Over the past few years, the rapid expansion of Western North Carolina’s craft alcohol and food scenes has spawned a large network of ancillary businesses, including a number of tour companies that specialize in leading groups on curated tasting adventures throughout the area.
Slow to jump on the tour trend, however, has been the blossoming local coffee industry. Although some area roasters have long offered tours of their facilities, it wasn’t until just a few months ago that the city got its first dedicated coffee tour company, Asheville Coffee Tours. The business, operated by barista Jarika Johnson, highlights a local bean scene that’s coming into its own.
Johnson has been employed in the service industry since she moved to Asheville from Charlotte seven years ago, and she’s focused specifically on coffee for about a year and a half. She works as a barista at Wall Street coffee shop Trade and Lore.
“After being there a while and getting familiar with the coffee community, I felt like it was time to do a coffee tour; I felt like it was something the coffee community here needed,” she says.
When she first conceived of the idea nearly a year ago, she approached Patrick Riels and Stu Helm of Asheville Food Tours about collaborating. Though both parties ultimately agreed that her concept would be more financially viable as a stand-alone business, Riels and Helm were enthusiastic about her vision for the tour and worked with her to help get it off the ground.
In January, she launched the tours with an itinerary of stops that wanders through the heart of downtown Asheville. The 2 1/2-hour outings run on Monday and Thursday mornings and Friday afternoons, kicking off at Trade and Lore with a sampling of draft iced lattes, served with either whole milk or oat milk.
From there, the tour heads down the hill to High Five Coffee on Rankin Avenue for one-and-ones — a shot of espresso served with a macchiato. That’s followed by a stop at Dobra Tea for a caffeine-free respite of Moroccan mint tea “served in a beautiful vessel with fresh mint at the bottom,” says Johnson.
Next comes the sweet stuff: a mini affogato (ice cream with a shot of espresso and whipped cream) at Asheville Chocolate, doughnuts and coffee at the Underground Café with DoughP Donuts, then housemade granola with steamed oat milk and coffee at PennyCup Coffee at the YMI.
The excursion wraps up at Asheville Bee Charmer’s tasting bar with samples of honey infused with coffee from PennyCup. Participants are sent home with a bag of beans roasted by South Slope Coffee.
Johnson notes that in planning the tour, which costs $40 per person, she was focused on incorporating a diverse range of businesses. “I really wanted to show people the different things that can be done with coffee,” she says. “[Not only] how different places do coffee drinks and desserts, but also how intertwined the coffee community is and tea as well.”
She points to WNC’s ever-increasing number of microroasters, the brisk expansion of coffee shops such as High Five and PennyCup and the rapid growth and evolution of the annual Asheville Coffee Expo, which hosts its fourth event in September, as indicators that the local coffee community is making a name for itself.
Jeff Bosch, who founded Bean Werks Coffee & Tea in West Asheville in 1996, has witnessed the city’s coffee scene grow from just a handful of small roasting companies and shops to a thriving, competitive sector. A transplant from Chicago with a background in accounting and computers, he got his start in the java business working with Randall Sluder at Mountain City Roasters in the early 1990s.
In those days, Bosch says, artisan coffee was such a new concept in Asheville that there were few services available locally for maintaining equipment. So as a roaster, he had to learn the skills necessary to support his coffee buyers’ service needs.
“Being an accountant, I also had to understand electrical, I had to understand plumbing, I had to understand the physical nature of espresso machines and coffee machines,” he says. “So I jumped in headfirst, not looking back, and got where I am today.”
Over the years, Bosch has also mentored numerous coffee entrepreneurs as they worked to establish new businesses — shops and roasters that Bean Werks now competes with. But he maintains that competition fosters excellence.
“I often tell people, competition is good because it makes you think. If there’s no competition, everybody gets lazy and they never evolve,” he says. “There’s so much going on in the coffee industry, if you say you know it all, that’s a far-fetched statement.”
Laura Telford, who bought Biltmore Coffee Traders in 2011 with her husband, Rick Telford, has also seen a lot of change in the local coffee scene — and in her own business — in the past few years. Established in 1999 by Bridget Putt-Bounds, the Hendersonville Road coffee shop and roasting business originated in the Biltmore Village space that now houses Rezaz restaurant. In July, the company rebranded as Round Earth Roasters after discussions with the Biltmore Estate about name infringement concerns.
Round Earth has also done multiple expansions recently. In 2018, the Telfords bought the Trout Lily Market in Fairview, primarily as a means of growing their baking operation (the shop’s breakfast cookie, in particular, has always been a big hit, says Laura Telford). And this summer, in tandem with its rebranding effort, Round Earth rolled out the Backyard Bar, an outdoor beer and wine bar in the shady yard behind its iconic red building on Hendersonville Road.
Despite being flanked by Starbucks stores, the location near Biltmore Village is blessed with a loyal clientele and doesn’t feel threatened by the increasing competition in the local industry, says Laura Telford. Even so, she adds, part of the reason for opening the bar was to have an extra revenue stream.
After a fallen tree destroyed Round Earth’s roasting shed and forced the purchase of new coffee roasting equipment a couple of years ago, “we were really looking to expand our wholesale market,” she explains. “But we really didn’t see a return on the wholesale coffee beans, because there are so many other great coffee roasters in town now that are fulfilling that need. And we don’t have a dedicated salesperson on staff to spend a ton of time doing that.”
But rather than feeling disheartened by the increasing competitiveness of the industry, Telford sees it as a positive. “It’s really elevated the culture of coffee in this town, and it’s becoming a destination for craft beverages in general, not just craft beer,” she says. “It’s really nice to see different beverages other than beer becoming a touristy thing and people going and enjoying that.”
For details on Asheville Coffee Tours, visit ashevillecoffeetours.com. Bean Werks Coffee & Tea is at 753 Haywood Road and beanwerks.com. Round Earth Roasters and its Backyard Bar are at 518 Hendersonville Road and roundearthroasters.com.