What's the deal with espresso blends? by Bryan Hibbard

Unless you have been avoiding civilization entirely over the past few weeks, you have probably heard about the next big thing at Starbucks; the Blonde Espresso. This lighter espresso roast has been presented as a revolutionary new idea. Never mind that us in the third-wave coffee world have been using light espresso roasts for years. I realize there is a lot of confusion about espresso roasts and so I will do my best to demystify this topic.


Espresso blends are as old as espresso, as coffee professionals very quickly learned that they could not get a perfect and consistent espresso with just one origin. The classic Northern Italian espresso starts with a base of natural or pulp-natural Brazilian beans. This is supported by mild Central American coffees (such as Guatemala). More intense coffees such as Sumatra, or possibly some Robusta coffee give the coffee a thicker body and more bite (or they may stick with something more mild like a Colombian). The roast level is generally medium to medium-dark. This is the style that you will find in Illy's Normale espresso blend. The Southern style uses darker roasts and favors coffee with more dark, bittersweet notes.

The American understanding of espresso has generally fit more in the Southern Italian camp thanks to many 2nd wave roasters (such as Starbucks) presenting a dark espresso blend. Still to this day, I think the majority of Americans assume the default espresso roast is a dark roast. I know I did before I was a coffee professional. And while there are many great dark espresso blends, espresso can really be made with any roast level, so long as the blend is done well, and the barista understands how to extract a good shot.

As the third wave picked up in the early 2000s, roasters started experimenting with lighter espresso blends and with single origin espressos. Many of the earliest 3rd wave roasters still offer a darker espresso and demonstrate the transitional step between roast styles (such as Stumptown's Hairbender, a medium dark roast). Today, you will find a medium to medium-light espresso blend at most 3rd wave shops.


The espresso blend requires a different approach than a standard drip coffee blend. The goal is not just great flavor and aroma, but also structure, body, balance, and good crema production (the light brown foam on top of a straight shot of espresso). The blend also needs to taste great in the highly concentrated espresso as well as mix well with steamed milk (though there are some blends that are made specifically for straight shots). The roast process is also a bit different as espresso blends are generally roasted slower to reduce brightness and increase body. In a concentrated espresso, a beautiful bright acidity can sometimes become overpoweringly sour. 

Our popular Handlebar Espresso blend is our attempt at a slightly modernized version of that classic Northern Italian blend. We use a base of Brazillian pulp-natural coffees and opt for the traditional washed Guatemala. These two coffees give the blend balance and a great structure as well as the chocolate and caramel base notes. From here, we add 2 coffees that set the individual flavor profile. These coffees change based on what is best in season right now. Our current blend features our Costa Rica Sonora Honey/Natural and our Rwanda Kilimbi. This gives the blend cherry and floral high notes. This blend is constantly evolving based on the coffees we have available. We roast this coffee in two parts and blend after roasting. The first part is just the Brazils, these are given a slightly lighter and more gentle roast to keep the Brazils from getting ashy. The rest of the coffees are roasted in part two and are brought to the very edge of medium roast. The goal is maximum development without introducing any bittersweet notes that would be found in a darker roast. 

We are very focused on the quality of our Handlebar espresso as this is the coffee that we sell the most. Espresso is the backbone for most coffee shops and it is often the first time someone new gets to try our coffee. We are all about making a good first impression. 

The end of an era by Bryan Hibbard

UPDATE: The market location issue has been solved and it is now operating at 234 Matlage Way, Sugar Land, TX 77478.

Last week, we received some shocking news. The Farmer's Market at Imperial (our home for the past 4 years) will be closing after November 18. Yes, it is supposed to reopen at some point, but there is no timeline set (could be months, could be years). To say we are sad to see it go is an understatement.

 One of our early markets from our first year of business.

One of our early markets from our first year of business.

In July of 2013, Fort Bend Coffee Roasters ran their first booth at the Sugar Land market. We were a bit crazy to try to sell coffee in the middle of a Texas Summer, but somehow it caught on. The good people of Sugar Land loved our coffee and we grew bit by bit. I still remember those first weeks when we roasted our coffee at the market and sold 4 varieties (including Marty's Blend!).  I can say with absolute certainty, that we would not be where we are today without this market. It was our first proof of concept; with low cost of entry, and easy access to people who cared about local food and were willing to pay more for something better.

But, our story is one of growth and success. After a year of Saturday mornings, we took the plunge and opened a commercial roastery. But the market was still the majority of our revenue in our second year. And it was still the place we met most of our new wholesale customers. Our little outdoor coffee bar was impressive enough to land us new accounts. Our business was still, at its core, a farmer's market (with a few coffee shops and restaurants for support).

So, roughly 200 markets later, we have two more markets to go before the end. This Saturday (11/11), I've got my (recently hired) employee Jorge running the booth. Then, on the final market (11/18) my wife and I will run the booth together, just like we did most Saturdays in our first year. We want to take this time to reflect and to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the support you have given us these past 4 years. You have made Fort Bend Coffee Roasters a reality! So on the 18th, we will have some bags for sale, but the cups of coffee will be free. If you have been one our regulars, I hope you can make it as we want to thank you in person.

Ok, so enough of the sentimentality, where will you be getting your coffee after the market ends? I'm glad you asked. First, check out our find our coffee page for a complete list. You can order online and have it shipped to your door. Shipping prices are best for 2 bags at a time. You can also order online and have the coffee delivered to one of our coffee shop accounts (no shipping fee). Currently this is available for First Cup Cafe in Fulshear and Blockhouse Coffee and Kitchen in Richmond. Also, we are talking with a soon-to-open restaurant in Sugar Land Town Center and along with serving our coffee, they may also carry our retail bags. Keep on eye on our website for this.

That's the bags, but what about the pour-over bar. That's where we get to slightly more exciting news. We are very close to signing a lease on a new space for our roastery that will also include a coffee bar! No, it won't be in Sugar Land (sorry!) but it will feature our coffee done the way we want, and you will be able to see the roasting process too. I promise more news on this once we get closer. In the meantime, visit one of the coffee shops or restaurants that we supply.

Finally, we are sad to see the market go, but timing is not too bad for us. This would have been devastating for our business even a year ago. Many of my fellow vendors don't have large revenue streams outside of their market business. Do what you can to support them as they find other avenues to sell their goods.

A second chance for First Cup Cafe by Bryan Hibbard

As many of you know, First Cup Cafe in Fulshear has been one of our premier accounts and they have done a fabulous job showcasing our coffee over the past 2 years. I wanted to inform you of the recent developments at the shop. You may have noticed some changes at the shop if you have been in there since June. Long story short, the shop has new owners.  Let me share a bit of their story.

Last Spring, I was hosting a roastery tour and was rather disappointed when only one couple showed up. Little did I know, this impromptu meeting was quite important. Alberto and Grecia had met with the previous owner of First Cup Cafe and were considering the idea of purchasing the shop. They came to my roastery tour to learn more about my business. I noticed two things immediately. One; they were new to the coffee world, but eager to learn, and two; they understood that the way to make it in coffee is by having the best quality. They were not interested in cutting corners, but simply wanted to produce great coffee and great food.

I shared with them some of the knowledge I had gained over the years helping other shops get open. I also shared some of my thoughts for how to grow the business. This has stated a great collaborative partnership. Sergio Garcia (head barista at Blockhouse) and I held a training session where we crammed as much coffee and espresso knowledge into the staff's collective head's as we could in one afternoon.

I can say it has already had some effect on their quality. They've got some work before they start slinging out the latte art, but the lattes are coming out with properly steamed milk, at the right temp, with a well-extracted shot. Alberto and Grecia have also been working on updating the food menu and offering some new things on the drink menu (my personal fav is a cortado served in a 4-oz mason jar, so cute and delicious).

All this to say, if First Cup is your neighborhood cafe. Great, it's only going to get better. But, if were a customer of First Cup and you got frustrated with inconsistencies and quality, give it another shot. I think you will be really happy with the updated menu and the new attention to quality coffee.

Also, they are doing a fabulous job keeping their retail shelves stocked with lots of different varieties of our coffee (there were 8 varieties last I checked), including our Holiday Blend that we just released!

First Cup Cafe is located at 11525 S Fry Rd #110, Fulshear, TX 77441. If you've never been there, check it out. 

My how the mighty have fallen... by Bryan Hibbard

Ok, so that's a bit over-dramatic but here in the coffee world we are watching the maturation of 3rd wave coffee. The news hit today that Blue Bottle Coffee was purchased by Nestle. Or, at least they now own 68% of the company. They paid a cool $500 million for this privilege. Quite impressive for a niche brand that currently has 50 stores. Founder James Freeman is still at the helm and the company claims that nothing will change in their focus or quality. Don't expect to see Blue Bottle branded Nespresso capsules anytime soon. The new capital just gives them a chance to grow more aggressively and invest in coffee technology. Time will tell.


They are not the only ones, 2015 the parent company of Peet's Coffee and Tea purchased Stumptown outright, and got a majority stake in Intelligentsia. What we are witnessing is big companies realizing the awesome growth potential in the third-wave coffee market. They are buying up the biggest and most established players in the market and planning aggressive growth strategies. Starbucks is pulling its weight too with their Reserve Roastery cafes.

Before I talk about the challenges, I want to point out the positives in this. First, this is the ultimate proof of concept for the 3rd wave coffee industry. This style of coffee is here to stay and it is poised for pretty dramatic growth. I envision a time in the near future when Starbucks (while it still may remain the most ubiquitous) will not be the only national chain available for coffee in most markets. Second, Blue Bottle, Stumptown, and Intelligentsia are all (currently) producing amazing coffee. As they expand, they will teach more people what great coffee is, which will make the education process easier for us little guys. My customers who are transplants from major coffee cities like Seattle and Portland are often great to work with. A roaster or coffeeshop has already done the work of introducing them to third-wave coffee, teaching them about the product, and helping them find what they like. They can usually find something similar to what they enjoyed at home from our lineup without much help from us. Third, these large third-wave companies have been pioneers in helping farmers and cooperatives get better prices for their coffee (at a time when it was really hard to do!). I don't see their general vision for coffee quality changing, so this will mean even more demand for high quality coffees that give livable wages to coffee farmers.

On the other hand, this does mean more competition for the thousands of small coffee roasters and independent coffee shops across the nation. When we are competing against grocery store coffee or Starbucks, we can win on quality pretty easily. But these large third-wave shops have access to some of the very best coffees in the world and have the buying power to ensure that no one else can get a hold of them. Our coffee will be a of equal quality and flavor (though it might be fresher depending on how well they maintain their supply chain). We will have to find other ways to set ourselves apart, such as local pride, customer service, and individual attention that a larger company cannot offer. I personally, am happy to be focused on the suburbs of Houston. While I can definitely see Blue Bottle or Stumptown opening a cafe in Houston in the next 5 years, I don't think they are setting their sites on Richmond or Fulshear yet.

It is fun to be a part of an industry that, on one hand is 600+ years old, but on the other hand is on the cusp of a massive expansion of the new style of coffee.

Pray for Houston by Bryan Hibbard

Well, its been a bit of a week here in Houston. I can't tell you how exceedingly blessed we feel to be safe and dry. And yet, I know all of us feel a bit of survivor's guilt seeing our neighbors' homes flooded. The nightmare is not over yet, but for now I am very happy to say that our home and our roastery survived the storm with no flooding. We left for Dallas on Thursday hoping to get ahead of the storm. We are now staying with some friends in the Western part of Arkansas. It's beautiful here, but we just can't wait to be home.

 My view from Arkansas.

My view from Arkansas.

The short news is, we are not taking roasting orders this week. We are looking forward to getting back to work next week! We are going to do what we can to contribute to the recovery effort. We will be donating 10 lbs of coffee to each of our coffee shop accounts to brew and deliver as they see fit. I know everyone could use a good cup of coffee after Harvey.

We have some more ways to help too in the works. We will update you once we have this all sorted out. In the meantime, our prayers are with all our neighbors in Houston. 

 This cat (Linda) at our friends house in Arkansas didn't want me to write this blog.

This cat (Linda) at our friends house in Arkansas didn't want me to write this blog.