It’s been a decade or more, but Tony Anderson can still taste one of his first cups of truly great coffee.
It was a Geisha varietal from Panama, but for Tony, it was more like fireworks going off.
“If you had this giant mixing bowl of blueberries in front of you and you stuck your face over it and with your hands shoved as many blueberries in your face as you could, that was that coffee.
“You hear people say sometimes: ‘This tasted like …’ or ‘This has a hint of …’ That coffee tasted just like two fistfuls of blueberries. It was uncanny.”
With flavor profiles ranging from floral to citrusy to nutty and so much in between, good — no, great — coffee has that memorable quality that not only adds a jolt of caffeine power to your day but can, in some extreme situations, turn your world on a dime.
Justin Duren knows what that’s like.
Drinking a higher quality coffee for the first time during a humanitarian trip to Central America in 2004 set off a chain reaction that eventually led to him quitting his state carpenter job and devoting his livelihood to finding and serving the best cups of joe he can find.
After managing Three Story Coffee’s Millbottom location for a handful of years, he joined the High Rise Bakery team when the shop opened in 2019. He now is High Rise’s “lead coffee geek,” as it says on his tax forms.
“Before that, my experience with coffee was Grandma’s coffee pot, which was under-extracted Folgers, and poor church basement coffee, neither of which I liked. So when I experienced it for real in Central America, it was great,” Justin said, noting the depth of flavor in coffee he had never previously experienced.
It had “the flavor of the earth — fruit, floral, sweet — rather than bitter and smoky.”
For as universally beloved as coffee is (it’s the second or third most popular beverage in the world after water and tea, depending on whose list you’re reading), its origin story remains unknown to most caffeine addicts, Justin and Tony said — and it’s not all as smooth and rich as the cup most of us enjoy while reading the morning paper.
Tony, who started Three Story Coffee with his wife, Sarah, about a decade ago, said an interest in agriculture and people is what started their journey with coffee, more so than the drink.
“The more I learned, I realized this is really not a very nice industry, and most of that comes from the fact that 98 percent of all the coffee in the world comes from developing countries,” he said.
There are around 25 million coffee farmers in the world across 50 or so countries, he noted.
But, despite the large number of players involved, Tony said, when it comes to specialty-grade coffee (think smaller roasting companies and coffee shops, not what’s mass-produced and sold in bulk in convenience stores), it’s a fairly tight-knit community.
And that’s what drew the Andersons into the business.
Three Story’s mission is not only to serve high-quality coffee but to form relationships with the farmers in a mutually beneficial way.
Tony uses the East African nation of Burundi as the poster child for what’s wrong with the coffee industry and why he thinks forming these relationships is vital.
He said about 60 percent of the small, densely packed country’s population derives its primary income from the coffee sector, and coffee is around 80 percent of its GDP export revenue. Yet Burundi is one of the top five poorest countries in the world. And while Tony acknowledges the Burundi government’s tight grip on coffee farmers is not the sole problem, and fixing it wouldn’t be the sole solution, it’s an important place to start.
“For us to be comfortable being in this industry, we’re going to have to do things differently,” Tony said. “We’re going to have to be way more involved. … I need to know the farmers are paid well, they’re treated well and that it’s a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.”
Tony does that by putting names and faces with the product.
He deals in direct trade with farmers or buying groups in El Salvador, Guatemala, Burundi, Ethiopia, Sumatra and, starting soon, Kenya.
He knows the farmers’ names; he’s shared meals with their families and toured their farms; and like in any relationship, business or personal, he’s spent years navigating the ups and downs.
“Coffee is one of the most popular things out there, but people don’t know much about it,” Tony said. “For us to be able to pay farmers well for really quality coffee, we need to be able to raise the value of coffee. How you improve people’s value proposition of coffee is you make them understand it a little better and know a little more of what goes into it and where it comes from.
“Now, this isn’t just a really awesome coffee from El Salvador — this is Mario Valiente’s and his family’s. Then people can get behind their coffee.”
The coffee beans we’re all familiar with are actually the seeds of the plant, as Justin with High Rise explained.
Two seeds are inside the plants’ cherries, which are harvested by hand. Once picked, there are different processing methods. Justin explained the wet, or washed method, as well as the dry, or natural.
The wet process is more common. In it, the fruit is milled off the seeds, which are then put into a fermentation tank to be cleaned before being dried.
In the dry process, the entire fruit is dried before the seeds are removed. While arguably simpler, the dry process comes with a higher risk for farmers — too much moisture present could lead to mold, ruining the entire batch. With that higher risk is often a higher price tag for the consumer.
Because it has more time in the fruit to absorb its sugars, dry-process coffee tends to be more densely packed with flavor, featuring more fruit-forward tones. It’s juicier, Justin explained, and less watery.
The nuances of a coffee’s flavor come from the region and soil in which the fruit is grown, though.
African coffee tends to be brighter with more citrus, floral and berry notes. Central America imparts more nutty, chocolate and stone-fruit flavors, producing a mild and smooth cup of coffee. And Indonesian coffee is often bolder and full-bodied.
Regardless of the process, once it’s dried, coffee beans are green and smell a bit like grass or grains, Justin said, and they have little culinary value until roasted.
“Roasting changes everything,” he said. “The goal of most roasters is to have a roasting profile that matches the flavor profile of the region of the coffee.”
For most specialty coffee, like what’s sold at Three Story and Serendipity Roasting Company in Eldon, beans are light or medium roasted to not mask the subtleties of the bean’s flavor.
Anything more than that, explained Serendipity’s Cliff Simmons, would just be burning the bean, eliminating all the sugars that produce those floral or citrus notes and creating a bitter cup of coffee.
Cliff, along with his 17-year-old daughter and business co-owner, Sariah, began hobby roasting out of their home — initially in a frying pan on their kitchen stove before investing in a roasting machine.
Along with Cliff’s wife, a baker who supplies the shop with made from scratch treats, Cliff and Sariah opened Serendipity in 2020.
When it comes to roasting, Sariah said they prefer an air roaster, which allows the person manning the machine to be more hands-on with the process. They control the flow of air as well as the temperature and have the ability to see the stage of the bean. Sariah and Cliff roast daily in 5-pound batches.
At Three Story, Tony uses a drum roaster, which is a hybrid of hot air and convectional heat. It roasts 18 pounds of green coffee beans at up to 410 degrees in about 12 minutes, depending on the type of bean.
Once roasted, there are hundreds of ways and hundreds of devices in which to brew a cup of coffee — and hundreds more ways to then serve each cup.
High Rise “coffee geek” Justin said a good place to start is with a ratio of 50-60 grams of coffee per 1 liter of water, which can then be adjusted depending on preference.
Cliff and Sariah’s preferred method is the pour over, in which every element and action is meticulously weighed and timed.
“Giving that special attention on every little point is going to make a huge difference,” Cliff said. “It’s like the difference between going to McDonald’s or going to a steakhouse.”
For a pour over, a ceramic cone with a specialized filter is used, and water is poured over the grounds, typically using a goose-neck kettle to better control the flow of water. Timing, weight of coffee grounds and weight of water are key, as is the type of grind.
Justin said the size of the grind depends on the brewing method. For a pour over, a finer grind works well because it has a shorter water-to-coffee contact time, unlike a French press, where the coffee is fully immersed in the water and a coarser grind is appropriate.
“If you put really fine coffee in a French press and let it sit for four minutes, you’re going to come back to something that’s undesirable to drink; it’s that muddiness at the end of a French press,” Justin said.
When in doubt, ask someone at the coffee shop to grind that bag of beans for you. They’ll ask how you prepare your coffee and grind it appropriately. And typically, they’ll perk up at the chance to impart some of their coffee wisdom to a fellow caffeine lover.
When he first opened Three Story in 2012 — then just a roasting company and not yet a coffee shop — Tony realized to succeed in his mission to produce quality coffee while benefiting farmers, he needed the relationships with the customers to be just as strong as those with the farmers.
He said confused patrons would come into the Dunklin Street shop looking for a latte, and he’d end up spending an hour or so chatting and educating them on where coffee comes from and the mission of his business, sometimes while sharing a pot of coffee he had made for himself while working.
Now with three coffee shop locations (two in Jefferson City and one in Columbia), Sarah, Tony’s wife and Three Story’s co-owner, said being able to give customers a broader world view, in addition to really great coffee, has been the most rewarding part of the job.
“Any person who decides to not go to Casey’s and get their coffee or not stop at McDonald’s for a free one … that’s the greatest compliment,” Sarah said.
“That’s the most humbling thing to me because they’re paying more for their coffee; they know they’re paying more, but they care enough to break free from how they’ve always purchased coffee in the past. I feel honored. And hopefully we’re doing a good job at giving them more reasons to like it other than just the quality and flavor of the coffee.”
Since opening the doors to Serendipity last year, Cliff said, “it’s been fun to see people graduate from their frappe to a good black coffee” once they taste and learn more about the growing and roasting process.
It’s what Cliff and Sariah call “education and experience.”
Through hosting pour-over parties or just chatting with customers, Sariah relishes the chance to talk coffee while sharing a cup; they even make a point to staff enough employees at Serendipity so Sariah and Cliff can step away from the kettles to discuss the intricacies of their favorite beverage with customers.
That sense of community is what attracted Sariah to the business.
“I always loved the idea of a coffee shop especially because it isn’t just about the coffee,” said Sariah, a recent high school graduate who fell in love with coffee around age 11.
“It’s such a different community of people because it’s so many different types of people. It’s not just hitting one category: It’s not just old people, it’s not just young people, it’s not just girls or guys. … It’s a community of every type of person. Being able to reach that is something I love,” she said.
“We love coffee, but we really love people and getting to walk alongside people in life just by making coffee. That’s so fun; what’s not to love?”