The current state of coffee in the mid-Willamette Valley — a plethora of Starbucks, Dutch Bros., coffee kiosks and local shops and restaurants, all offering great cups of brew — was something that Allan Stuart hoped would happen decades ago.
In 1972, Stuart started Allann Brothers in his Ashland apartment, roasting coffee beans in a cast iron skillet.
He had recently traveled to Europe and fell in love with the coffee there, and he wanted to produce a product that measured up to the blends from his trip.
“This wasn’t something new. There was already a culture there,” Stuart said. “I always imagined this would be a standard that would come to America.”
Today, the small-batch roasting for Allann Brothers happens at the business’ headquarters in Albany off of Interstate 5, and the company has seven Beanery café locations, including three in Corvallis, and about 100 workers.
“Starbucks was born one year before us and actually has a kind of similar backstory,” said Robert Morgan, CEO of Allann Brothers.
For years after Allann Brothers' humble beginnings, it seemed there were few options for a decent cup of coffee in the mid-Willamette Valley besides the Beanery, which opened a café on Second Street downtown in the 1970s and in the 1980s added a shop just off the Oregon State University campus on Monroe Avenue.
So when Paul Tostberg came to town in the early 1990s, he saw a business opportunity. Tostberg grew up in Seattle, so he’s always been aware of gourmet coffee, and he noticed something lacking from the local scene.
“A drive-through hadn’t been done in this area before,” he added.
So he and his wife opened up their first coffee kiosk in the parking lot of the Timberhill Shopping Center in 1993.
The couple wanted to hedge their bet, however, so they also offered an overnight film developing service. “We opened as Photo Espresso, because it wasn’t a given that coffee by itself would be successful,” he said.
Some locals flat out told the couple not to quit their day jobs, expecting the business to fail. And part of it did, of course, thanks to digital cameras that effectively killed off the film industry.
But coffee shops began to proliferate throughout the mid-Willamette Valley. Photo Espresso morphed into Coffee Culture, which now has four locations in Corvallis and about 50 employees.
“It has changed. Today, if a coffee shop is opening, they really need to know what they are doing. The bar has been raised quite high,” Tostberg said.
Much of the change in the industry was thanks to Starbucks, which has what seems like an army of locations in Linn and Benton counties.
Despite the competition, Tostberg and Morgan were appreciative of the giant Seattle-based company.
“They developed the market for specialty coffee at a time when if you wanted an espresso, you’d have to search out an ethnic restaurant,” Tostberg said.
Smaller operators were able to ride the coattails of Starbucks, but differentiate their products, Tostberg added.
“They definitely made coffee mainstream for everyone,” Morgan said. “Would I do it the Starbucks way? No. But would I have all these locations today without Starbucks? No.”
A more recent shift in the industry is that roasters are interested in building connections with the farmers where the beans are grown.
That enables businesses like Coffee Culture and Allann Brothers to support small farms in other parts of the world and get an ethically sourced product. “It’s not a commodity-broker relationship anymore,” Morgan said.
Unlike Coffee Culture, Allann Brothers doesn’t use computer systems to aid its roasting, relying on an “old beast” of a machine and employees’ sight, hearing and smell to figure out when a batch is done, Morgan said.
“We definitely have stuck to our roots,” Morgan said. Black coffee is still the No. 1 selling item at the Beanery locations, but Allann Brothers, like Coffee Culture, is trying to train consumers to brew great cups of coffee at home, as well.
For 2017, Allann Brothers’ 45th anniversary, the business plans to put cold brew on tap in all of its Beanery locations. Morgan said the company also plans to renovate the cafes’ interiors, along with new food preparation methods, new manual espresso machines and an upgrade tea offerings.
But Morgan and Stuart said they still want to create places with great customer service and atmosphere to pair with the coffee.
And Tostberg doesn't expect the popularity of coffee to wane anytime soon.
“There’s a reason coffee has stood the test of time over 1,000 years. People appreciate the qualities of coffee that are stimulating. And now we’re seeing research on the health benefits of coffee,” Tostberg said.