story by Sharon Verbeten photos by heidi hodges
Thankfully, a handful of java-loving upstarts in Door County are making that happen—but each in their distinct ways—sourcing and curating impeccable product, employing gastronomically-advanced techniques and augmenting blends with exotic flavors.
But don’t simply call these coffee shops; all this devotion and experimentation has resulted in the launch of several new and rather experimental coffee “labs” on the peninsula—hoping to blend beyond trend and show consumers what really great coffee can taste like. And that, they all agree, is about more than just creating a hot drink. It’s about creating an experience.
One place where the experience is just as much—if not more—rousing as the beverage itself is at Discourse in the Country Walk Shops in Sister Bay.
We’re trying our best to create an atmosphere where we can have traditional service alongside experimental,” says Ryan Castelaz, 24, Discourse owner. Castelaz established the business with Chris Johnston, 22. “We wanted to create something that would challenge us but also challenge our clientele.”
It seems to have worked. One customer recently called the native Milwaukeeans “the Einsteins of coffee experimentation,”—a moniker they’re proud to bear.
As Castelaz notes on the business website, “Our drinks are liquid stories—penned to evoke emotions, celebrate our surroundings, remember the roots that brought us here and ripen the community we share.”
Castelaz—who refers to Discourse as a “liquid workshop”—opened shop in July 2017. And while what they are doing is experimental and, to some, fairly obscure, Castelaz believes the region is ready for more forward-thinking coffee establishments.
“In Door County, what I’ve seen in the last couple years is almost a changing of the guard,” he says. “It runs in streams of renaissance; there is a new assortment of young business-minded people who come into the county, bringing with them new ideas…the clients who come here have higher expectations.”
Discourse features a bar mentality, but instead of offering liquor, it concocts “caffeine cocktails,” that beg to be sampled. “What I see a lot here is that someone will come in and try one drink and then another,” says Castelaz, estimating that 35 percent of customers will try more than one beverage, “exploring through the menu,” as he puts it.
And that menu is, indeed, diverse and changes regularly. “Every week, we add at least three new drinks,” says Castelaz. “It’s a pretty breakneck pace.”
One of its more popular offerings is Moonwater, a house latte which includes comforting cinnamon with the more discordant sea salt and Tellicherry black pepper.
One of its more unusual experiments is their play on a caramel macchiato. While a fairly common drink, Discourse provides a modernist spin. Castelaz describes it as a “plated drink” that includes chip-like clear caramel, cold milk foam and caviar-size spheres of cold brew. To be clear, it’s not for everyone (and costs $10 to $15), but that’s why the duo consider their offerings to be a bit of “coffee theater.”
While the guys at Discourse don’t roast their own beans, another Door County entrepreneur roasts carefully sourced beans and makes a bit of his own magic with coffee.
Randy Isely, owner of Ephraim Coffee Roasters/ Coffee Lab, on Church Street in Ephraim, considers himself a coffee purist. He opened his shop last year combining his knowledge of chemistry and coffee and his love of a mind-blowing, and not soon forgotten, cup of coffee.
Years ago, when Isely lived in New York, he witnessed the birth of specialty coffee in the city and began experimenting. “I was taking coffee a little more seriously, trying to highlight the pure product,” he says.
“I was really fascinated in how changing one small variable could change the flavor of the brew…better coffee is an endless pursuit with ever changing variables and challenges.”
Isely’s expertise combines scientific variables and impeccable sourcing into one memorable cup. “I see what the importers have coming in and what sounds interesting,” he says, noting, “I pick a handful of coffees that sound interesting to me.”
He then roasts and tastes the samples to decide if he’ll put them on his menu, which includes an array of African coffees (“more dynamic and complex”) and those from other geographic regions. Isely also roasts beans for various Door County venues, including his former employer, the Wickman House restaurant in Ellison Bay.
Wickman House owner Mike Holmes lauds Isely’s dedication to his craft. “[His product] is such small batch and handled with such care,” he says. “Randy’s very much a perfectionist…and he works with only sustainable growers; that’s very important.”
Where Castelaz strives to create more funky, fanciful and playful coffee experiences, Isely is all about a “simple desire to enjoy better coffee and share that experience with the local community and beyond.”
But while they may accomplish their goals in different ways, all three coffee aficionados aim to make their respective coffee concoctions most memorable.
For Castalaz, that means acting as a pioneer in what he calls the “fourth wave” of coffee—which he defines as “quality as a base point,” much in the way the American foodie and cocktail market has been turning to chemistry and other methods of enhancing both flavor and drinking experience.
“If we approach it as ‘this is a new way to interact with coffee,’ that could be a thing that takes off and catches on,” says Castalaz. “I have high hopes that I can push forward into being a new wave.”
And for Isely, it continues to be about being a purist, distilling premiere beans into the best brew around.
“Coffee takes an incredible journey from seed to cup,” he notes. “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.”