City of Coffee

Is Houston about to become America's coffee capital?

Dunaway relocated to Houston to set up his micro-roasting operation to fulfill orders in the United States. His family owns Café Copán, a small concern with a plantation in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. The company offers tours of coffee plantations and sells its coffee to tourists at the plantation and over the Internet.

Green coffee beans are shipped to the Port of Houston and roasted at Café Copán's tiny operation in Tomball. If you buy ten pounds at a time, you get the Honduran mountain-grown coffee for as little as $5.29 a pound. Or you can buy it by the pound at Spec's. Look for the little burlap bags. Café Copán is planning to open a coffee shop in The Woodlands soon as well.

Avi Katz, the founder of Katz Coffee, says he's met a lot of people in Houston who start their days with carbonated beverages and energy drinks instead of coffee. "I started out servicing coffeehouses," he says, "but Houston's coffee culture is so far behind the rest of the country, I couldn't survive just selling espresso."

A coffee "cupping" is a formalized tasting that determines the value of green coffee beans.
Howell, Paul S.
A coffee "cupping" is a formalized tasting that determines the value of green coffee beans.
Workers roast premium coffee beans on a fluid head roaster at Katz Coffee.
Howell, Paul S.
Workers roast premium coffee beans on a fluid head roaster at Katz Coffee.

But aren't Houstonians drinking more espresso lately? "Sure Houstonians drink espresso — as long as they don't have to get out of the car," he said.

While high-profile baristas like Tuscany Coffee's David Buehrer have been drawing attention to the art of great espresso lately, Houston still has a long way to go, according to Katz. Katz sells a lot of espresso in Austin, where local coffeehouses are extremely popular. Even though Starbucks has closed some stores lately, Katz says Houston is still a Starbucks town. "Although, I have to admit," he says, "we all owe Starbucks a huge debt of gratitude for making higher-quality coffee popular."

I found the tall, dark, muscular and handsome Katz unloading a truck with a forklift at his plant on 34th Street one day when I stopped by. The city's best-known specialty-coffee micro-roaster is located in a little complex that consists of two long, metal buildings with a driveway down the middle. Many of the spaces adjacent to Katz Coffee are occupied by antique dealers. Katz has installed two fluid head roasting machines in what looks like an overgrown storage space. Most of the rest of the area is taken up with big burlap sacks full of coffee. The country of origin is stenciled on each bag.

Katz went to work at Diedrich on Montrose when he finished college. He got hooked on coffee and never wanted to do anything else. He worked for a few other local coffee roasters before borrowing money to buy a small roaster that he still uses. In his crowded warehouse and plant, we watched a bag of Sumatra beans being roasted, then stepped into an air-conditioned room where workers were fulfilling orders by weighing coffee and pouring it into bags.

Katz Coffee does most of its business selling coffee to restaurants. And business is pretty good. "I started out in 2003 with 900 square feet; since then we have expanded to 6,000 square feet," he says. Katz Coffee is currently roasting between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds a month. "That sounds like a lot until you consider that Starbucks roasts 27 million pounds a year."

Katz's new Bayou Blend brand is available at Whole Foods, Spec's and a couple of upscale H-E-Bs. A portion of profits are donated to the Bayou Bend Partnership. But he doesn't have any plans to expand his retail sales. The marketing, merchandising and mass production required to sell coffee in grocery stores is too expensive.

Selling quality coffee to fine dining restaurants in Houston is a much easier way to make a living. Chefs like Monica Pope didn't want to serve cheap commercial coffee, but there were few alternatives until Avi Katz started knocking on doors. Instead of trying to sell the chefs on his new brand of coffee, Katz invited them to come to the roasting plant and create their own distinctive proprietary blends.

"Chefs love playing around with flavors," he says with a smile. "And what restaurant doesn't want to have an exclusive coffee blend with their name on it?" In Katz's cupping room, where he helps the chefs create their blends, there are posters on the wall categorizing the range of coffee aromas and flavors. Under "spicy" the descriptors are pepper, clove and coriander. In the resin category, there is maple, currant and cedar. Under the counter, Katz keeps a wooden box that contains little bottles with essences that correspond to each of the distinctive aromas that every coffee taster should be able to identify.

He waved a bottle under my nose and asked me what it smelled like. I said flowers, but that's wasn't specific enough. It was the essence of coffee blossoms. He tried another one. I guessed hazelnuts. It was actually basmati rice. My future as a coffee taster is apparently bleak.

Katz says he drinks medium-roast Guatemala Antigua at home. Dark-­roasting great coffee beans is like cooking a Kobe steak well-done, he says.

What's his advice for Houston coffee drinkers? "Forget about brands; buy fresh, locally roasted coffee. Freshness is everything," he says. "Buy coffee like you buy bread; get just enough for a week at a time."

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