They may not have won the US Coffee Championships, but Blanchard’s forthcoming storefronts ensure that they’ll keep winning hearts in Richmond.
The panels of professional judges, the series of regional qualifier rounds, and the thousands of dollars worth of gear sound like a description more befitting the Olympics; however, this is the world John Kruegler and Patrick Rush stepped into when they advanced into the U.S. Coffee Championships in Nashville this year. Their ascent from dabbling in brewing and roasting while working in cafes to becoming two of America’s elite coffee competitors mirrors the rapid rise of Blanchard’s Coffee Company over the past decade to earn a reputation for being Virginia’s top roaster.
After winning preliminary competitions in D.C. and competing in a regional championship in Nashville together, only Kruegler moved on to Nationals in Kansas City. As a brewer he readily admits he had it easier than Rush, who was striving to take home the title of best barista. This showiest of the five categories in the U.S. Coffee Championships attracts fierce competition.
Baristas and their sponsoring cafes and roasteries often shell out thousands of dollars on the finest specialty coffee, chic glassware for serving the judges over multiple rounds, and flashy equipment that this year included the dubious addition of a $4,000 juicer. Each year the stage is packed with dozens of baristas engaged in a purposeful ballet of steaming, pouring, and dodging one another in cramped quarters.
Those of us who at most can only make drip coffee may find it hard to imagine the level of finesse and refinement expected of competing coffee connoisseurs. “The goal is to recreate an ultra fine dining experience with an espresso meticulously sourced for purpose and aesthetic,” explains Rush. “It’s also like a beauty pageant; contestants talk about their social conscience. The last World Championship winner — Agnieszka Rojewska of Poland — forsook her time this year to talk about the industry’s issues with gender and inclusivity.”
The brewer’s category is no cakewalk either. Competitors have to create a signature brew that reflects the latest trends in this gourmand world, as well as conjure up a masterful cup of joe from beans they’re given on the spot. Three sensory judges evaluate brewers’ performances based on presentation, service, and the taste of their creations. A head judge follows them constantly, monitoring technique and style. “Even the best of the best are still nervous, and shake when they pour their final cup,” adds Kruegler.
Though neither qualified for the World Championship, both got to pop into this year’s competition, as it coincided with the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston. The only contestant they got a chance to see happened to be this year’s World Champion of brewing: Du Jianing of China. Critics reviewed her “10 minutes of casual discussion about intentional, well-thought brewing” as “delivered completely and utterly without blemish.” Kruegler’s thoughts? “She was perfect.”
Such careful attention to the direction of the global specialty coffee market has made Blanchard’s into an industry standard bearer in the Commonwealth. The brand’s recent decision to move beyond wholesale roasting and expand into two retail storefronts came about only after a decade-long discussion, marked by sporadic perusal of Richmond real estate and a strong desire not to step on the toes of their current clients.
“We’ve been awkwardly growing for years and finally feel we’re stable enough to take on another project,” explains Stephen Robertson, Blanchard’s director of sales and marketing. “We want to use these two new stores as an educational place, and a platform to tell stories about a wider spectrum of coffees.” The new locations, in Forest Hill and along Broad Street between the Museum District and Scott’s Addition, are also an investment in the Richmond of tomorrow.
The new storefront at the intersection of Forest Hill Avenue and Westover Hills Boulevard sits within a mixed-use complex beside other local stars, the Veil Brewing Co. and Charm School Social Club. This location will be nestled in a sleepier part of the city — one that is quickly becoming more dense.
With its 1920s Art Deco exterior, original terrazzo tile floors, and previous life as the city’s Chinatown Bus depot, the coming location along Broad Street is “perfect for existing Richmond aesthetics, and for future Richmond growth,” adds Robertson. The fact that the spot is “accessible to the Pulse line and not far from Blanchard’s roasting space” sealed the deal.
Inspired by their favorite shops from around the world, the two new storefronts will offer more educational spaces, a big table for community events, and two dedicated gallery spaces for storytelling to create a customer guided experience. That focus on customer and community is almost a mantra for Blanchard’s staff like Kruegler: “We pride ourselves on being accessible and approachable. We don’t need to be the expert telling people what they want.” As for the style of the décor, “we’re wary of using the word minimalist, but we want to keep it simple and highlight what we’re most proud of: our coffee,” explains Robertson.
Two decades ago the Richmond coffee scene offered little more than Starbucks. Today, a variety of great roasters and coffeehouses offer nuanced blends and brews to an increasingly eager public. “Richmond is establishing itself as a food town, and continually proving itself. The same is going on in our craft beer industry,” Robertson points out. “We’re following that and helping people understand where their daily luxuries come from.”
Whereas a decade ago, specialty coffee in Richmond felt like an exclusive scene, today the industry’s seemingly endless growth potential and the support of the River City Coffee Association have created a spirit of collaborative camaraderie. “We never want to be pretentious about being the lead coffee shop,” says Rush. “Lots of other people are doing awesome things in this city. We just wanna help everyone collectively to move to the next level.”
Perhaps Kruegler’s approach best embodies the current Richmond attitude. “When we work together it’s better for all of us,” he says. “The more we know, the more we love the coffee, the industry, and the community it creates.”
For those who can’t wait until the two new storefronts open (Broad Street in July/August and Forest Hill in Spring 2020), there are free cuppings open to the public every Friday morning at 10:30, as well as the occasional brew class.
Photos via Blanchard’s. Top Photo: John Kruegler in white, Patrick Rush in black.