In the heart of downtown Hillsdale, where the old Smith’s Flower Shop once resided, sits the newest addition to the town’s coffee culture: a specialty coffee roasting company, Ad Astra.
Owner and Hillsdale locals Patrick and Kristi Whalen began Ad Astra Coffee Roasters this past year while living in Kansas. Its name, “Ad Astra,” is the Kansas state motto, where the Whalens’ business was born. Originally from Virgil, the Latin translation means, “To the stars through adversity.”
“You reach the stars through adversity,” Whalen said. “Life isn’t a walk in the park and it’s not supposed to be. We gain excellence through adversity. Strength rejoices in the challenge.”
Although Whalen and his wife met while students at Hillsdale College and working at the on-campus coffee shop Jitters, Kristi says it wasn’t until moving to Ann Arbor that they both became “big coffee drinkers.”After exploring a variety of beans and roasts across the United States while Whalen served in the Marine Corps from 2007 to 2018, Whalen and his wife tried single-origin specialty coffee at Comet Coffee while living in Ann Arbor. After that, they noted, they couldn’t go back to regular coffee.
“We didn’t know coffee could be like this,” Kristi said. “When we lived in St. Louis, Missouri, a friend showed us how to roast coffee on a popcorn maker. We thought we could make a business out of this.”
Their initial coffee venture was a “huge hit,” according to Kristi, who said that they sold out shortly after beginning the new business.
Now, the Whalen family’s addiction has become an entrepreneurial venture.
Sitting in the old flower shop, the roaster contains a Mill City coffee bean roaster machine, potato sacks of raw beans, a whiteboard with a plethora of temperatures and numbers written across, a small laptop with Artisan Software that measures the roast, a workbench with labels and product bags, and a good old-fashioned drip coffee maker.
Whalen described the process, saying you start to preheat the Chicago-made machine to a certain temperature, depending on the bean. According to Whalen, the denser the coffee bean, the higher temperature needed to roast the bean. Typically, this is around 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I track data points to keep a consistent roast,” Whalen said. “The worst thing you can do is ruin the bean. The bean has all the potential.”
Second, Whalen says that you wait to hear, what is called, the “first crack,” which he says is “a major cue in the roasting process.” Likening the sound to the pop of Rice Krispies, Whalen says the beginning of the first crack indicates the percentage of development time. He quickly tracks this on his whiteboard.
Next, the coffee beans drops into the cooling tray after roasting and returns to room temperature.
“The beans are like grain before roasting. You could break a tooth!” Whalen said. “That ‘pop’ you hear is the release of water, as the bean loses density in roasting.”
Ad Astra offers a variety of roasts, like Guatemalan, Colombian, Kenyan, and Ethiopian — each with their own distinct accents, flavors, and strength. Whalen defines the “Maillard Effect” as what “unlocks the flavor and makes the coffee taste so good.”
The Ad Astra roasts, according to Whalen, each have their own distinct flavor. “Just like wine, the coffee has hints of vanilla, citrus, juniper, or molasses,” Whalen said. “The flavor depends on the altitude, soil, and year, like rainfall or climate, when a coffee bean is harvested.” The Hawk holds accents of blueberry. The Kenyan roast is lemony. The Guatemalan is buttery and smooth.
In addition, each Ad Astra product package and name tells a story. Every Ad Astra bag has a picture or background that represents that roast. For example, the Kenyan roast bag has a copy of a painting from Kenya, which hangs on the wall of their roasting space. The Hawk roast is named after Lt. William Hawkins, a Marine Corps officer, who personifies the phrase “ad astra” and whose bravery in the Battle of Tarawa in World War II won him the Medal of Honor.
Furthermore, the Whalens intend for their products to represent the three values of ethical, specialty, and local coffee.
“Many coffee companies don’t support those who grow it,” Whalen said. “We want to have relationships with the farmers and like to work with importers who know the name of the farmer.”
As a local- and family-owned business, who believes that “coffee constitutes community,” Ad Astra Roasters also wish to develop relationships within their own neighborhood.
“I would love for coffee shops in Hillsdale to hold our coffee,” Whalen said. “I don’t want to go international. I like the local economy between friends and family.”
In order to take part in the Hillsdale community, the Whalens put up shop in the local Hillsdale farmer’s market every Saturday morning.
Hillsdale residents seem to be enjoying the new business’s contribution. “It’s not always easy to find a good roaster in a small town, but Patrick and Kristi know how to draw out the natural and complex flavors that are the sign of good coffee,” Cody Strecker, customer and professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hillsdale College, said. “Both their Ethiopian and their Kenyan roasts have become our favorite.”
“Drinking something delicious and getting to support a small business and a local family doing work they love? No contest.”