Tom Eblen: Love of great coffee puts Magic Beans friends back in business

Schuyler Warren, left, and Keith Hautala of Magic Beans Coffee Roasters checked on a batch of roasting beans.
Schuyler Warren, left, and Keith Hautala of Magic Beans Coffee Roasters checked on a batch of roasting beans. Herald-Leader

For some people, a great cup of coffee is worth a little extra trouble and expense. Keith Hautala and Schuyler Warren are two of those people, and they hope more Kentuckians will be, too.

Last December, the friends started Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, which uses a high-tech process to produce fresh, precisely roasted single-source coffees from around the world.

Bags of the whole-bean coffee are sold at Sunrise Bakery, Wine + Market, Town Branch Market and West Sixth Brewery. Brewed coffee will be on the menu of County Club restaurant, which opens later this month at 555 Jefferson St.

Magic Beans also will sell beans at the Lexington Farmers Market at Cheapside on Saturdays, beginning April 13. The company has a campaign under way to raise money for a brewed-to-order coffee bar at its market booth.

"We're trying to convert people," Hautala said. "We're trying to create demand for something among coffee drinkers who are, by and large, satisfied with the coffee they're buying from Starbucks or the grocery store."

Hautala said that when he moved to Lexington in 1999, "I discovered there wasn't much in the way of coffee options."

He missed the fresh coffee available in California's San Francisco Bay area, where he grew up.

So he started a coffee shop called Magic Beans near the University of Kentucky campus. Warren, 37, was then an undergraduate working at a nearby restaurant and they became friends.

The coffee shop struggled and closed after a couple of years. Hautala became a copy editor at the Herald-Leader and now works for UK public relations.

Warren moved to Oregon for a decade before returning to Lexington, where he works in recycling programs for Bluegrass Pride.

"I also got spoiled by all the coffee options on the West Coast," said Warren, who reconnected with Hautala and told him, "We've got to re-imagine Magic Beans as a roasting-only operation."

They knew what they needed: A fluid-bed roaster patented by Michael Sivetz, an Oregon man who was a guru of coffee roasting for decades before his death last year at age 90. The only other Sivetz roaster they know of in Kentucky is used by Heine Brothers' Coffee in Louisville. Hautala and Warren found a used one for sale online and borrowed from their retirement accounts to buy it.

They have installed the roaster in a small, dungeon-like room they rent inside the Bread Box at West Sixth and Jefferson streets, the former bread bakery that houses West Sixth Brewery and several other tenants.

Each Saturday, Hautala and Warren roast only as much coffee as they expect to sell the next week.

A Sivetz roaster floats the beans on a bed of super-heated air until they are evenly cooked to a temperature that can be controlled to within 1 degree Fahrenheit. Hautala said the process preserves flavors often lost in conventional steel-drum roasting. Each bag of Magic Beans is marked with the roasting date.

"There's a huge difference in coffee that was roasted today and coffee that was roasted a week ago," he said. "As time goes on, there's sort of diminishing returns."

The coffee Magic Beans buys from a Minnesota-based company is imported fresh, and each variety can be traced to the farm where it was grown.

"For single-origin coffees, you're able to highlight the individual characteristics of the beans themselves as opposed to the roast," Warren said. "We really believe that great coffee is made on the farm. We're only the last step in the process."

Magic Beans' buying method means it doesn't always offer the same coffees. From month to month, coffee may come from Central America, Africa or Indonesia, depending on the best variety available at a given time.

"If you're the kind of person who likes something different and likes to buy seasonally, that's appealing," Hautala said.

All Magic Beans coffees sell for $12 per 12-ounce bag — about $5 more than premium whole-bean grocery coffee and about the same as Starbucks. But Hautala said Magic Beans is two or three dollars a bag cheaper than coffee from similar specialty roasters elsewhere.

The friends say their business is off to a good start, but they don't plan to quit their day jobs.

"It is a labor of love for us right now," Hautala said. "We're not going to be taking on Starbucks anytime soon."