By Anna Daugherty, Katherine Recatto, Emma Ledford and Andrew Masi
Coffee is often thought of as just a source of caffeine to help people get through their day. But like craft beer, high-end food trucks, and other trends associated with the surge in craft consumerism, a coffee culture is slowly developing in Austin.
Houndstooth Coffee and Austin Roasting Company are hoping to help build the culture by unleashing the beverage’s full potential as a quality, upscale commodity and appealing to niche markets.
Paul Henry, Houndstooth Coffee’s Director of Austin Relationships, has worked there since his brother Sean founded it about 4 1/2 years ago. Sean took a trip to Seattle where he experienced an active coffee culture, Henry said, so when he came back to Austin and didn’t find an equivalent, he founded his own shop with the value of “quality above all else.”
“He [Sean] just kind of fell in love with coffee and what it represents as, like, the beverage that ties everybody together, and how you start your day and the different flavors you can tease out of it,” Henry said.
In an effort to expose more people their products, Houndstooth offers four free tastings every week: two at the Lamar location, and two downtown, Henry said. They are open to the public and meant to be both fun and educational. The main point, he said, is to convince people that it’s worth paying more than the 99 cents they’re used to in exchange for a truly quality beverage. After all, creating coffee is anything but cheap.
“There’s farmers, and there’s pickers, and there’s producers, and then there’s somebody who cleans the bean, and then there’s somebody who dries the bean, and then there’s somebody who packages it, and there’s somebody who ships it, and then there’s somebody who receives it, and there’s somebody who buys it, and then sells it, and then buys it, and then the barista gets it and makes it – so yeah, there’s a lot of people relying on this coffee for a job,” Henry said. “I think it’s the right thing to do to pay a reasonable price for it, ask the customer to pay a reasonable price for it and then serve them something that they’ve never tasted before and are completely blown away by.”
“The jump from gas station coffee to a good special coffee is a huge jump. The jump from a good coffee to a great coffee is a small step. The difference from a great to exceptional is a very small step, so you can make a big jump by sourcing good coffee, roasting and delivering faster,” Haynie said.
Austin has a long way to go with regards to coffee culture, he said. He initially intended to be the “guy on the street” local roaster, but it ended up being much easier to sell to people in other parts of the US than locally. People rarely stop by the shop, but he gets calls and website inquiries all day long from everywhere outside of Austin.
“Because I’m from California, I think like a Californian,” Haynie said. “There it’s always, like, ‘What’s next? What’s the thing? I’m gonna try this guy, and that guy and that guy.’ And here it’s kind of like ‘Oh no, this is the way we’ve always done it.’”
While Austin Roasting Company and Houndstooth are striving to refine Austinites’ tastes, they recognize that the high-end coffee that they produce is not for everyone. For those who don’t buy into the idea that coffee should be expensive, or prefer a sugary, blended drink, Henry and other Houndstooth employees are happy to refer them to another shop that can better meet their expectations.
“If a Starbucks opened up across the street I wouldn’t be worried about it at all because it’s two totally different clients, two totally different customers who want very different experiences,” Henry said. “If 10 people walk through the door and three of them never come back, I can live with that. I mean, 70 percent is still pretty good, and I think the hospitality of our staff and the quality of our product bring most people back.”
For Haynie, it’s not as much about appealing to everyone in Austin as it is continuing to make his product the best it can be.
“I really, even now, am still working on the coffee,” Haynie said. “Every day after 7 years I still think it could be better. You never stop working on that. I think it’s definitely better today than it was yesterday.”