The smell of freshly roasted coffee beans blankets the air over Broad Street on Tuesday mornings.
Beginning at 6 a.m., Michael Nichols pours over whiteboards chalked up with temperatures and roasting times, and then pours 25 pounds of green coffee beans into the large commercial roaster. Hours later, 20 pounds of dark, fragrant beans will emerge from the hopper, ready to brew a rich cup of coffee.
This rich scent emanates from North Star Coffee Company, an artisanal coffee roastery, located at 92 N. Broad St., formerly the home of the Willowbrook Emporium, a store which sold flooring and antiques.
Owner Kelly Robinson and roaster Michael Nichols have been roasting coffee in the location for nearly a year. Before moving into the space, Robinson had been brewing coffee in very small batches in his garage for two years.
The company, which has expanded its distribution throughout southern Michigan, will be available at Rough Draft Thursday through Sunday.
“Nobody else in the area produces coffee like us for miles. We know of only one roaster within 50 miles of Hillsdale,” Robinson said. “We are bringing something new to the area.”
With more than a decade of home roasting experience under his belt, Robinson’s roasting had gotten to a “prosumer” level.
“I knew the next step was to get into commercial equipment. When I decided to move to Hillsdale and leave Apple, I decided that it was the time to make it into a full scale company and level up all the equipment,” he said.
A former software engineer at Apple, Robinson first became acquainted with Hillsdale when he heard Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn speak. Shortly after the speech, Robinson visited Hillsdale and made his move from California to Michigan in July 2014.
“I saw that there was something that I could do in Hillsdale that was creative and worthwhile and good,” he said. “I thought I would take a chapter of my life and live in this kind of way.”
Robinson, a native of New Mexico, started drinking coffee late in high school.
“I was always an agent of caffeine. It kept me awake to work long hours,” he said. “But I never had great coffee until my friend introduced me to it.”
It was not just a nice store-bought brand his friend served him; the beans were home roasted. “I had to ask him ‘What is this?’” Robinson said.
Expanding his business into a larger space meant that Robinson needed more help as the company grew. On a visit to his then-fiancee — now-wife Stevi Robinson — Nichols, then working in Ft. Worth, Texas as a barista, went to Holy Trinity Church and struck up a conversation after the service with Robinson.
“We talked coffee after church for a while and when I moved here he said he could use some help. It was fortuitous timing for both of us,” Nichols said.
Robinson said he thinks of coffee like chefs consider fine European cuisine.
“People don’t often use culinary terms to describe coffee, but that is not a bad association for it,” he said. “In specialty coffee, people focus on every part of the process: where it comes from, how it is grown, what is the varietal, what is the process for harvesting; people even drill in on the ethics of trading. Then they worry about how it is roasted and how it is brewed.”
Robinson said he thinks that another accurate description for his technique of roasting specialty coffee is “craftsmanship.”
“With the way coffee is sold in the grocery store, there are a lot of crimes that are committed. It is burnt and vacuum packed,” Robinson said. Although Nichols and Robinson do their best not to act like coffee snobs, they said that they can always taste the difference in quality.
North Star Coffee works with coffee buyers and importers who travel around the world finding the best coffee beans and bring them to the U.S. in huge sea containers.
“You can’t start with bad coffee beans and roast it to be good coffee,” Robinson said. “We buy the best coffee we can, but even with good beans you can ruin it.”
To avoid ruining the primo beans, the two men keep detailed records of each roast and taste their coffee often.
“It’s actually a really scientific process,” Nichols said.
North Star Coffee Company’s carefully crafted coffees can be found all over Hillsdale. Their coffee is served at the Coffee Cup Diner, the Dow Center, and at Holy Trinity Anglican Parish. The beans can be purchased for home use at Hillsdale Natural Grocery.
Senior Brendan Clarey, a home coffee roaster, tasted the coffee at the Coffee Cup Diner and couldn’t tell if it was good.
“It was better than most diner coffee, the beans were a nice peaberry, and they looked well-roasted. It was better than regular diner coffee but they were just brewed wrong,” Clarey said.
Clarey said that he thinks it would be great to taste their coffee in a specialty coffee setting, brewed as a pour-over with a chemex, or with an espresso machine.
“Any time you use a batch brewer, like a Bunn Coffee Brewer, you can have an over-extraction which lets unfavorable flavors out of the beans,” he said.
The company’s success has not been limited to Hillsdale. Black Diesel Coffee in Ann Arbor and Roots Brew Shop in Grand Rapids carries the coffee as well.
As they look toward expanding the business further, the Robinson and Nichols want to stay true to the spirit of coffee roasting.
“The point of the coffee business is to make great coffee, Robinson said. “We want to continue to do that.”
Rough Draft is featuring North Star Coffee Company’s Rwanda Washed Bourbon blend. It will also have retail bags available for purchase.