous touch point for more and more people to get delicious coffee into their hands as part of a wider experience - that’s really beautiful and interesting.
So, there are a few places that do a pretty good job with restaurant coffee - there’s a few here in Portland, and on the West Coast.. I’ve been to a few in Europe and in Australia.. it’s something that I really hope happens more and more, and it’s interesting because it’s definitely top-down from chefs and sommeliers who take that as part of the experience they want to create in their restaurants, and that is so compelling: this idea that the wine is beautiful, and the food is beautiful, and the service and the atmosphere and the printed materials for the menus..they’re all these things that are done so carefully, and so when you get coffee that can live up to that, it really is powerful and exciting!
I wish there were more experiences like that, and I think there will be. I think that it’s a growing trend in dining. And ‘fine dining’ is a funny term because a lot of the best and coolest restaurants these days couldn’t be further from fine dining - and that’s especially true out here on the West coast, where the coolest places to eat dinner in Los Angeles or Portland are places where you’re at a communal table, and you have to get your own silverware and all this - it’s not really ‘fine dining’!
But this is where the food is really fun and inspiring and delicious and coffee can be really great with that.
So, I think that’s kind of it for me.
Like, [currently], in Portland, there’s always sort of been this weird separation between the cafes and the brunch places. So it’s not uncommon at all, in fact I’ve done this many times, where you go and get the coffee first, and then you go to the brunch place where you bring your good coffee in with you - which is so silly!
Who’s someone you admire in coffee?
Yeah, um, well.. I think there’s a core group that when the history of third wave coffee, or progressive coffee, or whatever you want to call it - when that history gets written, people are going to look at a couple sort of key CEOs and brand creators as being really massively influential for the development of what those trends look like.
And there’s a couple of those people out here on the West coast, and the one I’ve had a chance to interview a few times..it’s somebody I think is very inspiring, and that guy is James Freeman - the founder and CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee.
What that company has done - and I should disclose here that they are an advertising partner of Sprudge and we’ve had that relationship with them for about 18mos or so, and we’re really lucky to get to work with them - but James, what he’s built in that brand is a coffee company where the cafes and the packaging and the identity is so closely tied to him as a person - his notion of aesthetic, his taste in design, his passions for things like cool audio speakers or historic cafe spaces and all these kinds of things - it’s all really from him.
And what’s amazing about that company is that as it’s scaled, and they’ve been very successful in terms of raising investment and scaling over the last 7 years - the thing that people keep coming back to is that nobody wants to be the investor or money person who screws that up!
So there’s all this investment, and all this growth, and the koi pond is really a lot bigger than it was a couple years ago for that brand, but it still has to meet his smell test, like anything they do.. he either needs to think it doesn’t suck, or be convinced by the smart people that work for him that it doesn’t suck.
And that’s really inspiring because..when companies get big, they lose that sense of soul, and it’s still early days for the scale of Blue Bottle, and maybe 20 years from now it won’t still feel like this, but maybe it still will, and at least now, while they’re doing that growth thing..it’s something we’ve followed really closely with them for years, and followed really closely with them before we got to work with them, and the more I’ve learned about that brand, the more it seems like it all goes back to James, and that’s so hard to do! And it’s very inspiring to me - I have a business partnership, so it’s me and another guy’s taste of something being ‘cool’ or ‘not cool,’ but just being able to see somebody’s very specific aesthetic vision drive all these big choices that are made is really inspiring.
And there’s a bunch of other people who have rules like that as CEOs of some other companies I could’ve talked about.. but yeah, there you go.
What advice would you give to somebody just starting out in your field?
Being able to do the website on top of full time jobs - y’know, Zachary would open the cafe from 6am until noon, and then write Sprudge articles from 1pm to 7 o’clock.. I had a stretch where I worked as a delivery driver for restaurants that didn’t have delivery services in Seattle, so I would have all these bags of food I would take up to the top of an office tower, or to the Microsoft campus in Bellevue or whatever, and then come back to the car and open my laptop and work on Sprudge until another delivery order came in..and then go pick up the food and take it to another office tower, and sit back down in the car and work on Sprudge from the laptop.. And we did that for months!
I can’t imagine doing that now, but we were, y’know, young and kind of broke and kind of hungry for it, and wanted to see if we could make it into a thing! And what it means is now, nobody else has any control or ownership over our company - we didn’t sell off any equity to have capital to live comfortably on while we tried to boot the site or anything, and that’s something that happens all the time with media properties - where like, that startup phase, and what you have to do to get to the startup phase and get past it, where you make all these critical decisions.
But we didn’t have any concept of any of that. We had no idea.
So, it meant that we put ourselves through stuff that.. I wouldn’t wish on anybody.. but now, 6 years later, we feel pretty good about all that, and it’s worked out okay.
So, I guess that’s what I’d sort of say to somebody - I don’t know if anybody is getting rich quick by starting a website.. all of our growth was really incremental, and happened because of the trust and faith that was given to us by the companies that cared enough about our project to put their branding on our website and give us money for doing it!
So all of that growth that happened with us happened very incrementally.. we never had to take loans or take out credit cards or so any of that kind of stuff - we always did all of it step-by-step, incrementally, and over the course of that we built long-lasting relationships with those partnerships and companies that really have helped define and enable the vision for what we want to publish for the site to be now, which we hope is this very beautiful, aesthetic home for coffee journalism. Where coffee is written about responsibly and compellingly, to an audience that includes not just the people working in your cafe but the kind of people who will come and visit your cafe, consumers, and the mainstream audience.
So, if I was to give advice to somebody, I’d say.. don’t bite off more than you can chew when you start. Figure out the stories you want to tell, figure out the identity that you want, and do it all incrementally.
Because if you look at publishing and journalism as a monetary proposition, like you’re trying to sell widgets or something with percentage points on the backend to your early investors or something.. like, maybe that works for people - probably does, I mean, I don’t know..!, but that’s really not what we did and some of that was naïveté and we didn’t know about any of that stuff, but it’s turned out now to be a blessing.
What are you drinking now?
So, the last coffee I made for myself was from Greenway Coffee in Houston, TX. Greenway is run by some really talented coffee folks - David Buehrer, Ecky Probanto, and John Letoto - they’ve been roasting down there in Texas for the last five years or so, and they have a couple of cafes with another one opening later this year.. I really dig what they do, from how they profile coffee and some of their other choices that they’ve made for buying, and how it’s presented.
Just before this interview I did a batch brew of their Kamwangi AB, which is a coffee from Nyeri.