A part-time job as a barista while he was attending college turned into a love affair with coffee for Ryan Knapp. Photo by Michael Buck
Ryan Knapp sips his coffee like many people sample the flavor of a craft beer.
Although inverse in temperature, the effect of allowing both liquids to come to room temperature is quite similar: Fruit, nut, spices and other flavors are released.
“I can drink an ice-cold cheap beer, and say, ‘Oh, that’s great.' But as it warms up, it tastes super skunky — all those skunk flavors come out," Knapp said.
“I feel very similarly with coffee. If it’s a rough coffee but super hot, you can drink it. The heat shocks your taste buds. A really great cup of coffee should still taste fantastic as it cools. You can really detect the different flavors.”
The comparisons are natural for Knapp, who is co-founder and director of coffee at MadCap Coffee Co.
It’s easy to see that craft beer connects people from all walks of life in Grand Rapids, as professionals regularly mingle with blue collar workers at area breweries. And while night life and beer both are booming in West Michigan, the coffee culture also is quietly growing, with much of the same clientele found at independently owned coffee shops around town.
“There are plenty of cities much bigger than us that don’t have anything close to the movement we have,” Knapp said. “I don’t know what it is — we have a handful of companies that do a great job, and it’s influenced by the beer culture.”
MadCap has plans to move its roasting facility to 1041 E. Fulton St. in a shared space with Brewery Vivant, which will use the space for aging its beer. Eventually, MadCap will open a second retail location at the Fulton Street spot. For now, the roaster has moved into the future production space of The Mitten Brewing Co. on Leonard Street NW.
Knapp’s journey to tasting thousands of coffees in countries across the globe didn’t come easy, but it did evolve quickly. The 28-year-old started in the coffee world at age 20, due to an oddly fortunate change of college majors.
In 2003, Knapp began studying business management at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., south of Chicago, with the thought of taking over his father’s contracting business. A realization of his dislike of building homes made him switch to theology. That led to his spending a lot of time at local coffee shops.
“I started getting into the study of theology and philosophy,” Knapp said. “With that comes the study of interacting with other people and the importance of that, and community in coffee shops. It was a big part of that for me.”
While studying abroad in Africa — Uganda and Rwanda — he discovered raising coffee is what keeps those countries afloat. He also began to realize the importance of coffee roasters in this country having sustainable programs that send more money back to the coffee farms.
In 2007, he got a part-time job at Moon Monkey Coffee Co. in Bourbonnais, owned by his now-business partner Trevor Corlett. Knapp didn’t know much about coffee at the time — not even the difference between an espresso and regular coffee. He learned how to make the various coffee drinks and to roast coffee beans, and soon the craft and socioeconomic sides of the industry began to draw him in.
“I thought it was cool, even just learning how to make an espresso,” he said. “I just started to fall in love with coffee itself and learning about the product, about its flavors and nuances.”
As Knapp and Corlett began forming a business plan for what would become MadCap, they visited Grand Rapids several times. Corlett had lived in the city during his college years at Cornerstone University and for a few years after.
“He was really keen on being here,” Knapp said. “Grand Rapids is perfect. We studied the demographics, saw what was happening with the beer scene, and saw the food progressively improving.”
People still tell the business partners they’re crazy for locating a specialty coffee roaster in Grand Rapids, but since the shop’s opening at 98 Monroe Center in 2008, it’s seen nothing but success, establishing itself as a meeting hub in the heart of downtown.
At first, Knapp saw the coffee shop as a stopgap, thinking a career in coffee wasn’t realistic. But during MadCap’s second year, Knapp began to see coffee as a legitimate option. The company won its first Good Food Award — and recently won another. Shortly after, he and Corlett finished third and fourth in the U.S. Barista Competition.
Two years ago, MadCap opened up a Washington, D.C., facility, to roast coffee and train baristas. Knapp said a café is in the plans for Washington, but right now the roasted coffee is being sold to retail shops in the area. And that’s the company’s goal: keeping its hand in both wholesale and retail.
As he puts it, there’s more opportunity in wholesale, but a café acts as a showroom where the product can be displayed and made the way it’s supposed to be.
Unlike many who look at craft commodities as superfluous and an unlikely career path, Knapp can see the way the world is going. His dedication to the craft and culture of coffee has shown him how the little things in life come together.
“It’s the connection of (seeing) how much goes into something as simple as a cup of coffee that has made me realize the same thing about everything else around me,” he said.
A simple cup of coffee can see up to 20 different hands and 13 steps before it hits the bottom of a mug, Knapp said. Those steps are so important that Knapp sees the barista’s job as following all the steps and not screwing it up.
“That’s the thing that keeps me excited about coffee eight years later,” he said. “It’s such a long chain in coffee — the seed-to-cup process.”
He likes what Starbucks has done for coffee, although, he said, it’s not exactly a high-quality cup of joe. The company did, however, introduce consumers to the idea that it is OK to spend more on a cup of coffee.
“It’s not a fantastic product, but what they’ve done for the idea of specialty coffee is a good thing,” he said.
As the company’s director of coffee, Knapp is out of the country 12 weeks a year. On his trips, he’s making connections, sampling coffee on coffee farms, finding the right farms that fit MadCap’s needs now and in the future.
Finding good farms that produce high-quality beans means paying more for that quality. Forming relationships with those farms can lead to the farmers earning more than three times what they would have in the past, while also offering better quality for MadCap’s customers.
Knapp tastes several thousand coffees a year to pick the two dozen a customer could sample at MadCap. He said the current culture has a simplified view about light and dark roasts, but each coffee bean is raised to highlight certain characteristics, such as the soil it was grown in.
Eighty percent of the coffee’s flavor is decided before it hits the roaster, Knapp said, and the simple commodity can have countless nuances and subtleties.
Tasting dozens of coffees a day still hasn’t gotten old for Knapp.
“It’s an exploration. I still miss things and learn things,” he said. “That’s why I haven’t jumped ship to beer or wine. They fascinate me, too.”