Mike McKim first saw the future of cold-brew coffee in 2006 while visiting a now unremembered roaster-retailer somewhere in a Rocky Mountains state. As he sat chatting with the owner, teenager after teenager went to the bar and ordered a drink from a beer tap. “I finally stop him and I say, ‘I have to ask you, what the hell are you serving these kids out of that tap,’” McKim says. “And he gets really excited and he says, ‘Follow me into the back.’ . . . He has a little five-gallon homebrew keg and he’s brewing hot coffee and dumping it into the keg and adding milk and vanilla syrup and then putting it on tap and serving.”
McKim scrambled back to Texas and pitched the idea to his Cuvée Coffee wholesale clients. He said to them, “Your cold-brew coffee, your Toddy coffee that you’re making, put it in a keg and serve it on tap. People are going to go crazy for it. And everyone said, ‘That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.’ So nobody did it.”
Five years later, the idea still had him wound up. So he began to keg and nitrogenate cold-brew on his own, calling it Black and Blue. Then late last year he started canning the coffee. Cafés have still been reluctant to adopt the brew, but bars and restaurants in Texas have lapped it up. Meanwhile, across the US, McKim’s belief in kegged cold-brew has been shared by a raft of roasters and cold-brewers and caffeine-pumping tap handles are becoming more and more common.
In the space of a few years, McKim’s wholesale roasting businesses was joined by a cold-brew sibling and then, also last year, a café. What does it mean to add another business atop an established one, and how does running multiple, barely related operations change the role and meaning of owner?
Starting cold-brew wholesale, this is jumping into a whole other line of business. What did you have to do to prepare for it?
Laughs. Well, besides just closing your eyes and jumping?
It was kind of a ready, fire, aim approach for sure. I just knew that it made sense. I had read an article that said eighty-five percent of all the tea that is consumed in the US is consumed over ice. Texas is a huge ice tea state. Our summers are long and hot. If we could capture a fraction of the ice tea market, this could be a viable business.
“There’s no specialty coffee company in the world that would consider selling coffee to 7-Eleven. And here we are, we’ve got the product on their shelf. That’s a paradigm shift right there.”
I just immediately assumed that all of the coffee shops that we sold coffee to, once we rolled out these kegs and this cool product, they would go, “That’s cool, let’s do it,” and not a single coffee shop did. But what happened was businesses that we wouldn’t normally sell coffee to grabbed hold of it. Businesses like bars, fast-casual restaurants.
That’s when it really opened my eyes. This product completely transcends the coffee industry. A lot of times, especially in the specialty coffee industry, we’ve got these blinders on and we think that if it’s outside of our little world, it doesn’t exist.
So the first step is to get a production line going to fill these kegs. What did you have to do to do that?
We do it in the roastery, and luckily we had the extra space to carve out a spot. We had a contractor cut drains in the floor and we built a wall so we could separate the coffee roasting from the cold-brewing. We’re not doing a whole lot original in the sense that the beer industry does this day in and day out. I was really fortunate because several years ago I got very, very deeply entrenched in the beer industry, and as I went on this journey with coffee, they were my model. I learned all I could from the beer industry and applied it to coffee. The same thing with cans. All I did was look at the craft beer industry.
When did you make the move to canning?
We launched the nitro cans in November of last year. We started messing around with canning the product in the beginning of 2014. And the bottom line is I was hell-bent on getting a nitrogenated product in a can, but I was just spinning my wheels. I was about to bail on the project. Then I read a press release that Oskar Blues was coming out with their Old Chub in nitro cans. So I got on the phone, called Oskar Blues, they said, “Man, absolutely. We love your company, love what you do.” I jumped on a plane, went out there, and spent two days canning beer with them.
How did things change when you went from a roastery to a roastery and cold-brewery?
It’s a separate business. We treat it as a business of its own. Literally, the brewery places orders for coffee just like any wholesale customer would. There’s a whole process and they’re just completely different animals. That’s the only way we could do it and scale it the way we need to.
What business did the cans open up for you?
They’re everywhere, man. The craziest thing was somebody put a tweet out the other day that said, the best price I’ve seen for Cuvée cold brew is at 7-Eleven on such and such street. 7-Eleven? How the hell did that happen? Think about it. There’s no specialty coffee company in the world that would consider selling coffee to 7-Eleven. And here we are, we’ve got the product on their shelf. That’s a paradigm shift right there.
You may have two businesses, but you’re still one person. What has it been like holding down the roastery, holding down the café, and now this? What has it been like to have so much going on?
I can tell you I have a lot more gray hair than when I started. I’ve had to continuously redefine what my role is in the company. My role really is to always be asking, ‘What’s next?’ Starting a project, starting research and development, starting something rolling, and then handing it off to the person who can see it through to fruition. . . I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a really fantastic team. And we keep building.
—Cory Eldridge is Fresh Cup’s editor.