Words and Images By Brad Koehn
In Denton, baristas are everywhere. Take a look to your left, there's probably one there beside you right now. Or even behind you. Watch out! In fact, chances are, you might even be a barista. See what we mean? Who are these people anyway? They are people, after all, real people - with hopes, dreams, and stories. They have more to offer than just your frothy, espresso drinks and iced vanilla mochas. So, that is why we are setting out to learn more about our beloved baristas - to interview them and learn about the people behind the bar. Sure, the coffee you made me today is from the Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia, but tell me barista, what is your origin?
For our first official issue of Tending Bar, we spoke with Wade Matheny, a one-time barista/manager at Cultivar Coffee. Unfortunately, before we had a chance to type up his interview, he and his wife left Denton to go live in New York City. Why he would leave Denton for this strange and obscure city somewhere up north (we think), we may never know. But we will certainly miss Matheny and wish him much success.
Matheny is an interesting fellow - full of laughter, wit, sarcasm, and stories. He's a know-it-all who likes to tell you how it is, but only because he genuinely cares. For the interview, we met up at La Estrella on McKinney for tacos and Topo Chico. What better place to talk about Denton and coffee?
WDDI: Yo, Wade. What brought you to Denton?
Matheny: Family. My family traveled a lot - but I first started in Keller for a while, then in Denton for grade school and high school. Then I went out of state for college - for four years at Ouachita Baptist - and then I came back. Ouachita Baptist is in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. I've been in Denton for about 15 years. I've seen the 380 construction. I've seen loop 288 be nothing and then be something. I've eaten at the Flying Tomato. Watched Bowling for Soup play on Saturdays. I ate at the original Chopsticks location. I remember when Jupiter House served Cuvée Coffee. And Karma Café, shady as hell, bro. Remember the amount of smoke in there?
Tell me about your first coffee experience and when you first started really enjoying it.
I don't know, I never drank coffee, ever. I started to drink black coffee the same time I started drinking Jameson, around about 21 and 20. It was just like this positive peer pressure. When I learned to drink, people taught me: you drink German beer - they took me to a Bauhaus for my first beer, I had a glass boot. In the same way with coffee: you drink your coffee black and you're going to need a french press. The best I could do for a time was iced coffee from Starbucks with a little bit of skim milk and one pump of whatever their standard sweet flavor was. I would do that for a while, then I would start to get french presses and I would just choke it down. But I mean, still it was different, and better, and I was really actively trying. That was the season of my life when I was looking into beer a lot, trying to find nuances and just really understand why this was good.
I didn't really get to try a lot of third wave coffee. I remember Denver was the first time I had third wave coffee and that was a year after my experience at that shop. I started drinking black coffee at this place called Guillermo's. They had the little signs in front of the parking spaces that say: "this is not Starbucks", "friends don't let friends drink Starbucks", and "there is no X in espresso". It was terrible - it was so cheese ball. But I fell in love with the culture, the friendliness. Guys would come in with air pots and just have someone make them a whole air pot and they would walk out.
Probably the moment that I fell in love with coffee - truly fell in love with coffee - was when I roasted my first batch of coffee and I held it in my arms, then walked it down to the place where I was going to deliver for consumption. The smell of early morning - six or seven - it's cool outside, there's a mist, that smell of chocolate and roasted nuts - how coffee smells - you smell like it, you reek of it - but it's like an intoxicating smell. Some people don't like it, but I love it. Just watching the coffee is just so cathartic, so relaxing, so beautiful - to roast coffee. There's nothing quite like it. That's when I fell in love with coffee.
How did you become a barista?
Not easy. Because when I wanted to be a barista, and I say this with all the love in my heart, DFW is the slowest stepchild in the family when it comes to culture. We watched the east coast and we watched the west coast - we were the last ones to do anything from ten years ago - and Texas does not like change. But anyway, I was roasting coffee for almost a year at that point. I had been trying to get a job as a barista - and couldn't - because there was nowhere hiring in Denton. There was no where to work. So, I heard that some of my friends were working in Dallas at a place called Pearl Cup. Pearl Cup was... it served terrible coffee. But that's the stuff that I learned to really to make espresso on.
So, I had to be there by 6am - learn how to make espresso - learn how to make a cappuccino - I was terrible, I was terrible. I mean, the quality control at that bar - it was not meant to be a quality bar - it was meant to, I mean... we did $3000 - a coffee shop did $3000 on a Sunday, selling ginormous lattes with sweetened condensed milk and they called it the "Pearl Cup Latte". And if anybody asked us what it was we'd have to answer "unicorn blood". I know what unicorn blood tastes like - and apparently Voldemort likes it? I don't know.
So yeah, I had that job for a month and a half. Because I was roasting coffee, and I brought it up, I was trying it and cupping it at the shop. That was kind of common to do, people would bring all different kinds of coffee - I know you've seen how much coffee we have at the bar off and on - but I was cupping it on the bar, and there was no one there. Then someone came in, and they knew me, so I was like "hey, do you want to taste this?". Somebody tweeted that I had Bookish Coffee at Pearl Cup Coffee. I was fired the next day. And that was really, uh, it sucked. That really sucked.
It was five or six months before I got another coffee job. Then I got a job at a place in Austin Ranch called Lone Star. And then, within a couple months, the turn over was so ridiculous, I became a manager. So I did that for about eight months.
What are your top three coffee roasters?
I'd probably have to say: Tim Wendelboe, Ritual, and Drop Coffee would be my top three. I think Counter Culture would be around there somewhere, just because I love how they develop countries' roasting programs. But Ritual has really sweet coffees, like all of their coffees, and Heart Coffee would be up there too.
To me, there's two different forms of roasting - there's a really super sweet, "ooo, this is like yummy and sweet coffee" - and then there's deeply complex coffee. I feel like Tim Wendelboe and Drop, out of Scandinavia, they do fantastically complex cups of coffee, some of the best cups I've ever had. But Ritual and Heart - they do very sweet, sweeter cups of coffee - but they're really distinct, they're not very complex. They're like - here's three flavors, and they're all there. I really like kind of a both/and. Sometimes you just want to listen to the pops, to the hits - and sometimes you like listening to the b-sides and the rarities.
What's your favorite coffee drink?
To be perfectly honest, it depends. I think there is something truly magical about espresso. Truly, truly, truly magical. When a shot is good, there are very few things I think that could compete. And that's saying something, because I never liked espresso. A pour over can be really, really good, but there's something about espresso that's just like a tiny confection. You think about it and it's gone. So, I would say probably an espresso or some brewed cup of coffee, that would be stellar. I feel like those are my two options - but, I think espresso.
I like seeing the intricacies of something that you would not look at ordinarily as an intricate thing. Humble things always attract my attention. There's something very humble about an espresso shot, you know? No latte art. I could care less about latte art. I do it because somebody once said latte art is a promise of something good underneath. That's not always true either. There are many baristas I know that know how to pour tulips and rosettas that could compete nationally but the coffee sucks. I think that's part of my no BS roasting background, that I really don't care about public perception. I care that you feel like you got something really good and that you know that I love you by the end of that interaction.
In the last part of these interviews, I ask the barista to make me their favorite drink. Wade pulled a shot of what Cultivar had for espresso that day - which was their Ethiopia Yirgz. Unsurprisingly, it was delicious. Later, Wade!
Brad Koehn has been tangled up in Denton in one way or another for most of his life. He's a chronic daydreamer who enjoys making interesting things, making people laugh, making up stories, and making friends. His patient wife supports his wild heart and their two wild boys (4 & 7) who are currently singing at the top of their lungs or saving Denton from Ninja Storm Troopers. He dabbles in tech, music, writing, photography, filmmaking, coffee, and tacos.