In green, bucolic Door County, Wisconsin, family-owned and operated Door County Coffee & Tea Company is roasting up some extraordinary coffee goodness. Because of how particular they are about the beans they buy and the sophisticated technology they employ, they’ve become one of the best coffee roasting companies in the country; perhaps in the world.
Drive up to white clapboard, country-cute building that Door County Coffee & Tea Company occupies in the town of Clarksville just outside of Sturgeon Bay, and you know you’re in for something special. The wide porch and blossoming flowers welcome you into their coffee roasting facility/ café and bakery-gift shop. As you slip through the wooden screen door, you’re enveloped by the warm, earthy smell of roasting coffee. That’s because they roast more than 100 different coffees onsite.
We’re greeted by the company’s founder, Vicki Wilson, a tiny blond with a big smile and irrepressible energy. She invites us to help ourselves to big pump thermoses filled with different coffees, including a raspberry-flavored one and a dark roast, which is what I choose. Unlike many darker roasts, this Private Reserve coffee is silky without the harshness often associated with deeply roasted coffee. The flavors are rich and complex and I find myself returning to the pot again and again.
Vicki invites us to sit at blond four-to-six-person wood tables and peruse the breakfast menu. Because she wants guests to smell the roasting coffee, the café doesn’t fry anything. Instead, they offer a selection of baked egg dishes, quiche-like eggs topped with cheese, bacon, sausage and more. They purchase their sausage and bacon pre-cooked and, of course, use only good Wisconsin cheeses. They also offer quiches, breakfast burrito, oatmeal, and various breads and pastries, including cherry bread using local Door County cherries.
I order the Egg Bake Topped with Sausage and it’s delectable: fluffy eggs with rich creamy texture topped with plenty of flavorful, chunky sausage and melty cheddar cheese. It comes with a thick slice of house-baked crusty wheat bread and fresh fruit.
After breakfast, we refill our coffee mugs and head to the conference room for Coffee College, an educational presentation about coffee that groups can enjoy here on Saturdays. As a long time coffee lover, I’ve toured dozens of coffee roasting plants and I know a fair amount about the coffee growing/roasting business. However, I’m surprised at Vicki’s depth of knowledge and my knowledge expanding. Vicki uses maps to show us the coffee growing regions around the world. She tells us coffee is healthful and the second most heavily traded commodity in the world.
While coffee grows in a number of climatic regions around the world, Door County buys only high-grown coffee from mountainous countries like Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, Sumatra, and New Guinea because they produce the top 2% of beans in the world. When asked about fair-traded coffee, Vicki says, “Fair traded means you promise to pay coffee growers 30 cents per pound more than the prevailing rate of $1.30. We already pay $3 per pound. We want to take care of our farmers because then they’ll take care of their farm and their pickers. Some of our farms are as small as 2 acres and we want them to take care of the coffee so we pay them to do that.”
There are two types of coffee beans, Robusta and Arabica. Robusta beans, which are grown at lower altitudes, are higher in caffeine, and the coffee is usually sold ground. Arabica beans, grown at higher altitudes, have half the caffeine of Robusta beans, and are more flavorful. Vicki tells us that there are five grades of Arabica beans from #5, which is considered below grade, to #1 specialty grade, the top 2% of coffee beans in the world. These specialty Arabica beans are the only beans that Door County Coffee & Tea buys.
Coffee acidity, says Vicki, varies by the region where it’s grown and how it’s roasted. Coffee from Sumatra, for instance, has low acidity. Vicki insists coffee should be roasted to the type of bean to produce the best flavor. That means some types of beans should be roasted longer; others for shorter periods of time.
At Door County Coffee & Tea, they use a special roasting technology developed by Oregonian Mike Sivitz, who Vicki calls the “Pope of Coffee.” Unlike traditional drum roasters where beans roll around and some are bound to break or get more roasted than others, the Sivitz fluidized air roaster works like an air popper, continually “floating” the beans as they roast. Each roast takes only 12 minutes and the temperature in the roaster never exceeds 650 degrees F.
Another thing that makes Door County Coffee different is how they package their coffee. They use extra thick packaging and “nitrogen flush” each bag, which forces out the majority of oxygen to retain freshness.
About 50% of their coffee is flavored and they do that differently too. As soon as the coffee is roasted, it’s transferred–still warm–to flavoring tumblers, which really infuses the flavor into the beans.
Vicki sent RFT editors coffee to try:
Sumatra– This is a full-bodied, medium roast with a sweet aroma and an almost fruity/floral flavor.
Black & Tan– This coffee is a blend of light, medium, and dark roasts of Costa Rican, Columbian, and Sumatran beans. It offers a much different aroma than the singularly rich Sumatra. While it’s not quite as chocolatey-rich as Sumatra, the flavors in Black & Tan cover a wide spectrum, yet blend into a seamlessly smooth coffee. To use a chocolate analogy, Sumatra tastes more like a 70% dark chocolate bar and Black & Tan tastes more like a 60% milk chocolate. With its easy-on-the palate flavors and smooth finish, this is a coffee that’ll appeal to a wide range of tastes.
Lighthouse Blend– It’s one of Door County’s signature blends—darkly roasted Guatemalan and Sumatran beans. It’s less assertive than the Black & Tan and features a mellow flavor with full flavors that fill the mouth. This blend is great for someone who wants the richness of a dark roast without the sharpness that is so often is part of darker roasts. It’s a coffee that’s so good, it’s made for sipping not gulping.
Private Reserve– This one, my favorite, fills your whole mouth with goodness. It’s rich, round, and smoky. I love it.
Door County Coffee & Tea also sent us some of their flavored varieties. Now I’m a bit of a coffee purist and not a big fan of flavored coffees. For me, flavored coffees often taste artificial. That’s not true of flavored Door County coffees. Because they infuse the flavors while the beans are warm, the flavors marry well with the coffee beans and actually become part of the coffee beans.
Cinnamon Hazelnut– It offers a sweet smell like freshly baked cinnamon rolls. The flavors are subtle with notes of hazelnut and cinnamon that don’t overwhelm the good coffee taste.
Frosted Cinnamon Buns-If you like homemade cinnamon buns, you’ll like this flavored coffee.
Chocolate Caramel Truffle– They claim this coffee is “dessert in a cup” and they’re right. It features the flavor of dark chocolate with hints of sweet caramel.
Highlander Grogg– For those who love Irish Cream, this coffee combines the sweet richness of Irish Cream with caramel.
Real Bottom Line: Who’d expect to find world-class coffee in a tiny place like Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin? Certainly not me. However, Door County Coffee & Tea has a singular mission: to roast the best coffee possible. And they do an incredible job by combining advanced roasting and packaging technology with the top 2% of coffee beans in the world. The result is some of the smoothest, most interesting coffee I’ve had in a long time. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; photos by Bobbie Hasselbring and Anne Weaver, RFT Editor