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Coffee Profile: Cuvee Coffee in Austin, Texas

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Mike McKim of Cuvée Coffee. [Photograph courtesy Cat Caroom]

Texas might be famous for many of its culinary contributions—brisket barbecue, for instance, and a sizzling-hot platters of fajitas—but what about coffee?

Maybe not yet, but Mike McKim of small-but-mighty Austin-based specialty coffee roaster Cuvée has a thing or two to say about that: He and his team of roasters and educators have carved a quality-based niche for themselves in the hills of Hill Country, paving the way for an upswing of upstarts slowly moving through the relatively unchartered, undercaffeinated country.

Cuvée, which the Philadelphia-born McKim founded in 1998 as a "side project" while selling espresso equipment for La Marzocco, has since become not only his full-time gig, but also one of Texas's shining stars on the caffeine scene since relocating to Austin three years ago. Since planting its Texas roots, the small specialty company has focused on providing roasted-to-order beans to top-notch cafes like Once Over Coffee Bar and local chain Caffé Medici.

Even the roastery's name implies the cream of the crop: "It's a wine term," McKim explains, "for red wine, it means 'a blend of grapes.' For Champagne, their cuvée is made from only the best grapes in the vineyard and usually only used the juice from the first press."

Whether it's first press or French press we're talking about, McKim knows quality when he tastes it, and how to share it with his customers. We recently caught up with him to ask about the state of the bean in Lone Star country.

What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of running a small, quality-focused coffee company in a region of the country not necessarily identified with its coffee culture?
The advantage is that I have not really had any competition—until lately. As a company, we are very active in the SCAA [the Specialty Coffee Association of America] and specialty-coffee community, so we have been able to properly educate the people that we work with. The disadvantage is that our model is the opposite of the regional norm (flavored coffee is still all over the place), and that makes for slow growth. The other disadvantage is that we don't really get any recognition because of our locale.

Have you found it difficult to start building a kind of coffee community there in Austin, or throughout Texas with your retail business?
Building a community has been a challenge, even when I was only selling espresso machines [for La Marzocco]. Coffee businesses in Texas are very secretive and competitive: A lot of coffee roasters and retailers still consider their blends "proprietary." I have never understood it, but that is the reality here. Education is paramount and one of the things we do as good as, if not better than any other coffee company: Most of our customers rely on us for information and education, and we are always accessible. 

What sorts of relationships do you make or have with your wholesale customers?
The majority of our customers are independent coffee shops, but we do work with a few restaurants that take coffee seriously, and we do quite a bit with Whole Foods here in Austin. I think that we are a very fun company to work with, and normally that translates to fun retailers. Relationships are really important in many areas of our business. Fortunately most of our wholesale customers love craft beer, so that is a great fit!

Can you tell me a little about the importance of sustainability and/or organic agriculture to Cuvée?
We expect a lot from the farmers we work with, our wholesale and retail customers expect a lot from us, and the consumers expect a lot from our wholesale customers. Everything we do starts with quality. Personally, I think that without the quality, sustainability is unachievable.

From there, the model is pretty simple: Financial—everyone needs to be profitable. Environmental—we all have an impact on the environment.  Social—this one is the most dynamic. The bottom line is that we treat everyone who works for us, everyone who buys from us and everyone we come in contact with the same way we would like to be treated—and we expect the same from our partners. 

I have no problem paying a premium for high quality coffee, our wholesale and retail customers have no problem paying a premium for our coffee and the consumer has no problem paying a premium for a cup of coffee...as long as quality is the constant. We are not trying to change the world with our little business, but we are trying to make the most positive impact that we can.

To buy beans from Cuvée, check out the roaster's website, cuvee.com.

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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