A La Marzocco — that high-end commercial machine found in so many specialty espresso bars — can easily set you back $17,000.
“They’re a big investment — I mean, that’s a car,” Congruent Services owner Vance Garrett said. “But they’ll last as long or longer than a lot of cars will. One of these can last up to 20 years.”
When business hinges on one invaluable machine surviving decades, skilled maintenance and repair are critical. That’s how the burgeoning local craft coffee scene has created the perfect niche for Congruent, and for Garrett’s skills as a coffee technician.
Garrett started Congruent Services just over two years ago, at a time when support for coffee equipment was hard to find in the Springs, and specialty coffee was taking off.
He was a petroleum technician back then, a coffee enthusiast and a loyal patron at several espresso places.
“We were talking about what I did for a living, and one of the managers said it would be really cool if I could help them with their equipment because they didn’t really have anyone to do that …” Garrett said. “So I started asking around and found there just wasn’t a lot of support for this stuff.”
The leap from petroleum technician to coffee technician wasn’t as challenging as it sounds — at least not for Garrett, who had four years as a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force under his belt, as well as deployments to Pakistan and Iraq. He went to Seattle for a week-long technicians’ training class with La Marzocco, one of several brands he sells and services.
SwitchBack Coffee Roasters put him to work on its machine as soon as he got back.
Garrett was determined to start slowly, relying on word of mouth and being selective about his clients.
“My biggest fear was that I would take on more than I can handle and that would defeat the purpose,” he said. “I’m a little more specific about who I’m working with at the moment because there are a lot of great people doing really cool stuff here that I share a passion with. Those are the people I really want to make sure I can support.”
Garrett works with Loyal Coffee, SwitchBack, Peak Place, The Principal’s Office, Wild Goose Meeting House and Story Coffee Company, and about a dozen others in Castle Rock, Denver and Boulder. He plans to apprentice one or two new technicians this year, but they have to understand and share his approach.
“I think what sets me apart is that I understand that there are three main components to what I do, and all of them are equally important: the people, the coffee itself and the equipment… you have to work to understand all three and their relationships to each other in each situation,” Garrett wrote in an email.
“I believe this applies to both service and sales, and you do a disservice if you overlook the importance of any one of those relationships. Fixing machines is only part of the story.”
A great technician has a passion for and experience with coffee, he said, adding, “When I’m looking for people, that understanding is what I’m looking for first … because it can be a bit abstract and definitely very subjective to work with coffee.”
“Espresso especially is a very finicky thing to work with. The machine may be working, it may be making espresso, but whether or not it’s stable in temperature, whether it’s hitting the right temperature, whether you’re getting the same flow rate between the groups all across the machine — all of those things can drastically affect the quality of the coffee.
“There are a lot of people out there that can fix machines, but not a lot who have a great understanding of coffee and what people are trying to get out of the machines,” he said. “That’s critical.”
When he started Congruent, Garrett expected to be mostly service-focused, and he would sell machines as an “added value” to existing customers. But the growth of specialty coffee locally has helped the sales element grow to about half his business.
Garrett takes it as a sign the coffee scene is “headed in the right direction,” and sees encouraging parallels with the city’s craft beer industry.
“We’re creating that culture now, with the growth of specialty coffee. It’s the ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ mentality. As more people get exposed to it, that’s going to be their expectation. It was the same way in the craft beer world — once the breweries started popping up, people became aware of how nuanced beers could be.
“It’s just a matter of more awareness … once people get turned on to the possibilities in coffee they start to seek it out; they look for quality and they look for variety,” he said.
With the growing number of quality coffee shops and roasters, two local baristas in the national semifinals in the U.S. Barista Championship this month, Garrett said Colorado Springs is seen as “a serious coffee city.”
“I think we’re on the verge of what Colorado Springs is going to be. We have a clean slate, we can go whatever direction we want to go, and people are excited about that,” he said.
“I’m just happy to be involved in it.”