From Bean to Brewing: An Interview with Colectivo Coffee & Keg Co. Founder Ward Fowler
ORIGINALLY INTERVIEWED SEP. 2016 BY Kenny Gould, Editor-in-Chief of hopculture.com. UPDATED FEB. 2017.
AT COLECTIVO COFFEE THIRD WARD - MILWAUKEE, WI
In 1978, when Ward Fowler was 18, he and a high school friend traveled Italy and France and got exposed to coffee, especially espresso-based drinks. To him, it was a revelation. Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks, describes a similar experience. Both men came back with the feeling that the United States was missing something incredible. Ward even went so far as to use a whisk and a saucepan to try and froth milk, which—he tells us—cannot be done. It took a few years for things to click into place, but Fowler and his two partners currently run Colectivo Coffee, one of the most successful coffee empires in the midwest, with sixteen locations in Milwaukee and Madison and a new one set to open soon in Chicago (it was just recently announced that they filed for their Chicago liquor license & patio permit). The Hop Review sat down with Fowler to talk about speakers, beer, and the strangeness of grapefruit.
How and when did you get into the coffee business?
The coffee business started as Alterra Coffee Roasters in 1993. It’s three guys: myself, my younger brother Lincoln Fowler, and Paul Miller, a New Jersey transplant by way of Madison. But the actual business started four years before that, when Linc and I started building speakers.
Any 'Ward Fowler original' speakers still floating around?
Coincidentally, within the last month someone emailed us with a pair of our speakers that he bought off Craigslist.
So how did you get from building audio speakers to coffee?
When Linc and I built speakers, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we spent money on decent coffee [check here for coffee that suits your budget]. Paul, who had warehouse space on the same floor as our office, also loved coffee so he’d come down and listen to music with us on breaks. We weren’t going to get anywhere in the audio world… I suppose we might’ve made something of it, but frankly I’m glad we didn’t. We talked about opening a cafe. Paul had done some retail in Milwaukee and had a relationship with one of the shopping centers. We had a lot of ideas and we wanted to pack all those ideas into one place.
Where was this, specifically?
The Bay Shore Shopping Center, which has been reinvented twice since we were there. Now it’s called Bay Shore Town Center. We leased four hundred square feet and the thing functioned like a kiosk. Instead of a door and walls, we had a security gate on two sides. The center let us bleed out into the mall area so in the end we took up fifteen hundred square feet or more. There were tables and chairs, a five kilogram roaster, an international news stand, sandwiches for lunch.
Things have changed.
That’s 13 in Milwaukee, three in Madison, and one in Chicago.
So, your passion for coffee is apparent, but how did you become interested in brewing?
When I was in college, I did a year abroad at the University of Edinburgh. At the time, McEwan’s was the brand and they sell a nitrogenated system. The thing that everyone bought was the 80/-, like the Scottish version of Guinness: malt forward, highly sessionable beer. I loved it. Those beers are built so that you can spend some time at the pub and drink a lot of them without destroying yourself. For me, they were totally accessible. The whole process of tapping it and waiting for it to clear and analyzing the head and texture was all part of the gestalt. I’ve never been able to have that same kind of beer experience. Contrary to what many believe, the nitrogen isn’t something you can reproduce in a bottle or can with a widget.
So then you made the decision to sell beer at Colectivo.
The motivation stemmed from our former Director of Coffee, George Bregar. He’s since opened Company Brewing in Milwaukee. He’s been gone a couple years now, but for the last several years prior he worked for us, he had an elaborate DIY homebrew system in his basement. At the same time, 3 Sheeps Brewing in Sheboygan wanted to do a coffee stout and use our coffee. Grant Pauly at 3 Sheeps and George put their heads together not just on the coffee blend but on technique, because George felt like the way in which some of the beer makers get flavor out of coffee should be re-thought. Ultimately, this led us to design our own coffee stout. Our beers get brewed at 3 Sheeps and distributed by a company called Beechwood Distribution.
How important and strategic is the partnership with 3 Sheeps Brewing? What is that collaboration process like?
The partnership with Grant at 3 Sheeps is working out great. The 3 Sheeps team is open-minded and also a source of sound brewing expertise in helping us realize what we’re shooting for with our recipes. We go up and brew beer together to make sure we’re all on the same page. Very easy to relate to those guys and a lot of fun learning about the world of brewing!
What correlations, if any, do you see exist between the craft coffee and beer industries?
They’re really two different beverages but on similar parallel tracks. In both cases, the product quality over the middle and later part of the last century declined. People didn’t stop wanting to drink great coffee and quality beer—there was just very little available for a while. Scarcity of decent options drove a need for quality. Companies like Colectivo stepped into the void to simply make great coffee. The situation today in both coffee and beer is starkly different than it was even 20 years ago. If you are coming of age in 2017, you are blessed with many great options.
What types of beer do you brew?
We never met an idea we didn’t want to complicate, and our foray into beer is totally consistent with this line of thinking. Cortado was first beer, an 8.0% ABV imperial stout. Our second beer, the 5.8% ABV One Tun Pale Ale, has no coffee connection, but we felt like if we were going to be in this world and sell only our own branded beers, we needed to expand. Third is the Cascara Farmhouse Ale.
We also make Curtis. George came up with the recipe and it’s our version of the McEwan’s 80/-. Nitrogenated and malty…exactly what I wanted. We had communication with someone at McEwan’s who was somewhat cooperative. Our beer isn’t as low ABV as the 80/-, but it’s still low and that little bit of extra ABV contributes some texture that I think has made the beer better.
Do you have a favorite beer?
My answer there is like a lot of people who are into beverages…it changes. Right now I’m into Ballast Point. They have several pale ales that I like, especially the Sculpin.
Have you had the Grapefruit Sculpin?
I’m not a huge fan of grapefruit. Usually I see the word “grapefruit” and I won’t go there. But I do have to say, they manage to convey grapefruit and not let it get in the way.
Any thoughts on Ballast Point selling for a billion dollars?
How about that?! A billion dollars…they’re not even that old. But they’re well set to expand their brand and they’ve done a high quality job on the beers. Coming from the Midwest, I was totally skeptical that craft beer from San Diego could be decent, but that’s my bias. They obviously do a great job over there.
Is there a future for Colectivo/Keg Co. beer beyond the cafe's taps? Any plans to package?
No plans to package the beer. The last time I was at the liquor store, it seemed like the options for bottled and canned beer were many!
Do you have a favorite beer bar in Milwaukee?
I don’t really go to bars a ton these days, but in my little neighborhood of Shorewood—it’s the first suburb north of Milwaukee right on the lake—there’s been a bunch of development lately. There’s a guy just up the street who opened a place called Draft and Vessel (4417 N. Oakland Avenue, Milwaukee). His place is sweet: tiny, but with a great outdoor area and an extensive tap list that’s always changing. There’s always something interesting to drink.
Let’s talk a little bit about where Colectivo is headed. Can you tell me about the Chicago location?
We’ve been contemplating opening a retail location in Chicago for quite a while, and we’ve regularly been visiting down there and looking for sites. We finally found something in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, right at the intersection of Clark and Deming. We’re doing what we do up here, just down there. It’s not a huge location, but one of our downtown spots in Milwaukee is 1100 square feet and this will be a little bigger.
We’re still aggressively looking at Chicago. We have other places which aren’t negotiated but are in discussion. Being in Milwaukee, we’re only 80 or so miles away but our whole process works better when we have a little bit of scale. I mean, we’re already going down to Chicago every day. We sell baked goods to Peet’s [Coffee] there, to about 20 different locations. We’re in and out before anyone is even thinking about getting in their cars. It’s a surgical strike, and we’ve been doing it for more than two years.
With so many coffee shops competing for folks' dollars in Chicago, how do you see Colectivo standing apart?
We've built Colectivo cafes to welcome people throughout the day. Everything you eat or drink at a Colectivo (except the beer) is made by us—from the coffee to the scratch bakery products to the many delicious savory options, all of it is made by us here in Milwaukee and delivered to our cafes every single day. We’ve been at this for over 20 years and have always been laser focused on quality from origin to execution in the cafes, but we have tried to avoid the preciousness that has seeped into the specialty coffee world.
Do you know the people at Intelligentsia, Chicago’s hometown coffee roaster? Have they been supportive?
I don’t have so much regular contact with Doug Zell, the founder of Intelligentsia, but he’s actually from Milwaukee. I didn’t know him growing up as he was in a different school system, but he grew up in a house a mile north of me. Back in the day we actually sold them a roaster. They started about a year or so after us. I saw Doug at a Bike race this summer but didn’t get the chance to talk to him. I don’t know what his day to day is since he sold the company. We’re not near them; we’re near a Starbucks, but we’re just doing what we’re doing.
The Lincoln Park cafe will be the first Colectivo outside of Wisconsin. In what ways will this cafe be distinctly 'Chicago' in comparison to the Wisconsin locations?
Every cafe we build is unique to its individual location, including our Lincoln Park project. While each has its own handmade personality, they all do share similar elements and offerings we believe define us and the Colectivo experience. We think Chicagoans will enjoy what our fellow Wisconsinites have had a chance to get to know over the last 20 years.
Any special beers for the Chicago launch?
We’ve got nothing unique to Chicago, but of course we’ll continue to develop different beers. The Chicago cafe will indeed have taps. We’re building those in right from the beginning because they’re virtually impossible to retrofit. Luckily, there’s a basement so we can have a small-ish walk in and short lines to the taps.
What are you drinking when you're at home or away from work?
At home, I am often looking forward to morning coffee when I am headed to bed. No matter the time in the morning, I always make coffee—the type changes often. I use a Chemex. I have to stop drinking coffee by about 2:00 in the afternoon because I've reached the age when sleep is more easily disrupted. After work, I like to drink many things. But I am a serious lightweight so I practice moderation. I love a Beefeater martini if it’s early and I have had nothing to eat. In the summertime I am devoted to quality Chablis wine, which is tricky to find. I maintain a deep inventory! I drink all kinds of beer, of course. If I'm up for the alcohol content, I always enjoy Oskar Blues Gubna IPA. Such a mouthful. I think New Belgium’s Ranger Pale Ale is consistently excellent and under-appreciated. If I’m out at one of our cafes, I will opt for the Curtis—a nitrogenated creamy malty beer in the best Scottish tradition. At only 5% ABV, it’s a lot of flavor without a heavy alcohol toll. Occasionally, late at night, I love a bit of whiskey—Rye whiskey if it’s not too dry or Bourbon if it’s not too sweet. Right now I have one of the WhistlePig Ryes in my cabinet and I will be sad when it’s gone.
If you had one entirely 'free' day in Chicago, how are you spending it?
I’d hop on my bike. Then I’d tap the rolodex of our marketing and brand man and former Chicagoan, Scott Schwebel, and ride into the neighborhoods.
There would be a lot of eating and drinking—it might take more than a day!
Cafe photography by Kenny Gould. Product photography, portraits and renderings provided by Colectivo.
Authored by Kenny Gould, collaborator for The Hop Review, and who also runs the online beer magazine, Hop Culture – a daily online lifestyle magazine for the newest generation of drinker, covering the national scene but independently owned and operated out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Check them out on their website, www.hopculture.com, or follow them on Instagram at @hopculturemag.