It was 2010 and Brandon DelGrosso had just returned to Colorado Springs after living in Portland, Ore., where the UCCS graduate earned two master’s degrees, intending to deepen his teaching credentials. But it was also in Portland that DelGrosso discovered the city’s penchant for small businesses — especially those peddling caffeine.
Fast forward eight years and you’ll find the former educator running the show at Switchback Coffee Roasters, a roastery and café located just east of downtown.
The city has seen its fair share of coffee companies start up within the last handful of years, but DelGrosso said there’s room for everyone, a collaborative attitude that is beginning to earn Colorado Springs a reputation in coffee meccas beyond its borders.
And the fact that two Switchback employees took away awards in last month’s U.S. Coffee Championships doesn’t hurt the city’s coffee rep either.
“I fell in love with coffee a long time ago,” DelGrosso said, while standing in his roastery on North Institute Street.
He explained how, upon finishing school in Oregon, he found himself in a teaching position in Colorado that didn’t really fit.
“I talked with a friend who did home roasting and said we should try to bring in some good specialty coffee,” he said. “We didn’t have any idea what we were doing. The first few years, we were fumbling through because we didn’t have a business background, let alone a coffee background.”
As the two (the initial partner is no longer involved) became better acquainted with their product, the stars aligned and specialty coffee shops began to spring up around town.
“The city transformed about four years ago when some really great shops opened — Wild Goose, Urban Steam and the Ivywild School. They opened [within several months of] one another,” DelGrosso said.
Wild Goose Meeting House began serving Switchback coffee shortly after it launched. And that was the exact moment Evan Schubarth’s mind was blown.
Schubarth, now the company’s head roaster, took second place in the Roaster Competition at the U.S. Coffee Championships in April. In addition, Switchback’s Sam Neely, 18, took away a sixth-place recognition for his barista talents.
It was the first time Schubarth, Neely and the roastery had competed.
That’s partly because the company is relatively new, and to some veterans, Schubarth is as green as the beans he expertly roasts.
Four years ago, Schubarth was working as a shift lead at the Pita Pit on Bijou Street, opening for prep before sunrise.
“When Wild Goose opened, I stopped going to Starbucks across the street and walked a couple more blocks down the road to get Wild Goose instead,” he said. “That’s where I discovered specialty coffee.”
He looked up the roastery and began getting his coffee straight from the source. Schubarth even took his own pilgrimage to Portland to check out its coffee scene.
“I came back on fire,” he said. “When I got back I found a home espresso machine on Craigslist and modified it. I changed the steam wand and filters to make it more like a real espresso machine.”
Schubarth walked in to Switchback to buy some beans and showed DelGrosso a picture of a cappuccino he’d made at home
“He was like, ‘What?!’ Next time I came in to buy beans, he asked if I wanted to work here. I said, ‘Heck yeah.’”
‘Best little coffee town’
When DelGrosso says the coffee scene is tight in Colorado Springs, he’s not blowing steam.
Neely attributes his placing in the most recent coffee championships to tutelage he got from Carissa Niemyer, a barista competition judge and co-owner of Story Coffee Co. in Acacia Park. He also received help from Tyler Hill, one of the founders of Loyal Coffee and a previous barista competitor.
Neely said that’s all part of roasting in the Springs.
“We’ve heard us described as the best little coffee town you’ve never heard of,” Neely, a native of London, said. “Everyone’s heard of Denver, but even Denver thinks Colorado Springs is pretty tight. We’re known to have the tightest, closest community of coffee professionals in the country.”
“We try to support each other in as many ways as we can,” he said. “When Loyal got started, we did a Loyal takeover day a month before they opened so people could try their coffee and buy their T-shirts.
“It’s a stupid business decision if you think about it, but at the same time, as the tide rises, so do all ships. That’s what we’ve been trying to be about since we started this company.”
And while DelGrosso says there might be growth in the company’s very near future (look to the north), maintaining its standards and making a better world for all involved is the greater mission of his team.
“We want to make a bigger impact worldwide,” Schubarth said. “Yes, that’s selling coffee all over the world, but for us it’s about direct trade relationships.”
Direct trade is “way above and beyond the sustainability level of fair trade and organic,” Schubarth said. “We have a direct trade relationship in El Salvador and Burundi. We are able to go straight to the farm and pay the family directly for the coffee we bring here.
“It brings them a fairer chance of having a normal life — instead of just a sustainable one.”