Something’s Brewing

Coffee jones turns missile engineer into Rising Star

It’s a Monday afternoon and Kim Jenkins is pacing the floor of the north truck bay of the Ohio City Firehouse. He’d spent the morning with a plumber running a gas line to a brand new Ambex YM-15 coffee roaster, and now he is circling it, describing its workings.

The roaster is nearly eight feet tall, a hulking, alluring machine, fire engine red and chrome, topped by a massive funnel waiting to be filled. It is American-made, Jenkins says with a note of pride. He opens a chrome panel to reveal a Cleveland- manufactured manifold.

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This morning, apart from the new roaster, the truck bay is a construction site—ductwork covers the floor, stacks of wainscoting idle against wall studs. Jenkins is waiting on a few people—an electrician, a colleague and a potential hire he hopes to bring on board in his still-brewing Rising Star Coffee Roasters and café. It’s the latter who arrives first.

Haley Morris, 22, comes in carrying a basket pannier from her bicycle filled with a bag of Jack Frost donuts. (“A good sign,” Jenkins says, winking conspiratorially). Morris has worked at Lakewood’s Root Cafe for the past two years, and Jenkins has gotten to know the crew of selfdescribed coffee geeks there pretty well.

Donuts dispersed, a visitor puts the question to Morris: “So, are you going to work for Kim?”

“I hope so,” Morris says.

“That’s what I said!” Jenkins beams.

“Well then, yes.” Morris affirms.

It is the most agreeable job interview I have ever witnessed.

Kim Jenkins started roasting coffee by accident. Back in 2000, he was a 48-yearold director of research and technology for the Missile and Fire Control division at Lockheed Martin. He used to lead his team of 110 engineers and software developers on exercises to stimulate innovarefreshments tion. A favorite, he says, was an exercise in which team members would visit a bookstore, walk up to the magazine rack at random, select two magazines, and read them cover to cover. “It was a little dangerous,” he said. “Sometimes you’d wind up with Today’s Bride.”

He’d do the same exercise with books, and one day he pulled off the shelf Ken Davids’ Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival, somewhat of a cult classic among people who buy green coffee beans. Jenkins was intrigued. He and his wife were living in Orlando at the time, and he followed Davids’ advice to roast his beans in a hot-air popcorn popper. “You can only do two or three ounces at a time and it’s somewhat of a loose process, where you’re just doing it based on time, smell and sight,” Jenkins said, “but it does a really good job for one pot of coffee.”

Jenkins had enjoyed coffee before but never quite like this.

He was hooked. “I was buying my beans off the Internet, and roasting for friends, and it quickly got out of hand.” He needed a bigger roaster, and at the time, there weren’t too many products between the popcorn popper and the commercial machine. So, being an engineer, Jenkins built his own out of a gas grill and a perforated drum attached to a motor. At the end of every roast, he’d have to don welding gloves to take the drum off the grill. His hobby turned into a bit of an obsession. Jenkins would log two to three hours a night roasting for friends and family.

Eventually, he plunked down the $20,000 for a used Ambex, which came with sensors that measured the heat of the air in the roaster and of the beans themselves, digital gas control for the burners and a computer control system that allowed him to create roasting profiles for each type of bean. It is a nerd’s roaster, and the engineer in Jenkins loved it.

His hobby would have remained one had his wife, Lorain County native Valerie Toth, not decided 2010 was the year she and Kim should move back to Ohio. Jenkins gave up his day job, moved his roaster into a small storefront in Litchfield, and started cold-calling restaurants and businesses—anyone he thought might have an interest in buying what he was roasting. It didn’t take him long to find his way to the Root Cafe and the coffee enthusiasts employed there.

Those who have come to work with Jenkins find he treats them more like colleagues and co-conspirators than employees. John Johnson, who used to pull espressos at Moko in Playhouse Square, said he was on the verge of leaving town before coming to work for Jenkins. “I couldn’t find anything in the coffee industry here, because there really wasn’t one—at least not one as serious as what we’re doing here,” he told me.

The week before they moved into the Firehouse, Johnson makes me a cappuccino from a blend they’ve recently perfected— 60% of which comes from a farm called Bob-o-Link in Brazil (named for a bird that summers in the Great Lakes, incidentally), 20% from a finca near Antigua, Guatemala, and 20% from a plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. We have tasted half a dozen different coffees made with devices I’ve never seen before.

There is a beaker-like contraption with a Bunsen burner Jenkins calls a vac-pot (short for vacuum pot). There is a something called an AeroPress (designed by the guy who invented the Aerobie— the Frisbee-like ring thing that goes really far), which looks like a cross between a syringe and a French press. It’s late in the afternoon, and I’m not really sure this isn’t all being wasted on my palate.

Then Johnson places a small cup in front of me, a short shot of espresso comingled with attentively steamed milk, poured with a certain kind of barista magic that makes those heart-shaped ripples on the surface. I take a sip.

Up until this point, the best cappuccino in the world, I believed, could be found only at a certain waterfront café in Sausalito. On this particular afternoon, however, the best cap in the world sits in front of me in a Medina County farm town, on a table crowded with demitasses of half-sipped coffees from around the world and roasted a few feet away, in a storefront cluttered with burlap sacks of green beans. Words fail me for a moment. All I can say is “remarkable.” I write in my notebook, simply, holy crap. It is brighter than any other espresso I have tasted, with a deep fruity and chocolaty sweetness that seems perfectly blended with the sweetness of the milk. I am certain I will seek this beverage out again.

As the Rising Star crew began operations in February at the Firehouse on West 29th, they were ready only for roasting and would sell beans to anyone who walked in the door. They were just beginning to design and build the café space, which in the warmer months will spill through the old firehouse bay door and right onto the sidewalk across from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s west side satellite operation. They hadn’t yet cleared all the health department hurdles to be a food and drink establishment, and until they do, they can’t legally sell you a cup of coffee.

“The worst-kept secret about this whole operation,” Jenkins said, “is that we love making coffee for people. So if you come in and ask for one, we can’t sell it to you.” He paused, a smile growing on his face. “But we’ll probably make you one anyway.”