A coffee cup with a paper filter.
Photography by Duane Tinkey

When you think about picking up a cup of coffee, you might picture a friendly barista who hands you your latte or mug of dark roast. But a growing crew of urban and rural coffee roasters is expanding the quality of Iowa’s coffee choices by carefully curating, testing and roasting beans for optimum flavor and depth.

Whether you’re curious about how a bean’s country of origin influences the flavor in your cup or want to see and smell the whirring machines at work, local roasters and the coffee shops that carry them have you covered. We chatted with a few coffee creators to learn how they’re perking things up across Iowa.

Brewing artisan coffee can elevate your habit into a hobby, somewhat like enjoying fine wine. Andy Fuchtman, who co-owns four Sidecar Coffee shops and a roasting facility in Black Hawk County, recommends paying attention to the essentials—bean quality, water purity and grinder consistency—as the first step for anyone who wants to improve their at-home preparation. (Swapping a plug-in coffee maker for pour-over is another step toward superior taste.)

Fuchtman likens shifting to high-quality beans to the difference in taste between biting into a fresh heirloom tomato from the farmers market to one you’d pick up in a grocery store, or sampling a craft beer beside a run-of-the-mill domestic.

“All coffee is graded by professionals at the processing location,” he explains. “And the coffee that specialty roasters like us are buying is at the top end of the spectrum, quality-wise. We’re finding interesting and high-quality coffees from around the world that are seasonally available.”

Roasting formulas aren’t the only thing that factor into a flavor. Fuchtman explains that processing styles can bring out the terroir (to borrow a French term from the wine world) of a bean, too. In fact, what we call a bean is actually the seed of a small red fruit, commonly called a “coffee cherry.” If a producer uses a “natural” or “dry” process, beans are dried inside the cherry, and that extra exposure to the sugars brings out more fruit-forward notes. The “wash” process submerges beans without outer layers, resulting in what he describes as a “cleaner” flavor.

To ensure quality control, Nick Yost and the staff at Euphoria Coffee in West Union practice “coffee cupping” every Friday morning. Similar to wine tasting, it involves sampling spoonfuls of fresh brews.

“Cupping is all about your aromatic or taste sensory analysis,” Yost says. “It’s focusing on the flavors and gets people to start understanding what they’re tasting.”

In addition to the staff-focused Fridays, Yost hosts private cupping experiences for those wanting to learn more about coffee. Other roasters across the state host tasting events, too, and some roasters serve curated coffee flights to help you refine your palate.

Iris Coffee Co. in Pella hosts workshops in their “Drink Lab” to make learning about flavors and extractions fun and approachable.

Their roasting team delves into how different acidities, aromas and flavor profiles interact as they develop an ever-evolving drink selection.

Another aspect that sets local roasters apart is their commitment to building community. Morning Bell Coffee Roasters in downtown Ames recently evolved into a worker-owned cooperative model, after their founder took a new job out of state. BLK & Bold, which skyrocketed to national distribution after a humble start sharing space at Fox Brewing in West Des Moines, continues to give back a portion of profits to youth programs. Others, like West Union’s Euphoria Coffee and Swed & Co. Coffee in Fort Madison, play a placemaking role, offering smaller cities a vibrant gathering place.

“I caught whatever it is that grips you when you first get into coffee,” says Chris Swed, who went from entering barista competitions in college to opening the Fort Madison roastery along with his wife, Maddie, after the couple moved to the town of 10,500 people to restore the historic Fox Theater in 2017. They debuted the roastery backstage, and the cafe came shortly thereafter.

“I can’t imagine opening up Swed & Co. somewhere else,” he says. “I love that even if you don’t come into the cafe, if you have our coffee at home, we get to still be a part of that morning routine.”

Roaster Roundup
Instead of scanning the menu for your “usual” when you order coffee from a local roaster, get curious about which coffees and specialty drinks they’re currently highlighting. If you can’t travel to a specific spot in person, you can often order these craft coffees online.