Eat & Drink

Brew Gallery in Lenexa offers a peek behind a decades-old green coffee wholesaler

Brew Gallery has all the makings of a coffee destination. There’s a rotating selection of coffee from area roasters. Visiting baristas gather at the wood-topped bar to watch funky gear like the Steampunk siphon brewer in action. And entrepreneurs sip espresso from glass snifters while collaborating at whiteboard tables.

All of that, however, is coffee’s endpoint, where it meets the consumer. To see where it begins, you have to peek around the corner into Midwest Coffee Trading, a decades-old green coffee importer that recently relocated to Lenexa’s Plexpod co-working space. Real-time coffee futures prices scroll across an electronic ticker, coffee farmers from Brazil discuss their crops via Skype, and green (unroasted) coffee is bought and sold by the container load.

Never heard of the company? Jeff Hanson Jr., whose family owns both the Brew Gallery and Midwest Coffee Trading at 10000 Marshall Drive, isn’t surprised.

“We’ve always flown pretty low under the radar, because Midwest Coffee Trading is a wholesale business,” he said. The Brew Gallery “has given us a new reference point.”

Certainly wholesale coffee is big business. Global production is expected to reach 150 million 65-kilogram bags (the industry’s unit of measure) in the 2015-16 crop year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The United States typically buys about a quarter of the crop, making it the world’s biggest single coffee importer, the Specialty Coffee Association of America says.

“People don’t understand how widely consumed coffee is,” Hanson said. “It’s vast.”

Simply put, Midwest Coffee sources green coffee from most of the 50 countries that grow it and sells it to U.S. coffee roasters. The family has been at it since 1979, when Vaughn Hanson retired as a head coffee buyer for Folgers to start his own business. His sons, Jeff Hanson Sr. and Jon Hanson, came on board in the 1980s and later took over the company.

Jeff Hanson Jr. joined about five years ago after working as an overseas sales manager for an equipment manufacturer. Earlene Hanson (Jeff Sr.’s wife) and Missy Hanson (Jon’s wife) handle the business’s administrative side.

Like other importers, much of what Midwest Coffee buys and sells is the conventional grade of coffee typically used for blending. Demand for higher-quality specialty coffee is growing though, and the company this year hired two well-known Kansas City coffee figures to bolster its presence in that segment — Brian Phillips, Broadway Roasting Co.’s longtime head roaster and wholesale manager, and Ben Helt, who formerly owned Benetti’s Coffee Experience in Raytown.

“These guys understand and have relationships with roasters because they’ve been them,” Jeff Hanson Jr. said.

Sometimes Midwest Coffee is selling beans stored in its New Jersey or Houston warehouses, or in its facility in an underground Kansas City storage complex. Other times it invites buyers to sample presale offerings, such as the recent tasting of coffees from Nicaragua’s Finca Mierisch.

Either way, Phillips, Helt and the Hansons all share responsibility for sourcing, assessing and selling green coffee from all over the world.

“We don’t have titles,” Jeff Hanson Jr. said. “We just work. We’re all doing everything.”

Theirs is no easy task. Most coffee is grown in remote areas, and production and processing methods, regulations, trade agreements and infrastructure all vary between countries. Even after the logistics are worked out, currencies can fluctuate or extreme weather damage a crop.

“You have to have an iron stomach” to import coffee, Phillips said. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong.”

Even when things go right, there’s still the sheer variety of coffee to contend with. Midwest Coffee sees a steady flow of samples, all of which are roasted, brewed and then evaluated (a process called cupping) to rule out defects and better understand the flavor, aroma and other quality characteristics of each. Once the team knows what’s available, it matches various coffees with potential buyers ranging from those that purchase millions of pounds of coffee annually to upstarts like Meta Coffee Roasting Co.

“They’re awesome,” said Zach Tarhini, speaking of Midwest Coffee. He launched Meta last summer from his Prairie Village basement and now sells organic single-origin coffees at the Community Mercantile in Lawrence, the Brookside Farmers Market, and cafes including the Brew Gallery and One More Cup in Brookside. “They do a good job working with you to find the coffees you’re going for.”

Collaborating with a nearby importer is a boon as well for Vincent Rodriguez, who opened Maps Coffee Roasters inside his Velo+ bike shop in 2014 and now sells coffee in his store and online, as well as at Meshuggah Bagels and as part of Shatto Milk Co.’s home delivery service.

“My goal is to source as much as possible locally,” said Rodriguez, who also hand-builds steel-frame bikes. “Why do I need to go outside the state when there’s coffee here already?”

Before opening the Brew Gallery, there was really no way for Midwest Coffee to visibly support its customers’ brands. Now it can feature coffees from Maps, Meta, Broadway Roasting, Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters and others, and educate customers on their provenance.

Education is also key when it comes to the Brew Gallery’s equipment. Barista Daniel Schildhorn is happy to talk steam and vacuum pressure while using the Steampunk brewer, or demonstrate how its programmable tablet controls water volume and temperature, agitation rate and other factors.

Ditto with the Modbar espresso machine, a minimalist chrome affair that eliminates the barrier between barista and guest. The Brew Gallery also serves drip coffee, Toddy-style cold-brewed coffee and cold brew charged with nitrogen and served from a keg, as well as Hugo Tea and Simple Science cold-pressed juices.

Next up: a liquor license. That might enliven its occasional “educational happy hours” and better serve customers from the rest of the Plexpod, which provides offices, conference rooms, event space and other amenities to tenants. But it will also enable the Brew Gallery to serve craft beers such as Torn Label Brewing Co.’s House Brew, made with Thou Mayest’s Sumatra Toddy coffee, or the Early Riser Coffee Porter, a Boulevard Brewing Co. creation that used Colombian Cauca Cajibio Estate coffee from Maps.

“We celebrate the brands we get to work with, because on some level we have a responsibility to make sure those brands are succeeding,” Jeff Hanson Jr. said. “That’s how we succeed.”

Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist: ninmilefarm@gmail, @BlitheSpiritsKC

Ways to drink more local coffee

Drinking local coffee is easier than ever these days, thanks to the growing number of specialty roasters in the area. Here’s what a few of them are up to. (Not all those listed below are Midwest Coffee Trading customers).

▪ Blip Coffee Roasters (bliproasters.com) will soon open a West Bottoms cafe at 1101 Mulberry St. It will retain the “funky motorcycle theme” of the original, which was devastated by fire this year, owner Ian Davis says. He’ll continue stocking Biltwell helmets, jackets and other gear, and is working closely with Broadway Roasting Co. (broadwayroasting.com) to continue supplying Blip-style coffee to customers.

▪ Want some coffee with your milk? Shatto Milk now offers a variety of coffees from Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters (thoumayest.com) and Maps Coffee Roasters (mapscoffee.com) as part of its home delivery service (shattohomedelivery.com). Beer more your style? Both coffee roasters are also collaborating with area brewers. Torn Label Brewing Co. (tornlabel.com) features Thou Mayest’s Sumatra Toddy coffee in its House Brew, and Boulevard Brewing Co. (boulevard.com) used Maps’ Colombian Cauca Cajibio Estate coffee to create its Early Riser Coffee Porter.

▪ Repetition Coffee (repetitioncoffee.com) may be new, but owners Ryan and Amy Pope are hardly strangers to coffee. Ryan Pope co-owns the Bourgeois Pig in Lawrence and worked in specialty coffee while the couple was living in Paris. They began roasting their own in 2015, and Repetition’s single-origin coffees are now available at the Community Mercantile, Alchemy Coffee & Bakehouse, Hank Charcuterie, Leeway Franks and, soon, the Lawrence Farmers Market. In Kansas City, you can find Repetition Coffee at Westport’s Ca Va.

▪ Meta Coffee Roasting Co. (metacoffee.squarespace.com) is expanding distribution of its organic single-origin coffees to cafes, including One More Cup in Brookside and Lenexa’s Brew Gallery. Owner Zach Tarhini, who roasts his coffees in his Prairie Village basement, will also return to the Brookside Farmers Market when it opens April 16.

▪ Coffee is an ongoing adventure for David Smock, who launched Dutchman Coffee Roasters (dutchmancoffeeroasters.com) in North Kansas City last year and offers ever-changing weekly and monthly coffee subscriptions. Customers can order a la carte, too (shipping is free inside the Interstate 435 loop), or buy coffee at Nature’s Own market at 43rd and Main streets, the North Kansas City Farmers Market or Cinder Block Brewery (cinderblockbrewery.com). Dutchman is actually located inside the brewery, making collaborations on seasonal beers like Cinder Block’s Coffee Hop’d ale a snap.

Anne Brockhoff, special to The Star

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