A slow, plaintive melody rises above the resonant thrum of roasting machines that busies the mild afternoon air. As I make my way toward the warmth and hum of the warehouse, a young man strides over to me. His brown beard frames a broad smile as he catches my hand in an easy shake: “I'm Brett. Welcome to Zeke's.”
In 2005, Brett's uncle, Thomas Rhodes, began roasting his own coffee beans in a one-pound roaster in Baltimore. He sold the beans at local farmers markets, where he quickly gathered a following for his bold, sweet coffee. He named his burgeoning company Zeke's. Over the years, Zeke's has worked its way up to a 31-pound roaster, and now has locations in Pittsburgh and D.C.
At SAGE, we're always looking for opportunities to support small businesses and local producers. We partner with 25 small-batch roasters nationally to provide our venues with fresh, local roasts weekly. When Zeke's caught our eye at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, we were impressed by the quality of their product and the point-for-point alignment of their values with our own—from batch cooking to sustainable sourcing. Today, they supply many of our Baltimore venues.
Brett guides me through the tiny Baltimore warehouse, where buckets of dusky gray-green beans line the back wall of the roasting room. In the center of the floor, beans churn inside a fluid bed roaster. In a typical drum roaster, the chaff coating the raw beans burns, leaving the coffee with a sharp, acrid taste. At Zeke's, air circulates throughout the roasting period—winnowing away the chaff, which is later composted, before it has a chance to burn. This preserves the coffee's natural sweetness.
Every batch of Zeke's coffee is a meeting of scientific precision and human artistry. After the small batches are roasted to an exact temperature, the yield is weighed and bagged by hand. Unlike the heat-sealed bags that hold grocery-variety coffee, Zeke's distinctive brown paper bags are carefully hand-rolled. These bags of roasted beans are organized in a “coffee library,” where gold-painted trays display the brand's 52 varieties, including fair trade, organic, and sustainably sourced blends. A practiced method makes every cup of Zeke's coffee a truly exceptional experience—one SAGE is proud to bring to our communities.
No matter how much Zeke's grows, Brett's family will stand behind small-batch roasting. It's what seems right to them: “We call ourselves a small-batch roaster.What does that mean? There aren't any regulations. I could roast 140 pounds and call it a small batch, but [31 pounds] is as far as we feel comfortable going.” In a world of nine-to-fives and bottom lines, it's affirming to partner with a company whose word has as much integrity as its product.