Masquerading as a cedar-shingled artist’s studio with a roofline like a Westfalia pop-up top, Chilmark Coffee Company’s roasting space is as unassuming as any postmodern outbuilding to be found up Island. Take a look through the doorway, however, and a room dominated by a 960-pound Diedrich roaster and 125-pound tabletop companion roaster signals a decidedly immodest cottage enterprise.
Owners Jennifer and Todd Christy have combined their love of coffee with their love of their local community to create a business rooted in both and serving both. Owing in no small part to her duties as Town Clerk of Chilmark, Ms. Christy has taken a more passive role in the company than her husband, but when the season arrives, outdoor selling is something she really enjoys doing with him.
“Todd and I began Chilmark Coffee together, but Todd does more of the day-to-day work,” she said. “He has put great amounts of time towards learning about coffee beans, the growing process and the roasting of beans. I have helped with long-term planning, design and, of course, with taste-testing. We have a booth at the West Tisbury Farmers Market in the summer and doing that together is a lot of fun.”
“Jen and I founded our company in 2010,” said Mr. Christy, “but we started roasting for sale in early 2011.”
That roasting, which brings Chilmark Coffee into customers’ cups at the Scottish Bakehouse, ArtCliff Diner, and Lucky Hank’s, among many other establishments, is done daily by Mr. Christy without the aid of graphic interface or computerization of any kind. Looking like anemic pistachios, the beans are poured into the roasters batch by batch. Thereafter, Mr. Christy stands by either machine fine tuning its heat and sampling beans with a spoon-shaped tool called a checker. At their first transformative stage, at approximately 265 degrees Fahrenheit, the beans waft up a grassy aroma, almost like sencha tea. Their color hasn’t much changed. By stage two, approximately 300 degrees Fahrenheit, their greenishness begins to slip and they smell like hay. Next, at around 320 degrees Fahrenheit, the beans turn tan and give off a scent like freshly baked bread — the penultimate indicator.
Mr. Christy takes great care guiding the final stage, where too much heat will singe the batch and too little will leave it with the texture of balsa wood. What he consistently arrives at are bean batches the color of oiled leather that smell intoxicatingly nutty as they cascade down into stainless steel cooling trays. They are the benchmark of the company.
“I got into roasting coffee because I really enjoy drinking coffee and I wanted to try a different approach to roasting coffee,” said Mr. Christy. “It’s such a subjective thing and I realize that we all have very different tastes. I just roast coffee that I think is well sourced, lives up to my expectation as to its traceability and sustainable growing practices, and that I like when I taste it in the cup. I hope others like it too.”
If Cronig’s Market is any indicator, like it they do. “One of the things that is really impressive about Chilmark Coffee, besides the great quality, is the beautiful packaging and labeling,” said Sarah McKay, manager of both the Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury Cronig’s Markets. “Todd and Jen have done a great job of creating a brand that makes an impact even on busy grocery store shelves. We were really happy when they came to us to carry their coffee, as it was a departure from the usual value-added Island products that we already carry: preserves, pies, baked goods, etc. They really found a niche that works. We love how it looks on our shelves and of course it sells to both seasonal and year-round customers, which is always good.”
The attractive bags Chilmark Coffee is sold in didn’t come around by happenstance. Todd and Jennifer Christy both attended art school. When not applying their creative talents to activities like packaging company products, they enjoy expressing themselves through graphic design and painting.
“A good part of my week is dedicated to painting in my studio,” said Ms. Christy. Art runs in Ms. Christy’s family. Islanders will be familiar with her step father Jay Lagemann’s sculpture of a swordfish harpooner in Menemsha, one of his many works visible around the Vineyard. Ms. Christy’s father, Joe Neill, also happens to be a sculptor.
For Mr. Christy, designing cycling attire goes hand-in-hand with his long-held passion for cycling itself. Mr. Christy helps sponsor the Hot Tubes cycling team in Shirley, outfitting them with his designs (which are manufactured by Verge, a company from New Windsor, N.Y.). He admits athletic comradery is as important as ponying up money for anybody interested in the gear he designs. “Our cycling kits are not online,” he said. “You gotta ride with me before you buy from me.”
Aside from the bagged coffee Chilmark Coffee sells, and the cold-brewed, swing-top bottled coffee many Islanders have enjoyed from them in the warmer months, their tea is available all over the Island.
“I buy our organic teas from the award-winning tea company, The Art of Tea out of Los Angeles,” said Mr. Christy. “There is no question in my mind that they provide the highest quality tea available and that is why it’s in our tins. Our tea by the tin is available currently at 7a Foods, LeRoux Home, Chilmark General Store, Fiddlehead Farm, Morning Glory Farm, and brewed by hand at Beach Plum Inn.”
Through collaboration with other parties, soaps are on the horizon for the Christys.
“We are working with two fantastic soap companies who use our coffee in their soaps,” said Mr. Christy said of Scrubby Neck Soap, a Vineyard-based company, and Old Whaling Company out of Charleston, S.C.
Speaking of the community support that empowers them to not only do what they do with traditional forms of coffee but to explore other possibilities, such as the aforementioned soaps, Ms. Christy sums up how she feels about the place she and her husband call home.
“Todd and I feel really lucky to live in a place that appreciates entrepreneurs and creative and multifaceted ways of making a living.”
For more information about the Chilmark Coffee Company, visit chilmarkcoffeeco.com.