In a world of pumpkin spice latte fanatics, Randy Isely is proud to remain a coffee purist. In fact, his business depends on others feeling the same way.
Isely, a native of Sheboygan County, opened Ephraim Coffee Roasters/Coffee Lab last year, combining his knowledge of the chemistry of coffee and, well, his love for an amazing cup of joe.
“When I moved to New York (years ago) … there were maybe only a couple local roasters at the time,” Isely says. “I was there to kind of witness the birth of specialty coffee in the city.”
Inspired, Isely began experimenting with manual coffee brewing, saying, “I was taking coffee a little more seriously, trying to highlight the pure product. I was really fascinated by how changing one small variable could change the flavor of the brew. I would brew a cup (at various temperatures) and change the grind size … just kind of the evidence in the cup.”
Isely even uses a scientific device called a refractometer — also used in the brewing and dairy industries — that determines the amount of total dissolved solids in a brew.
“Better coffee is an endless pursuit of ever-changing variables and challenges,” Isely says. “Coffee takes an incredible journey from seed to cup. With respect to that journey and to all the hard-working people involved, we strike to source, roast and brew our coffees with integrity and care.”
In addition to scientific variables, impeccable sourcing and product is key, Isely says. He purchases beans from importers in Minneapolis and New York that have direct relationships with the farmers and co-ops around the world. Those importers have people on location who source and verify the beans.
“We willingly pay premium prices to support the people who are working hardest to ensure farmers and laborers are receiving above-average wages and resources,” Isely says. “I see what the importers have coming in and what sounds interesting; they do a good job of giving descriptors. I pick a handful of coffees that sound interesting to me.”
Isely, who speaks about coffee as aficionados might speak of wine, then roasts and tastes the samples to determine if he will offer it in his shop.
“I tend to have more African coffees,” he says. “They tend to be a little more dynamic and complex; every region has their own characteristics. Complex African coffee … they change a lot with time and roast … more stable South African coffee, maybe less so.”
Isely launched his year-round business — part coffee shop and part lab — in August of 2016, in a space just a block off the water in the picturesque and tourist-heavy Door County community of Ephraim. He also roasts coffee for wholesale accounts and supplies quite a few Door County businesses.
“I’m interested in getting outside the Door County market a little bit because of the seasonality, but I haven’t been proactive in that,” Isely says. “This is my first full season; I’m kind of learning as I go.”
Isely, who formerly worked as a private pilot (and drank a lot of coffee), chose Door County because he was familiar with it through his friend and former roommate Mike Holmes, owner of the Wickman House restaurant in Ellison Bay and Trixie’s in Ephraim.
“My first summer back, I worked with Mike at Wickman House and got acquainted with the county,” Isely says.
“I felt there was opportunity. My plan was to roast and do wholesale. I had been looking for a space to do that. I didn’t really choose Ephraim; it kind of chose me.”
That chance opening led Isely to launch his one-person show — with a “loose” business plan and his own savings, he bought the equipment and inventory and now does all his own roasting, packaging (for online sales), delivering and running the coffee bar.
“I’ve had a good reception from the community,” he says. “It’s been a great organic growth.”
Postings on Facebook and Instagram have also had a positive impact on the business.
“It takes a little time and word of mouth to get going,” Holmes says. “It’s such small batch and handled with such care. Randy’s very much a perfectionist … and he works with only sustainable growers; that’s very important.”
And what’s also important to customers, Isely hopes, is a really good cup of roasted coffee — one without any pumpkin spice, mocha or whipped cream.
“He has a really loyal following,” Holmes says. “People have come to know good coffee … once people find Randy.”