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3-Course Interview: Eliot Guthrie 

The co-owner of Congregation Coffee Roasters talks New Orleans’ unique coffee culture

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Congregation Coffee Roasters (www.congregationcoffee.com) is a small local roasting company started by Eliot Guthrie and Ian Barrilleaux, chefs who met in the kitchen at Cochon Butcher. Eliot and his wife Elysha Diaz moved to New Orleans from Seattle two years ago and run the roasting business out of their Mid-City home. They supply restaurants such as the Link Restaurant Group properties, and their coffees can be found at Hollygrove Market & Farm, Langenstein's and online. Guthrie spoke to Gambit about Congregation's approach to third wave coffee.

How did you start Congregation Coffee?

Guthrie: (Diaz and I) moved here two years ago, and after a few months, I said it's going to be beer or coffee. I have friends in Seattle working with both of those things. Ian said, "You're from Seattle. You must know how to roast coffee. I'd like to learn about that."

  We reached out to friends in Seattle — Joe Monaghan at La Marzocco, Drew Fitchette of Elm Coffee Roasters, who also worked for Stumptown Coffee. They helped us through the beginning process; I had them on speed dial. I did a lot of reading and trial and error for the first eight months until we found a product that we were happy with and thought we could sell.

  The approach Ian and I have taken is flavor driven. With the evolution of coffee, the "third wave" is what's trendy right now. It's based on trying to honor producers and everyone in the production process as much as the consumer. In third wave coffee, what's really popular are light roasts. People argue that you should let the bean speak for itself, which I don't disagree with. Some African coffees are more floral; they are almost more reminiscent of tea.

  A lot of people don't want surprise; they like a more familiar product. That's why Starbucks is so successful.

What types of coffee do you focus on?

G: We roast more on the medium side. We buy coffees that fit the more traditional flavor profile: a little bit bigger, a little bit bolder, a little more rounded, rather than the more fruity coffees. We like those too; we offer them in our single-bean coffees. We want consistency with our blends.

  We make a point to buy coffees that support people at every step in the supply chain. And we do that at a reasonable price point.

  We currently have two blends, an everyday blend and a coffee you can use for espresso, and we have four single-origin coffees — from Kenya, Tanzania, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

  We care about our bottom line; we have to. The driving concern for the first time consumer is that it's still something kind of new. We want transparency in the blend. So people can see if they want to try a Tanzanian coffee. We're building a gateway into the third wave with attractive prices and packaging, transparency on our labels and who we've partnered with. People going to Hollygrove are generally into trying something new.

What's the difference between coffee cultures in New Orleans and Seattle?

G: Coffeehouse culture is a little bit different there. The coffee shops in Seattle don't have couches. The business model is more about the products than a place to hang out. Ninety percent of the new coffeeshops don't have WiFi.

  The consumer in the Northwest is willing to be more adventurous and spend a little more money to try things like the single-origin coffees.

  They also don't use much sugar or dairy. Here, everything is richer — the food, the coffee, the culture.

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