In a world where even fast-food restaurants throw around the words “craft” and “artisan,” it can be difficult to know just how much thought goes into the food we eat, the drinks we imbibe and the day-to-day products we use.
But in a state where craft is king, consumers often seek that extra bit of attention — and know it when they see it.
Mission to roast
Brett Bixler likes coffee — a lot.
The president of Mission Coffee Roasters in northern Colorado Springs likes java almost as much as he enjoys building communities.
“Coffee houses are a center of community,” Bixler said. “And doing it well matters. We’re not just trying to sell 20-ounce sugary flavored drinks with made up names. We’re actually putting care into our drinks and creating relationships with guests.”
Mission Coffee Roasters at 11641 Ridgeline Drive includes a traditional café and coworking space for rent, but the foundation of the company is its coffee, which Bixler roasts and sells at wholesale, allowing clients to make a profit from retail sales. Faith-based organizations and churches make up a significant portion of Mission’s clients: groups like New Life Church, Focus on the Family and Compassion International. But Mission also roasts private-label coffee for local secular companies and nonprofits, such as Garden of the Gods Gourmet and UpaDowna. The roaster even uses local artists to create custom packaging for its customers.
Bixler got his start in coffee while working for the Diedrich family in Southern California, where he helped grow their small family operation from two stores to 10 before investors took it public in the early 1990s. Bixler was then recruited to the East Coast, where he would eventually open a coffee shop and roaster in Baltimore’s inner city. His two children spent their early years roasting beans at their father’s side while his wife worked a corporate job in Washington, D.C. The Bixlers, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, then moved to Colorado in 2011 so their son could begin school at The Classical Academy.
Bixler opened Mission in 2013, and said there’s certainly a craftsman’s quality to their products. There’s even a section on Mission’s menu that offers traditional drinks that won’t be found on a national chain’s menu, Bixler said.
“For instance, we make a true macchiato. If you go to a large chain, you’ll find a macchiato, but it’s the furthest thing from a true macchiato. Macchiato in Italian means ‘marked,’ and it’s supposed to be dry milk froth marking a shot of espresso in about a one-and-a-half or two-ounce portion,” he said. “Or most people don’t know that a cappuccino’s name is derived from the Capuchin order of [friars] in Italy. … The color of the finished drink, in its 6-ounce portion, should match the color of [their] robes.”
Those details are often overlooked at chains, where the endgame is purely profit, Bixler said, adding the craft label is often exploited.
“It’s like adding the word ‘artisan’ to something. Look at Europe, with their grain-grinding wheels and flour made fresh from wheat that was grown in their village,” Bixler said. “Then they make the bread by hand in a stone oven. Is that craft? No, that’s just baking!”
Regarding the organization’s church involvement, Mission also helps design in-church cafés, or it can simply supply churches with coffee. Bixler said the hospitality aspect of attending church is often overlooked, and quality coffee is one of the easiest ways to keep parishioners coming back.
“I grew up a pastor’s kid, and I remember coffee at church was usually in a percolator from Walmart with some Folgers in it,” Bixler said. “It would go through the burner multiple times and would be served in a 6-ounce Styrofoam cup.
“We want to help churches with hospitality,” he continued. “We can do that through coffee, which can lead to conversation, which means people come to church early or stay later, which leads to fellowship and strengthening community, which leads to the possibility of discipleship, which strengthens and grows the church.”
Outside the sanctuary or café, Mission’s coffee can be found at Whole Foods Markets in the Pikes Peak region.
Drink like a Blue Fish
While you likely won’t find John Fisher’s products in church, he also says he builds community.
Fisher is the owner of Blue Fish Distillery, which opened on the city’s Eastside in October. Fisher makes and bottles moonshine, American white rum and vodka for retail sales and is currently distilling bourbon and tequila. Blue Fish at 5745 Industrial Place also offers a tasting room.
Fisher worked for years in mechanical engineering and, when his wife accepted a job in Colorado Springs around the turn of the century, the couple moved from Iowa. Fisher worked at a handful of companies locally, most recently at Westone, which manufactures hearing aid and headphone components.
The company has since sold, and Fisher left in 2014. It was while on an annual summer motorcycle trip with friends that the topic of distilling spirits was broached.
“One friend I’ve known since high school, and we tried to make moonshine once when we were teenagers,” Fisher said. “It didn’t go very well. But this was pre-internet and we didn’t really understand the chemistry behind it.”
While on the trip, his friend was discussing a book he’d recently read about distilling.
Fisher said he was at a point in his life where he didn’t want to work for anybody else, and distilling spirits seemed like a logical step toward self-employment.
“Distilling intrigued me as an engineer and someone who likes to make stuff,” he said. “It’s interesting … and it’s a fun product. People like alcohol and my goal is to create quality spirits people enjoy.”
When it comes to craft production, Fisher said the term has become a sort of stereotype — it’s now often correlated with 20-something hipsters, long beards, funny hats and homemade soap.
“The desire to make good products and connect with other people probably exists more when you’re younger,” he said. “I worked in manufacturing for 20 years and have been all over the world making stuff — this is just another product. But it helps if you’re small. I think the meaning of craft gets lost now because guys who are too big to be craft are still calling themselves that.”
‘What else can I do?’
“My brain has been going crazy, like, what else can I do?” said Randal Worker, who has been a member of the Pikes Peak Makerspace for about three weeks. While Worker’s services and products aren’t really meant for the masses, his company, Works Global Ltd., has huge potential thanks to shifting models of production, to include the use of co-working makerspaces.
For decades, Worker installed and maintained theater equipment for a large Canadian company and, after leaving that job, created his own company doing similar work. For the last six years, he installed solar arrays across the country before coming back to Colorado Springs, where he re-launched Works Global.
The bulk of Worker’s business today continues to be maintenance at performing arts centers across the country, but his plan is to shift his business toward manufacturing control systems for stage lifts and rig systems.
“I was spending 300 days a year on the road,” Worker said. “If I can switch to more manufacturing, I can do two-thirds of my work here at home and spend less time traveling.”
Admittedly older than many of his makerspace cohorts, Worker said the coworking space has allowed him to learn new ways of manufacturing from younger generations, which has led to greater focus on innovation.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve learned how to do 3D modeling, which I’ve never done before. Now I can use a 3D printer and see if [my designs] work. Before, I always had to make things to fit enclosures, but I can custom build stuff now.”
Worker said he now has access to expensive equipment and a knowledge base he never would have found away from the makerspace.
“These are pieces of equipment I could never justify buying on my own,” he said.
Worker said about 10 percent of his business is manufacturing control systems. He’d like that sector to grow to 75 percent.
“Maintenance is all on the road, and I’ve been doing that for 30 years,” he said. “I love the road and to travel, but I’ve been traveling a long time.”
Worker said the most immediate impact makerspaces have had is that they give smaller companies the opportunity to hang with big players.
“In general, the makerspace will open up the possibilities for more and more small guys,” he said. “I’ve had problems finding someone to help produce a one-off project. People don’t want to break into their production line to do a one-off. It costs too much or takes too long.
“As these makerspaces grow their members, it means more equipment. I can see where I’ll have opportunities to create products I could never have created before.”