Ever since it opened in 2008 in the former (and troubled) Murky Coffee space on Capitol Hill, Peregrine Espresso has relied exclusively on beans from Counter Culture Coffee, the Durham, N.C.-based roaster that once employed Peregrine co-owner Ryan Jensen as a customer-service rep.
That will change later this month, when Peregrine begins roasting its own beans at a new facility in Northeast Washington, near the U.S. National Arboretum. The business will go by the name Small Planes Coffee, and it'll be devoted, for now, on roasting beans just for Peregrine's three locations before eventually moving into wholesale sales. Small Planes, alas, won't have any public space for drinking coffee brewed from its freshly roasted beans.
The opening of Small Planes will place Peregrine in a growing class of local shops that both roast and brew their own beans. The group includes Qualia, Swing's, Vigilante, Zeke's, Compass, Rare Bird, Quartermaine, and Ceremony, among others. What the opening of Small Planes will not do: end Peregrine's relationship with Counter Culture. At least not for the foreseeable future.
“This is not a rejection of Counter Culture,” says Jensen. “We’re just feeling the itch to do it ourselves and have that much closer contact with what’s going on. It’s not like we’re tasting Counter Culture coffees and saying, 'No, we want something drastically different from this'.”
Peregrine's business relationship with Counter Culture has been mutually beneficial: For nearly a decade, Peregrine has exclusively used Counter Culture beans and purchased equipment from the North Carolina roaster, and in return for its loyalty, the small D.C. chain has received free repairs on its machinery as well as access to complimentary barista trainings. The benefits are not easy to surrender since the free repairs alone add up to thousands of dollars annually in savings.
“Since we’re keeping a certain amount of their coffee for a time, they’re willing to extend” the benefits, Jensen says. “We’re pretty sure that we’ll stick with using two roasters until the end of the year, and then as time goes by we’ll reevaluate.”
To run its roastery, Jensen and his wife and business partner, Jill, lured a former Peregrine employee to join Small Planes as head roaster. Evan Howe was looking for a new challenge, Jensen says, and he immediately headed to Coffee Lab International in Vermont to learn about the art of roasting green coffee. The Small Planes team then bought a small, one-pound roaster and began experimenting with different beans and roast profiles.
At the start, Jensen says Small Planes will buy many of its beans from a respected coffee importer based in Lancaster, Pa. The new roaster has contracted 11 coffees from Guatemala, Kenya and Ethiopia, but Jensen says that only the Guatemalan beans will be available for a few weeks, starting the week of May 22. At least one blend and a couple more single-origin coffees will be available in about a month or so.
But before any Small Planes beans enter Peregrine stores, Howe has had to get up to speed on his new roaster, a 15-kilo Loring, which was installed in late April at the Small Planes facility.
So why the name Small Planes? Jensen laughs, knowing the question would eventually pop up. He tried to prepare a simple answer for the complex philosophy behind the name.
“Coffee is something that can be and should be a point of connection, whether it’s connecting people over a cup of coffee or connecting to a consumer in the States with a farmer in some faraway land,” Jensen says. “The idea of connecting people that are sort of on different planes, it’s always been part of our mission.”