Photographs by Richard Forbes.
Step into many of Colorado Spring’s most popular coffee shops, and you are likely to find Switchback Coffee on the shelves. The small roasting company has intertwined itself into the community, with its coffee at the heart of so many essential meeting places for both students and the people of Colorado Springs.
Five years ago, Brandon Delgrosso started roasting coffee in small batches in his garage. The operations soon grew to take over a house and then, a little over a year ago, a storefront. In the years since the garage roasting in Colorado Springs, the city has welcomed The Wild Goose Meeting House, Fifty-Fifty, and Ivywild School, all of which foster community and support local artisanal fare, from beer to chocolate to produce. In the coffee world, Switchback has been at the forefront of this growing interest in craft and small batch products.
“It’s very slowly growing but it is changing,” said Nate Bland, head roaster at Switchback, of the attitudes towards these small coffee shops and roasters. “It’s exciting to be a part of something bigger. We’re excited to be on the leading edge of that and pushing the coffee culture forward.”
Bland has lived in the Springs for 15 years with over six years of experience working exclusively in coffee. His parents roasted coffee, and he went on to home roast and work as a barista. Two years ago, he joined the Switchback team, and has helped in their development ever since.
Located right beside Fifty-Fifty coffee on the corner of North Institute and Boulder, the Switchback storefront and roasting facility bears just a small sign on the window. Walk inside and find piles of burlap sacks filled with small green coffee beans on the floor sitting next to a relatively small roaster blaring as it blasts hot air onto the beans. Abigail Baum, a roaster, will likely be unloading aromatic bunches of freshly roasted beans out of the machine and into bags that soon pile up on the shelves in the room. The whole process unfolds before you—no “tour” required, just step right in.
This may not seem that remarkable, but in the world of artisanal coffee, such approachability is rare. Comparable roasters around the country often boast disdainful baristas or attendants and sleek, Spartan storefronts. There is little emphasis on friendliness or any collaborative spirit. Coffee obsessives often fall into a spiral of snobbish behavior, focusing solely on how great their product is and not on its role in a city or community.
“A lot of the coffee scene is very pretentious and doesn’t want to work with people,” said Bland. “We’ve flipped that on its head and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to collaborate with as many people as possible.’”
Even in a city dominated mostly by chain stores and restaurants, Switchback has forged a community of coffee lovers and small food producers. “There’s a lot of people we like to work with,” Bland adds after he describes the multitude of events and collaborations that the small roasters have engaged in. Monthly “latte throw downs” bring baristas and roasters together at different coffee shops around the city, the most recent at Wild Goose.
They have also joined forces Pikes Peak Brewing to make a Switchback Porter, which incorporates their cold brew coffee into the beer. Radiantly Raw, an all-raw chocolate producer out of the Springs also collaborated with the roasters on a coffee truffle flavor.
It’s an exciting time for Switchback right now. In addition to these two unique collaborations, the company just bought Fifty-Fifty and has big visions for the future of the coffee shop. Bland’s eyes light up as he describes just a few of the ideas he has for the place. They aren’t radically changing, but they do want to integrate the Switchback values into the atmosphere. Eventually, they will change the name to Switchback Coffee Roasters instead of Fifty-Fifty and potentially even tear down the wall between the cozy vintage furniture designed space and the burlap sack lined roasting facility.
Change and growth doesn’t all come easy in a town where “small batch” and “artisanal” are still pretty foreign words to most. This isn’t New York or Portland, where comparable shops with five-dollar cold-brew coffees dot most streets.
“It’s been tricky,” Bland admits. “Like here in Colorado Springs, we are going to do some menu changes [at Fifty-Fifty], and that probably won’t go over too well. The changes are with sizes, like, right now there’s a 16-ounce drink and a 20-ounce drink, and we don’t want that because that means it’s mostly just milk.” Higher-quality drinks in smaller sizes is the way of the future in the coffee world, but it’s a hard concept for many to grasp.
“There have been some challenges as customers say ‘That’s too expensive’ or ‘Is that really worth it?” It takes patience and perseverance in this notoriously traditionalist community. “Really, it’s about education,” said Bland. “Educating the community—but not forcing it on them. When people come in wanting to learn, the real exciting part is getting to teach them what coffee really is and has been.”
From this statement alone, it’s clear that Switchback is not your typical craft coffee producer.
Most baristas and coffee aficionados would give up on trying to co-mingle or even sell to the Starbucks set, but Bland sees this as one of the best parts of the job. He gets to teach people who would previously be shrugged off by coffee snobs how to brew coffee and open them up to new concepts and flavors.
Switchback hosts events and workshops monthly that teach everything from manual brewing to home roasting. Many people are really open to learn about coffee and Switchback is genuinely excited about sharing their knowledge. They know that not everyone is going to want to pay four dollars for pour-over coffee, but they also believe that through education, people can open up to the difference in quality.
“When it’s really good coffee, you don’t need to drink as much of it. People think I drink a ton of coffee all day, but I usually only drink about a 12-ounce cup a day. And that’s because it’s good coffee; it’s high quality.”
Switchback currently roasts five standard coffees: Ethiopian, Guatemalan, and Papua New Guinea for the single origin variety, and then a “Peakbagger” blend and a decaf. In addition to this, they have a rotating selection of “micro-lot” coffee and a “barrel series.” “Micro-lot” roasts come from beans grown on smaller plots of land so the yield is smaller. This smaller yield enables more control over the quality of the bean. “Barrel series” are beans that have been aged, in their current series they filled an oak barrel that once stored Cabarnet with the beans and aged them for two months. This process manipulates the aromatics of the beans and infuses a brighter, fruitier taste once roasted.
As a small roaster, Switchback doesn’t have the resources to directly trade their coffee themselves. They use a company out of California, Bodhi Leaf Coffee Traders to source their coffee, but their own trips to Ethiopian and Guatemalan coffee farms do not seem too far away.
The company is growing, but their dreams remain planted in the Colorado Springs community. They aren’t looking to make enough money to transplant to Denver or Boulder; they are looking to lead the scene right here.
“There are a lot of roasters like us in Denver. Everyone likes to go to Denver and not support local because they’re so much ‘cooler’ or whatever, but this isn’t Denver—it’s Colorado Springs, and we are happy to be here,” Bland said proudly. “Be on the lookout for new coffee shops and roasters because I’m sure they will pop up. And I’m glad we were on the leading edge of that.”