SCIENCE OF THE BEAN: SPECIALTY COFFEE

Every time I’m in a new town, I search out coffee shops with unique vibes and good coffee. Function Coffee Labs ranks near the  top. I sat down with creators, Ross Nickerson and Megan McCusker to learn their specialty coffee secrets.

Function Coffee Labs - Philly - Specialty Coffee

How’d you find yourself in the specialty coffee business?

M: We met teaching at a boarding school in England five years ago. We kind of bonded over our love of coffee and we were both trying to venture out of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Both of us had three months off during the year, so there was a lot of time to travel and we spent all of it going out of city centers in Europe to find the best coffee we could. We took a little notebook around to every coffee shop with us and wrote pros and cons — things we liked and didn’t like. It was a good way to learn what the locals really do.

So, neither of you have worked in a coffee shop before this?

R: No, I bought a tiny, tiny, cheap espresso machine – tiny little grinder and started reading everything online and started experimenting. So really, we’re completely self-taught in terms of the coffee. I worked briefly at a shop, just to see what the day to day logistics of running a coffee shop were.

Function Coffee Labs - Philly - Specialty Coffee

It’s such an unusual name for a coffee shop, where’d it come from?

M: It is unusual, but it’s not. 

R: It’s two parts. 

M: People’s initial reaction is, “Oh, haha it’s like alluding to I can’t function without coffee.” And at first it is what we thought; it was a joke, but my friend told us, “No, it actually makes perfect sense because Ross is super into science and math, he was a physics teacher. So, function like a mathematical function.” We were like, “Oh my God… Brilliant!” 

R: The behind the scenes meaning of it is the taste of the coffee or the taste of the espresso is a function of the grind size, roast level, water temperature, the amount of agitation and your brew ratio. Literally, the flavor is the function of all these other variables. That’s really where the function part of the name comes from and the labs is a reference to my science and engineering background and the way that we brew coffee and do our quality control of the coffee…

M: … It’s always an experiment.

Function Coffee Labs - Philly - Specialty Coffee

What’s the Specialty Coffee Voyage?

M: A friend did the “Specialty Coffee Voyage” mural in our shop. 

R: You sit there for a little bit and and you’re like “Oh it’s pretty or whatever.” People Instagram it all the time. People aren’t always specifically asking questions about it or anything, but I do often refer to it if somebody asks what’s the difference between natural processing and washed processing?  For example, coffee grows in a cherry — I’d point up to the mural — You see the whole cherry… Then we have a burned bean up there and we have one that’s really pale in color with grass behind it because if  you under roast or under-develop the coffee it tastes grassy like hay. If you burn it, it’s smokey. So the burned bean has smoke coming off the edges. The one that’s just right is sparkling, that’s what you want. It’s little details in the art.

Specialty Coffee Voyage - Function Coffee Labs

What does the future of Function Coffee Labs look like?

R: My nature is still, what can I be doing now? What can I do to make it better? That’s sort of how I am, I  probably over work myself and I’m trying to do less. Now, we have a whole team of baristas, I’m not actually on the schedule to be a barista anymore. It took 3 years to get there. 

M: Now, it’s time to work on the business and figure out how we can grow and expand.

R: The roasting company is branded separately – that’s called Vibrant Coffee Roasters. Retail is hard. Wholesale, in theory, is easier; you roast a bunch of coffee and you deliver it to somebody and that’s their coffee for the week. And we want to bake. So, the new shop will likely have a bakery for bread, croissants, pies, tarts, and scones. 

Function Coffee Labs - Philly - Specialty Coffee - Ross

Okay my last question, what is it about coffee? Why do I wake up dreaming about finding a new coffee shop?

M: We were obsessed with it. I think when you have that experience of a coffee that tastes a little bit different than what you’re used to, it piques your interest and you’re like, wait what is this? Is this coffee? Okay, this is what coffee can be. I think it becomes this endless search to find something different or something better.

R: And everyone wants to try… it’s human nature to want to find something new. Some people just want the same thing, no deviation. Part of it is just the caffeine, you know, you need the caffeine, it’s a drug. That’s part of it, but I think also the whole ritual of it. It’s like this comforting routine of something that is very routine and mundane.

M: When you find a friend, you can bond over coffee, travel to different places, and build relationships off of it.

R: There’s really nothing else like it.

Here’s to Ross and Megan. Going after their dream and creating something special in Philadelphia.

Function Coffee Labs - Philly - Specialty Coffee - Megan & Ross

Gear

  • Sony A7r III
  • 35 mm 1.4
  • 50 mm 1.4

STAY CURIOUS.

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