Those days weren’t quite here yet when I spoke with an old friend whose family has roots in Ann Arbor, an eccentric burg that is famously home to the University of Michigan. (This friend is also a regular photographer for Fresh Cup.) On a recent visit to A2 she took a sojourn to Ypsilanti, the smaller college town next door, to imbibe at local roastery the Ugly Mug. Jess sent me photos as she drank, and we geeked out over the art, the hip locals, and the comfy Central Perk feels of the place. I was forcibly reminded of Chicago cafés I’ve spent too many hours in. Neither of us knew the history of the shop, but both of us (confessed Midwestern-philes) fell in love. “Shoot it,” I said. “I’m going to write about it.”
A week later, on the phone with Tim Healy, general manager of the Ugly Mug, I learned that the roaster-retailer is more than a decade old. Healy, who said he ended up in Ypsilanti “on a whim,” wanted to talk both about the café’s history and the city itself.
Ypsilanti is “the working class city just to the east,” an Ann Arbor local tells me. “Ypsilanti is to Ann Arbor as Oakland is to San Francisco, or Brooklyn is to New York.”
This pegs the town of about 20,000, home to Eastern Michigan University, as a hip place. Healy describes Ypsi (yip-see) as “up-and-coming,” referencing the student population, a vibrant arts scene, and a collaborative business community. It’s also a cold place, known for its bitter winters. The Ugly Mug is a community hub—complete with heavily flyered message board, live music, and local art—and a necessity in a harsh land.
Founded in 2004 (a year that floods back when I listen to a particular song about Ypsilanti), the Ugly Mug is one of the older small-batch roasters in Michigan, and certainly the oldest in Ypsi. Which makes it not only an entrenched and vital part of the Anna Arbor and Ypsilanti communities, but a breeding ground for Midwestern coffee. Baristas and roasters from the Ugly Mug have gone on to found other local microroasteries, and graduated to illustrious positions within this, somewhat small, industry. Indeed, when Zak Rye opened Gaslight Coffee Roasters in Chicago in 2012, with fellow Metropolis Coffee alum Tristan Coulter, their Chicago coffee pedigrees impressed. Not as often referenced was the fact that Rye started out in Ypsi as the founder of the Ugly Mug. His parents, Jimmy Johnson and Melody Rye, own the shop now.
With eleven years of success (and the specialty coffee revolution) in its make up, the Ugly Mug admirably straddles the divide between the second and third waves. Healy says, “we’re about finding the balance between roasting in-house and catering to specialty coffee customers, but also appealing to a much wider audience than that. There’s a wide range of people that walk in here.”
So there’s always a bright, fruity single-origin on drip, next to a more mellow and accessible coffee. There’s a house espresso blend and a decaf one. There’s a deep tea list, with oolongs and multiple greens, and there are sweet house specialties, like the Mexican Latte, made with chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and the Café Miel, made with local honey (Ypsilanti became Michigan’s first “Bee City” earlier this year).
A cozy chaos of mismatched furniture welcomes studiers, families, workers, and artists to drink at the Mug. Comfort foods like bagel sandwiches and seasonal specialties increase the living room vibes. Live music at the Mug breaks up the university-centric lives of Eastern Michigan students. A First Friday art walk connects the roastery to local artists and makers, like VGKids, a nearby printmaker that crafts “Keep Ypsi Caffeinated” and other postcards for the café.
On the wholesale side, the Ugly Mug’s accounts (there are close to a dozen), get lots of training and attention from the roastery. In the café, baristas are brought in with experience or no experience at all—“we love to educate, build their palates, expand their knowledge, and get them excited about coffee,” says Healy. Beans are roasted on a twelve-kilo San Franciscan roaster by Lisa Schramm, the most recent in a long line of roasters to leave their touch on the Ugly Mug over the years.
In 2004 (also the year I met my half-Michigander photographer friend), specialty coffee was very different. In Michigan, the engine was still warming up, and big cities claimed most of the attention. But Ypsi is a weird place (like Oakland or Brooklyn). Healy asserts that Ypsilanti, while staying fairly small, has only gotten more progressive, collaborative, and interesting over the years. Cities of that ilk can also usually claim forward-thinking coffee. And they are usually the ones that don’t seek to outgrow their regions, acting as the perfect host for a particular time and place. The kind of businesses that convert and comfort. We owe the Ugly Mugs of this industry a lot.
—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.