EXO Roast: A Venture in Gourmet Coffee

June 12, 2012

By Teya Vitu

We’re talking about exacting standards for every “pour-over” that barista Noel Trepp presents to a customer.

Pour-over, that’s what they call a cup of coffee at EXO Roast Co., 403 North 6th Avenue.

Barista Noel Trepp following the precise steps to produce an exemplary cup of coffee.

Never heard of the place? You’re forgiven. EXO just opened May 21, there’s no sign out, and even when they put a sign up, chances are you won’t see it anyway.

That suites the mystique just fine for partners Peter Wilke, Chris Byrne and Doug Smith, who see this as a coffee roasting endeavor, and, oh yeah, a few wooden tables with chairs for people who want to experience coffee at what this trio believes is its absolute very best.

“In the cup, we optimize that coffee,” Byrne said.

You’ll see “pour-over” about two-thirds down the upright menu at the counter – below espresso, Americano, cappuccino, latte, mocha, macchiato, cold brew and extra shot, and above sparkling water, limonata, aranciata and pastry.

There’s no explanation for what “pour-over” is, if you’re not a coffee connoisseur, and, no, the $2.50/$3.50/$4.50 staggered prices do not denote small, medium and large. The price of Joe varies depending on the specifics of the three house ground and brewed coffees on offer each day.

“These are coffees you sometimes can’t even get a full bag of,” said Smith, the partnership’s primary coffee grinder, though often enough Byrne finds himself behind their German Probat coffee roaster right in EXO’s main room. ““Usually, you get coffee in 150-pound bags. From some farms, we get a 50-pound bag and that’s all there is.”

The day of our visit, EXO had six coffees on display from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Ethiopia.

“Take this coffee from Colombia,” Smith said about the Giraldo Exotico from the Antioquia region. “This comes from a region known for coffees that have a real lush tropical fruit in their flavor profile. In this case, it’s mangos and peaches.”

The gas-fired Probat gives Smith absolute control to get what he believes is the best out of a coffee bean that day. More often than not, EXO coffees are light roasted, rather the much more commonly dark roasted coffee.

EXO Roast Co. partner Doug Smith with the Probat coffee roaster.

“It’s such a manual machine,” Smith said. “There’s no computer, no pushing buttons. You have a gas lever to raise and lower the temperature. Everything we do is very high quality. If we’re preparing each cup of coffee, it is roasted at the proper temperature. We want to make sure it’s prepared properly. We can guarantee that.”

That gets an ideally roasted coffee been over to Trepp, who is EXO’s barista and director of education (yes, coffee education will be offered so that you, too, can converse in terms of profiles and cuppings and pour-overs).

Say you ask for a freshly roasted bean. You have obviously not been to one of Trepp’s classes. Treppology calls for the coffee been to be out of the roaster for at least 48 hours and he “prefers five days.” As far as Trepp is concerned, a roasted coffee bean is worthless after 18 days. The sweet spot is between those five and 18 days after roasting.

“Most coffees have a window of maybe a week,” Trepp said

The bag of ground coffee is light years behind Trepp’s world. Ground coffee that doesn’t get brewed within two minutes at EXO gets dumped in the disposal chute.

“Technically, I don’t serve anything that’s 45 seconds post-grind,” Trepp said.

Wilke and Byrne hunkered over the Probat for about three years ago in a nearby house they came to call The Hot Box to achieve the roasting results they sought.

“We knew we didn’t want to open before we were ready to show what we can do,” Wilke said. “There are great examples of this in New York, San Francisco and Portland, but nothing here. We want to open at that caliber.”

So far, Peter Wilke has planted all his popular solo ventures – Time Market, The B Line and Wilko – on 4th Avenue and University Boulevard – all on the streetcar route. Not so with EXO. It’s on 6th Avenue, right at the north mouth of the 6th Avenue Underpass. It’s an odd location, not exactly a pedestrian corridor and definitely not a foodie or even café corridor.

“If you do something of a real, unique quality, people will find you,” Wilke said. “I think this area will morph into a separate neighborhood.”

EXO also isn’t a solo venture. And it’s not even a Wilke venture. In fact, Byrne and Smith have wanted to open a coffee roasting shop for all the 28 years they’ve known each other. Wilke only got to know Byrne about 10 years ago and Smith four years ago.

EXO Roast partners Peter Wilke and Chris Byrne.

It took all three of them to convert the Byrne-Smith dream into a reality in a 100-year-old storefront stripped down to its original wood plank floors and brick walls.

“There’s no grand plan,” Wilke said, evoking the trademark randomness of his business philosophy, which veers sharply away from market studies.  “I couldn’t find a good cup of coffee.”

And that was that. Wilke brought his restaurant and design chops to the table; Byrne has a legal background so business and organizational matters tend to fall his way; Smith was an associate professor of anthropology at Western Oregon University who did his doctoral dissertation on coffee farms in Mexico.

Byrne and Smith are Arizona natives who most recently lived in Oregon, and Wilke arrived in Tucson from Cincinnati in 1992. Byrne, who grew up in Tucson, came back about 3½ years ago, and Smith, a Phoenix native who attended the University of Arizona, was chomping at the bit to get back to Tucson after eight years in Portland.

“If you live with 10 months of rain, it’s very difficult to do that,” said Smith, who abandoned Portland’s rains about a year ago.

The trio fully realizes their esoteric approach to coffee may be beyond nearly everyone. Coffee education is a primary ingredient at EXO Roast to engender Tucsonans with coffee fluency.

“We’re going to give public cuppings during summer,” Byrne said. “Cupping is in a way like wine tasting. The goal is to bring out a slate of four to eight coffees so people can evaluate them correctly. We’ll probably start with a weekend afternoon. We want to raise the awareness of coffee.”

EXO Roast Co. is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Don’t expect “lunch” here. Edibles are limited to a plate piled with assorted pastries.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves as roasters, not a café place,” said Wilke, however backpedaling just a little in stressing that EXO indeed is a public hangout. “Our mission is to roast coffee and have a café to showcase our coffee and for education purposes.”