The coffee obsession

On a recent Friday morning, in a non-descript converted garage in Southeast Portland, Joel Domreis flitted between a humidity-controlled basement storeroom where he keeps his stock of un-roasted coffee beans and his eight-foot-tall roaster.

On a recent Friday morning, in a non-descript converted garage in Southeast Portland, Joel Domreis flitted between a humidity-controlled basement storeroom where he keeps his stock of un-roasted coffee beans and his eight-foot-tall roaster. The sweet, burnt caramel scent from the whirring and squeaking machine filled the air.

Domreis is the 27-year-old owner and sole proprietor behind Courier Coffee, selling small-batch, hand-roasted beans which he delivers only by bike to homes, restaurants and offices in Portland, including Portland State University’s English and foreign language departments.

Described as both a folk hero and a coffee maniac, lean-framed Domreis is constantly moving. Rising before dawn most days, Domreis bikes to eight restaurant accounts and a handful of homes and offices, delivering fresh-roasted coffee and continuing an obsession that began in his teens.

Domreis grew up in Portland drinking coffee at coffee shops, skipping high school classes at Cleveland High School until finally, they sent the school police out to catch him. His secret hiding spot was Dunkin’ Donuts over on Southeast 39th and Powell-and he wasn’t eating donuts.

It was the coffee he loved, as well as the atmosphere around him.

“It was a place where people were friendly, and you could get endless refills while visiting with friends,” Domreis said.

Domreis fed his passion at first by teaching himself, because he found many roasters did not want to share details with him. However, he soon found an ally in Todd Cowing, owner of micro-roastery Story House Coffee.

“Todd was the only one who would let me in,” Domreis said. While other roasters would let him look at their equipment, none but Cowing would allow Joel to observe the actual process.

In the meantime, he was biking around the city, tasting espresso and asking a question or two at each stop. “My coffee budget far out-surpassed my food budget-it was about double.” With that much caffeine, he found that beer at the end of the day fulfilled two needs: badly needed carbohydrates and a way to depress the stimulating effects of too much coffee.

Today, Domreis’ workspace is a tiny converted garage that houses the shiny green and gold San Franciscan roaster, a copper bar and espresso machines parts in various stages of disrepair. Before the sun comes up he is roasting beans, observing their deepening color, crackling sounds and the smell of smoke and steam.

“I roast every day for a few hours and spend equal time on the Internet,” he said. He researched roasting techniques and how roasters were built, digging deep into blogs and forums to find tidbits of useful information hidden away.

Courier Coffee does not advertise, so new customers come through word of mouth. Delivering tiny, third-of-a-pound allotments meant to last just three days, the precious beans are packaged in hand-decorated brown paper sacks or glass mason jars.

Prices for household customers are $12 per pound, similar to what you would find in grocery stores. Restaurant and office customers get coffee every four days and pay about $10 per pound, and get refunded for coffee that has not been used.

Domreis says he is making it financially, but barely. “I’m not turning a profit yet, because I’m re-investing in equipment.”

He does not appear to be concerned about gaining new customers, restaurants or households, but does anticipate a slight increase in prices on the horizon to more accurately reflect the cost of his labor and raw materials.

“I’m not really a businessperson. People say I charge too little,” Domreis said.

Domreis teaches his customers how to make great coffee to drink. Since he delivers multiple times a week, he carefully checks all of the equipment and gives baristas pointers on how to make a better cup.

Matt Lounsbury, director of operations for Stumptown Coffee since 2003, says Domreis’ success indicates a shift in what customers are looking for when they buy coffee.

“One of the things that is interesting about Courier’s success is that people are starting to care about where their coffee comes from,” Lounsbury said. That concern includes not only where the coffee was grown, but who is roasting their beans, Lounsbury said.

“Joel’s case is extremely unique with the whole bike schtick,” Lounsbury said. “He has a very special niche.”

Domreis’ relationship with his wholesale customers is a very close one, said Half and Half Caf퀌� owner and manager, Jeff Heisler, who calls his order in to Domreis every three days.

“If I don’t like what he brings me,” Heisler said, “he’ll give me a credit for it and bring us something else.” Not many businesses these days can make that kind of promise, Heisler said.

Heisler recalls a few years ago when Domreis would come into his shop and drink vast amounts of espresso.

“Who is this kid who gets eight shots of espresso every day?” Heisler remembers wondering. The two would talk about nothing but coffee, and soon after, Domreis began roasting in his back yard. Heisler is pleased to see that Domreis’ is getting recognized for his skill and hard work.

“I think he has become a bit of a Portland folk hero by the fact that he’s out there delivering by bike,” Heisler said.

Courier Coffee’s residential customers praise Domreis’ commitment to the environment, as well as his drive to succeed and true dedication to coffee. Michael Judge lives in Southeast Portland, and has about half a pound of coffee each week delivered to his home.

“He’s a coffee maniac, and his coffee is just awesome,” Judge said.

“I’ve made a huge commitment to everyone for the next 10 or 20 years,” Domreis said. “I’m in roasting for good.” He hopes to hire and train another person to roast with him, preferably someone who is as eager to learn and as blank a slate as he was. He feels so at home in a coffee shop, he said, that at some point in the future he might end up behind an espresso bar again. Only this time, it will be his own.

And will he answer those questions from eager, knowledge-hungry coffee newbies?

“If people are interested they are welcome over to the roastery,” Domreis said. “So far I have been pretty open, and I hope to be in the future.”

Where to find Courier Coffee:

Served at:

Acorn (539 NW 13th & Hoyt)Half & Half (923 SW Oak)Little Red Bike (4823 N Lombard)Nutshell (3808 N Williams)Olea (NW 13th & Hoyt)Produce Row (SE 2nd & Oak)Toast (SE 52nd & Steel)Coming soon to Sel Gris (SE 19th & Hawthorne)