Eagle County’s haute coffee, cool beans
December 20, 2011
When City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso’s Travis Colbert went to the Southern Philippines in 2002, he didn’t foresee a career in coffee. But now with a budding coffee roasting business that serves the Vail Valley and a new coffee shop in Leadville, he’s buzzing with a success that could rival any coffee-lover’s high. Colbert traveled through remote mountain villages in the Philippines to honor a friend who was killed snowboarding in East Vail in 2001. In the midst of extreme poverty, he found beauty and generosity in the Matigsalug people who gathered together with him in the morning for coffee. Colbert’s hosts picked coffee from their village’s trees and burnt the beans to a crisp over a fire. In these thick and bitter cups of coffee, Colbert recognized something sweet: Community, one cup of coffee at a time. Nearly a decade later, Colbert’s building his own community around coffee. In the first week of December, he and his wife, Ann, opened City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso in the space formerly occupied by Provin’ Grounds, the Leadville coffee establishment. But Colbert’s not new to the area’s coffee scene. He began roasting coffee for Vail Mountain Coffee Roasters, or Vail Mountain Coffee and Tea Co., in 2005 and has also worked retail at Yeti’s Grind in Eagle, at The Bookworm in Edwards, and at Leadville’s Provin’ Grounds. In 2010, Colbert began roasting coffee to supply Yeti’s Grind and Provin’ Grounds, and even though he’s enjoyed the process of seeing his business idea become a reality, he still prefers the retail side of things. “I like roasting and wholesaling,” he said in an interview at the Yeti’s Grind in Vail, “but it’s the personal connections that come with serving coffee that inspire me the most.” So that’s why you’ll still find Colbert behind the counter of City on a Hill in Leadville, no matter how busy he might be roasting or delivering coffee to his customers in the valley.
Coffee’s more than beans or a beverage to Colbert. The process of making a drink, whether it’s a beautifully poured latte or a plain black filtered coffee, becomes to Colbert a way of sharing City on a Hill’s commitment to excellence with others. And there are plenty of people who buy coffee or become repeat visitors at a particular coffee shop because they’re seeking out this sort of excellence. Alicia Mires, a business owner in Eagle, frequents the Eagle Yeti’s Grind, first of all, because the shop serves “delicious espresso that’s carefully prepared.” But she returns because it makes a difference to her that she now knows personally the shop’s owners, Tara and Nate Picklo, and Colbert, the roaster. Likewise, Eagle resident Cody Downard, a self-described “coffee addict and borderline coffee snob” frequents locally owned coffee shops, straying away from big box chain establishments unless he’s “in an airport and desperate.” He finds the skill of the baristas and the service in these local places their greatest assets. In the end, it’s a person – and not a machine – who provides these things. Colbert’s City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso provides a training curriculum for its wholesale customers to create a personal atmosphere by offering new employee training, follow-up quality control evaluations, and barista skills workshops, including free pour latte art. Latte art? Yes – you’ve seen it. Latte art shows up as those fern and heart patterns in the foamed milk of a perfectly frothed latte. Colbert can explain the creation of “free pour” latte art from the milk-frothing stages to the moment that the milk hits a hot shot of espresso and creates a pattern of turbulence inside of a coffee cup. But he boils the technique down to one essential ingredient: Care. “If people really care about the product they’re serving, then turning it into a work of art is easy,” Colbert says. To the non-skilled, the process might still sound complicated. But even if it’s as simple Colbert makes it out to be, then coffee drinkers are sure to remain happy on the receiving end.