With Starbucks only reaching the District in 1993 and third wave coffee shops steadily opening around the area, it’s hard to imagine one coffee company that’s been around DC for a century. That’s right, Swing’s Coffee Roasters has seen a lot – 4 owners, 17 presidents, 2 World Wars, countless advancements in technology – and it still serves us today at 100 years young.
Swing’s Coffee Roasters in Alexandria sits unassumingly across from a park where on any given weekend you’ll see kiddos running around playing soccer or some other sport. It looks quiet, but you walk in and are pleasantly greeted by the musical stylings of TLC and Destiny’s Child (at least, I was on this particular Saturday afternoon). People are chatting in the windows while others are working at the larger community tables, and the employees are engaged in jovial conversation as they await their next customer. I knew exactly what I wanted when I stepped up to the counter; I came on a mission. I had returned for another taste of their draft latte, one I had gotten a sampling of earlier in the week when I visited with Director of Coffee Operations Neil Balkom to learn more about the company.
Neil first entered the coffee industry by working as a barista during college. He found himself immersed in the coffee scene in multiple cities before making his way to the DC area three years ago. It was 2013, a formative year for Swing’s Coffee Roasters. Owner Mark Warmuth was in the middle of building a new roastery that would include a storefront in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. In addition to new property, Mark and Neil began to reevaluate the method in which they sourced their beans. Out of this came the Home Grown Coffee Initiative.
Of the 52 coffee producing countries in the world, many are what you might call “third world,” or under-developed. However, the top ten coffee-consuming countries are all fully developed, “first world.” Taking this information, Swing’s saw an opportunity- rather than source beans from places that already have the infrastructure, why not go where the need is? Through the Home Grown Coffee Initiative, Swing’s works directly with coffee farmers and their families, promoting sustainable agriculture techniques and accountability while building relationships and helping support these communities. The result: Swing’s receives the best quality product, and their partners receive the best profit. Current partnerships are in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Sumatra. It was a leap of faith on all sides at the beginning, but since its inception in 2013, Swing’s has grown its stakeholders through this program from 18% to 83%, hoping to close in on 100% soon.
It is clear that transparency is important to Swing’s, and not just through their sourcing. When you walk into the store in Alexandria, you can see the roasting process taking place 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. Behind the register and coffee bar are huge windows allowing a peek inside the roasting process (and bagging and shipping). They have three vintage Probat roasters they use for production, the largest roasting 100 lbs. at a time and the smallest roasting batches of 14-18 lbs. at a time.
Not only does Swing’s have the experience that comes from 100 years in the business, they also have impressive credentials. The Alexandria location is home to one of the 23 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) certified teaching labs in the United States. While training is made available to coffee enthusiasts far and wide, the lab proves extremely valuable to their own employees and is where weekly public cuppings are held. These cuppings, Neil explains, are great ways for people to try different coffees at once and learn their own preferences. Neil is also a Q grader, meaning he is licensed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to objectively assess coffee quality. This is a pretty huge deal as there are just 3,500 Q graders worldwide.
While some in the specialty coffee game shy away from blends, Swing’s appears to embrace it, as it’s part of their history. One of the shop’s blends, the Mesco, is 98 years old and patented. They also came up with the recipe for a special Centennial Blend, with notes of chocolate and cherry, to celebrate their 100th birthday. For the blend-averse, don’t worry, they also offer a variety of single-origins on the coffee bar and for retail purchase.
As previously mentioned, Swing’s has seen a lot. Neil mentioned to me that one customer has been getting her coffee from them since the Eisenhower administration. Though not its first location, its most notable one has been at 17th & G NW, right by the White House, making it popular to government employees, tourists, and all those in between. This particular location is currently under renovation and will reopen Spring 2017. In the meantime, Swing’s is establishing a new location at 14th & G that will open in the next couple months. Stay tuned for updates!
|Calibration Program/software:||No software, rely on roasters’ training and craft|
|Capacity:||Large Probat can do 100 lbs. at a time, smaller can do 14-18 lbs.|
|Lbs per day:||1100-1300 lbs.|
|Bean sourcing:||Home Grown Coffee Initiative (see above)|
|Cuppings frequency:||As needed, often daily; free cupping open to the public Fridays at 10am|
|Packaging:||Predominately retail bags, tin can for its special Centennial Blend|
|Where to buy:||Currently offering retail at coffee shop and online, Whole Foods market throughout the mid-Atlantic region, as well as markets like Each Peach, Fresh Market, Good Food Markets|
|Personal favorite region:||Palette has been around the world several times, but currently either East Africa or Central America|
|Recommendation that’s on the shelf now:||Mesco Blend & Diplomat are two of the most popular. Right now the Ethiopia Natural Aroresa is incredibly complex and nuanced. For something softer, Neil recommends the Brazil Sertao of Guatemala La Voz.|
Let us know, what is it that makes Swing’s special to you?