The red and black colors of a new Ink Coffee cafe adorn the former Cash From Clutter building at 2851 Larimer Street, across the street from the neighborhood's five-year veteran, Crema Coffee House. At first, the addition made me wince: on a street that has small, local businesses popping up seemingly every month, a chain like Ink seemed out of place. But that's what owner Keith Herbert was expecting and trying to combat: the impression that his locally-owned, Colorado-focused roasting and cafe business is a corporation.
"People don't realize we're not corporate," Herbert says, who started Ink in 1994 as a small pushcart in Aspen with coffee roasted by John Rose, who became a partner in 1997. "Chain is a bad word. That's why we opened this place, to show that we're local, small and high-quality."
Herbert, who studied coffee in Italy more than twenty years ago, said he's been waiting to experiment with rare coffee beans and Italian-style espresso drinks in Colorado, but didn't feel Denver was ready. With the popularity of places like Crema, Huckleberry Roasters and Novo Coffee, he feels Denver's ready to taste what he's been brewing.
"We've been hanging around for twenty years waiting for this to happen," he says. "Ink's menu was modeled to be popular on the market, and now we can focus on more craft beverages."
The new Larimer Street location, which has a small cafe with three tables, bar seating and a lounge area, has the same menu as other Ink cafes. But it will also have a craft menu, with drinks from around the world, Herbert says. For example, he's offering the Italian version of the macchiato. The macchiato is the bane of the ordering line for baristas because Starbucks turned it into a caramel and vanilla latte, which is far from the Italian original. A standard, non-Starbucks macchiato is two shots of espresso with a dollop of foam. But according to Herbert, Italian macchiatos include just one or two dots of foam atop the espresso.
"We don't want to have a chip on our shoulder and be holier than thou," says Herbert. "We're not saying that our way is the best way. We're giving options. We just want to show that we're local and know our coffee, and share styles from around the world."
Herbert and Rose also moved the roasting facility to the Larimer location, which was previously located in Basalt.And they added a training room for Ink's 100-plus baristas. "This has been a dream of ours since 1999," says Herbert. "We wanted a place where Rose could roast in the back and I take it and serve it up front."
Rose is getting a small batch roaster so that the new Ink location can sell limited-edition batches and offer cuppings (what they call tastings in the coffee business), which the two expect to have set up sometime this coming spring.
The RiNo location was carefully selected, says Herbert, who likes the neighborhood's edge. He's been looking for a building large enough to handle the cafe and roaster combo for about five years, and when he found the Larimer address, he acted immediately. The proximity to Crema, Novo and other coffee shops and roasters doesn't concern him; he sees them as all part of a larger movement to make Denver, and possibly the RiNo strip of Larimer Street, a national coffee destination.
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For now, only the Larimer location will include the craft coffee menu. Ink's ten other locations, as well as new locations opening this spring on Interlocken Boulevard and in Bonnie Brae, will maintain the current menu. But if the craft menu does well, it could be added to the other cafes' offerings. "We're starting a conversation, a deep conversation, with our customers," explains Herbert. "If they like it, maybe we'll expand."