The owners of Five Watt Coffee in Minneapolis want to make specialty coffee more accessible. “Any beverage in a specialty coffee shop might not be what someone’s looking for; I understand that,” says co-owner Lee Carter. “We aim to have a broad enough offering to cater to everyone’s needs and desires, but doing that in a way we are really proud to stand by.” Thus, an extensive specialty drink menu reflects the carefully thought-out tinkering of baristas who are trained like bartenders to create balanced drinks with unexpected flavors using local bitters mixed with house-made syrups.
“I was really inspired by the cocktail movement,” Carter says. “Every bartender was once a barista.” A shelf of locally made bitters greets visitors at the front of the bar. Fee Brothers, Dashfire, Bittercube, and Big Watt (house-made) artisanal bitters make their way into innovative pairings with the house-roasted espresso blend, Big Watt cold-press, and the occasional tea. Baristas are trained with cocktail jiggers and Japanese bitter bottles to ensure a precise drink. They also have the opportunity to create their own drinks that might just make it on the menu.
Carter points out that their newest barista made the drink I sipped during our talk—the Tim Curry. Think cocoa, red curry powder, house-made simple syrup with espresso, and milk. “I think he did a great job,” Carter says, smiling. After a few sips, I would have to agree. The ten-ounce latte is smooth and slightly sweet, with a spicy edge.
However, staff members aren’t chosen particularly for their mixology skills. Co-owner Caleb Garn says you can’t train personality but you can train barista skills. Garn himself learned about specialty coffee after managing a Caribou franchise. “Caleb is the perfect personality guy. He’s good at what he does behind the bar and he has the right people skills to be a manager,” Carter says of his partner. Getting his coffee skill set up to the precision that specialty coffee requires was “easy enough,” Carter admits, and Five Watt’s baristas are trained to create both traditional and specialty drinks. The bottom line is the staff should be having a good time and creating a non-judgmental atmosphere for patrons to try new drinks.
“Caleb and I try to let people know we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Carter says. “We want everyone to have fun.”
What they do take seriously is the quality of their drinks. They’ve developed a loyal following for their specialty drink menu, with perennial favorites anchoring the menu along with new seasonal drinks every three to four months. After drip coffee, the shop’s number-one seller is the Kingfield, and it’s not hard to see why—house-made vanilla syrup, coriander bitters, espresso, milk, and black Hawaiian sea salt make for a balanced and palate-pleasing drink.
Big Watt cold-press, the owners’ second venture, features prominently on the drink menu mixed with fresh and unlikely flavors. The Gin Basil Smash is a cold-press concoction with basil simple syrup, Big Watt gin bitters, and cream. The May Day adds salted lavender syrup and grapefruit bitters to the cold-press base.
Why spend so much time on these specialty drinks when so much of specialty coffee is geared to purity? The answer is simple: “We just want to make it enjoyable. We’re proud of our drinks and we’re broadening our customer’s horizons on what specialty coffee can be.”
While the large drink menu was an intentional choice to help customers take their first step into specialty coffee, it also makes sense from a business perspective. The popular menu drives sales and customers through the door. After all, where else can someone order a miel latte with walnut bitters and cinnamon? The depth of flavor elevates the standard honey latte to a destination drink for many patrons, who Carters says represent an even slice of the local population. “Our biggest demographic is females in their twenties. We also have a lot of young families and people with kids, late twenties to mid-thirties,” Carter explains, citing the results of a survey they conducted.
The customers have responded so positively to the signature drink menu that Carter and Garn are not afraid to think outside the box when it comes to their other drinks, as well. “Part of Five Watt’s deal is breaking the rules of specialty, but doing it in a way that creates a product that’s just as good, and we are just as proud to put on our menu,” says Carter. Their answer to single-origin coffee is single-origin featured blends. He notes that they’re still figuring out the exact parameters, but the blends will be around 80 percent single origin. “I’m not too proud to say that single-origin is not likely to be a perfect cup of coffee.” He believes that a blend is more pleasing to the palate, and that’s what he’s after.
“We’re being intentional about all our choices. We want to make coffee really easy to enjoy,” says Carter. “Specialty coffee shops get a bad rap for being intimidating and pretentious. We want to stay away from that and make coffee fun.”
—Kathryn Silverstein is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.