by Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
Just like in every other modern city of a certain size with hopes of obtaining culinary credibility, it’s impossible to swing a single-origin latte in Austin these days without hitting an artisanal coffee roaster or a barista with exquisite pour-over technique. Yet while local coffee experts, cafés and trailers may come and go, Texas Coffee Traders sits balanced astride the galloping charger that is our growing coffee culture. It’s no “new kid on the block.” Texas Coffee Traders founder and owner R.C. Beall has been roasting and selling the finest quality coffee from all over the world to wholesale and retail customers since the ’70s. And over the last two decades, he’s watched—indeed influenced—Austin’s journey from boilerplate joes to expertly crafted cups of the finest brew.
A visit to the Texas Coffee Traders warehouse calls to mind a kind of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for coffee lovers—packed floor to ceiling with beans limited and rare—organic, fair trade, direct trade, conventional and flavored—assailing guests with intense aromas. “It’s a sensory experience,” Beall says. “Coffee changes your outlook, the way you experience life. We’ve got five senses—with coffee, I can push all of those buttons. You can see the beans, feel them in your hands, hear us grinding them, smell the coffee roasting and brewing. The subtle differences in flavors and tasting notes will blow you away.”
Beall spends his days contemplating all things coffee now, but it wasn’t always this way. In the late ’70s, he was managing a golf school he’d built in Houston. “It paid the bills—all I needed was beer, a bucket of balls and barbeque,” he says. But something was missing. One day, with the lyrics to Ry Cooder’s “Feelin’ Good” bouncing around in his head, Beall realized he wanted something more. “I looked at everyone around me, and heard those lyrics: ‘All the money in the world is spent on feeling good,’ and I thought, What does everyone in the world connect over?” The answer, he decided, was a good cup of coffee—something that, for many of us, is woven into the very fabric of our day and integral to our social interactions. He wasn’t sure exactly how this epiphany would eventually fit into his life, but—ready for a new adventure—he sold everything and moved north.
Beall landed in the tiny community of Whitefish, Montana, and felt like he’d discovered heaven. There, he opened a little general store, located a used coffee roaster and learned the roasting ropes from Michael Sivetz—a master roaster who is something of a hero in the coffee-roasting community. Beall sourced coffee beans from wherever he could get them, and began roasting and selling them in his store. “There were only five to six brokers of good coffee at the time, and we worked with them all. There were no classes, no specialty coffee organization. We were pioneers in the world of coffee.” In addition to coffee, Beall also sold firewood, berries, morels, tamales, bagels, cheese and homebrewing supplies, everything, he says, his customers would need throughout their day—from lighting the fire in the morning, to brewing a cup of coffee and eating a meal, to finishing the evening with a beer. “The next day, they’d need a good cup of coffee again to get going after that strong homebrewed beer,” Beall says with a smile. “So I felt like I’d figured out the secret for a successful business.” Soon, though, coffee sales far outpaced everything else, and his little-bit-of-everything mercantile became Montana Coffee Roasters.
Life was slow in Montana, and Beall had ample space and time to reflect on his new vocation. He went to the library and began to research the importance of coffee, learning that it accounted for one-third of all drinks consumed on the planet. And he knew what was available in the U.S. at the time could be better. “There were only about forty roasting houses in the entire country at that time,” he says. “And only about two brokers understood specialty coffee.”
One of the things that had initially attracted Beall to Whitefish was its low pay / high return economy. There wasn’t much money to be made but not much was needed, and the environment was breathtakingly beautiful and the people supportive. The community’s values revolved around quality of life and an appreciation for simple pleasures. By the late ’80s, things were quickly changing in Whitefish, but Beall stumbled upon an echo of the old ways one winter in Costa Rica while visiting a hugely successful coffee plantation. He wasn’t particularly impressed by what he saw, but then he went to nearby Monteverde, a friendly, modest and growing community, where children played freely in the fields amidst a symphony of tropical birdsong. It reminded him of his early, slower-paced Whitefish days, and he was eager to partner with these growers. He began to work with them and bought almost as much as they could grow and export. Meanwhile, business continued to grow apace, and with a newfound supply of high-quality beans from Monteverde added to his stock, Beall could hardly keep product on the shelves.
As things got busier, Beall hired seasonal workers to help keep up with demand. One of the folks was a researcher who often traveled to Russia, and when he’d go, he’d take a suitcase full of Beall’s roasted beans—opening the door to a rather unexpected twist in the story. After decades of low-quality, state-controlled food and coffee, the Russians couldn’t get enough of these fragrant beans, and thus Moscow Coffee Traders was born. The Coffee Traders team quickly installed a roaster in the Russian capital and sold coffee hand over fist to every newspaper and embassy in town, as well as to some of the city’s best restaurants. And even though Beall would eventually sell all but a small percentage of shares in Moscow Coffee Traders, he remains proud of what he started in Russia. “To this day,” he boasts, “the two best coffees in Moscow are still connected to Coffee Traders.”
In the early ’90s, Beall reconnected with Beth, a friend from high school. The two eventually married and decided to set up a third Coffee Traders—this time back in Beall’s home state of Texas. But as the couple searched for a warehouse space in East Austin, Beall admits that it was a bit challenging. “When we went out scouting warehouse property, we ran across a guy chasing another guy with a bat. It felt like the frontier over here.” Of course, things have changed quickly in that area of town, and Beall has watched the evolution of our city with interest and concern. “As Austin got ‘found,’ people changed,” he says. “Words didn’t always mean what they had meant before. On the other hand, we’ve been seeing a return to the values that are important to us—foodie, local—it all fits in with where we’ve always been and where we expect to go. There’s a core group of people in Austin who care about quality of life, and those are our values, too. We’ll always be family-owned, we’ll always support sustainable production and community. I want to be sure we are real and that what we offer contributes to that everyday quality of life.”