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Photo by Collins Laatsch

Cup Runneth Over

Photo by Collins Laatsch

Humans have been drinking coffee for over six centuries, and caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive agent on the planet. Though it’s not hard to find a six dollar cuppa, very little of the money made from the end of the line works its way back to the hands that picked the beans. Founder and President of Crimson Cup, Columbus’s own Greg Ubert wants to change the coffee game as the world sees it, and he’s building his own arena right here in central Ohio. He has enlisted himself to strengthen the chain from tropical dirt to capital city cup, and back again. Ubert knows intimately that the place where you buy your hot morning Joe, or set up your laptop to “get some work done” is the end of a very long line of people. From farmers to field workers, roasters to purchasers, baristas to drinkers, these plants pass through many hands before they get splashed on your crossword puzzle

Laid back and soft spoken, you’d never know Ubert deals in caffeine. From Worthington to Harvard to a lucrative coding job in Chicago, Ubert found that his fire wasn’t being fueled in his chosen field of computer software. With his whole career ahead of him, he turned his back to the windy city, and headed home to the heart of it all to hit the books and the streets.

“In 1991, it was nothing like it is today. But with what Columbus had, I knew it was going to get here eventually. [It had a] really good school system, the Capital is here, [there are] businesses of all sorts, a great entrepreneurial spirit, and a culture of giving and sharing, which I think is really important. I’ve come to understand that we kind of take it for granted being here but that’s not exactly what happens in other parts of the country.”

The idea for coffee shops came to him while relaxing with some joe in a California cafe. Much like the software and code he was used to, he wanted to know every bit of information that went into the coffee buying and selling process.

“I wanted to understand the wholesale aspects of the business. So I was traveling from Omaha to Boston to Bar Harbor, Maine. Because there weren’t that many coffee houses around at that time. I tried to go to as many places as I could to find out ‘why are some places succeeding and why are some places not?’ So I learned that in the 90’s, and wrote a book about it (“Seven Steps to Success in the Specialty Coffee Industry.”) I realized that just supplying customers great products didn’t necessarily ensure them success. So that’s when we started the teaching and training aspects in the 90’s. And now you see (he gestures around to classrooms and the laboratory) the latest of what it is we do and how it is we teach and train and continue to innovate.”

When Ubert refers to his customers, he doesn’t mean the individuals who purchase cups of coffee at Crimson Cup locations. He’s referring to the owners of the shops (Crimson Cup franchises, as well as independent shops) that buy their beans wholesale from him. Ubert resides a few links back in the supply chain, ever the man behind the curtain.

What sets Crimson Cup apart from other coffee shops and suppliers is its relationships across the globe, and the research they do. The Innovation Lab is a brain trust of testing and teaching. There are classrooms, stocked to the gills with all the bells and whistles of brewing, open to the public, offering all stripes of coffee curriculum. From basics to roasting and brewing, anyone with interest in growing their barista skill set can enroll. There are 19 such Specialty Coffee Association-certified facilities in the country that can offer the same high levels of training, but Crimson Cup stands out. The company was named one of the 25 Best Coffee Roasters in America by Men’s Journal, and 2016 Macro Roaster of the Year by Roast Magazine. Lining the walls of the classrooms are at least a dozen fluttering, full size flags from countries all over the planet where Ubert buys coffee at a fair price, only from farmers who agree to treat their workers and the earth with the deepest respect.

“Not every farming community believes that it’s a good thing to do positive things with the environment [and] to produce better quality coffee. The harder part is us finding that community. And then continually working with them on that. It’s a challenge, but it’s also the fun part. It’s no different on the coffee house side.”

And work, they do. Brandon Bir, director of education and sustainability for Crimson Cup, has his feet on the ground regularly at growing facilities the world over. Being that coffee is a tropical plant, Bir finds himself in exotic locales on a regular basis. Asked to list off the places he’s been, he squints as he counts equatorial countries on his fingers.

Bir hails from Indiana farm land, where his fascination with biochemistry and botany took root. His face betrays a childlike enthusiasm as he explains the oxidation of tea leaves. Bir grins from behind the bar as he asks slyly:

“You want to see my UV light?”

In the lab, Bir fires up a scientific grade UV light, and demonstrates how it highlights microorganisms often found hitching rides on coffee beans.

Photo by Collins Laatsch

“We’re trying to find defects in green coffee under UV light, and apply that to origin. Under UV, bacteria turn up at different colors… So we’re experimenting to see if taking those defects out that light up under UV are actually going to reduce negative effects in the cup.”

Crimson Cup wants their growers to have a fair deal. They offer a good price for their wares, plus innovation and improvement to their crop. But there are standards the farmers must rise to in return. As Ubert stated, great coffee isn’t all that goes into what they are selling. It’s the beating heart at the center of their philosophy that guides their business practices, from ground to mug. Bir is often the face that communicates these needs directly to the growers:

“We built a survey to make sure people are doing what they need to be doing. It’s a safety thing. Make sure there are covers around belts at mills, make sure there aren’t children working in the fields… You should have clean water available. It’s super important to be open and honest and have that as a foundation… I have three group texts going about different coffees, different farms, with different farmers. So accessibility is there. It’s pretty amazing that you can get internet in the middle of the jungle of Ethiopia.”

But travel doesn’t come cheap. As the president, Ubert signs off on each and every plane ticket and per diem.

“Someone might look at our expense report and say ‘what are you doing? It doesn’t make any financial sense at all to be doing that’ and they may be right… We just have a different point of view. What we want to do is have an impact with our customers, with people here at Crimson Cup, and with our farmers.”

“It’s not just caffeine and black juice in a cup.” Bir concurs “[There are] tons of people behind this. We should appreciate this, and do it right, and serve the highest quality beverage we can possibly serve.” •

For more about their operation, visit crimsoncup.com.

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