Perking Up Memphis
J. Brooks Premium Coffee Raosters: “We want to be the premier coffee of the Mid-South.”
John Pitman savors the Spirit of Memphis from a very stylish coffee mug.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
John Pitman is the “J” of the locally based J. Brooks Premium Coffee Roasters. He’s in charge of the roasting. The “Brooks” of the operation is Ben Bondurant, who works the business side and prefers to remain behind-the-scenes.
Pitman, a father of five who lives in Bartlett, grew up in upstate New York in what can best be described as a Maxwell House house. He came to the coffee trade by chance. Pitman is a minister with two masters degrees in theology. He had spent years working in South Africa when a friend, a coffee distributor, asked him to work as a scout at a trade show.
“I didn’t know the first thing about coffee,” Pitman says. “I had a blast. It was a life-changing event.”
This was in the mid-2000s, so it’s fair to say that Pitman, 48, is something of a late bloomer when it comes to joe. That trade show led to bean classification classes and eventually to Ugly Mug, the Memphis-based coffee company. Shortly after Lambert’s Coffee Co. bought Ugly Mug in 2009, Pitman left to do consulting work. He then founded J. Brooks with Bondurant in 2010.
J. Brooks uses two domestic distributors to get their specialty-grade, organic beans — about 3,000 pounds per month — that are sourced from all around the world. The company headquarters is located at the Apple Tree Center in Memphis, where Pitman works 12-hour days roasting beans in small batches, carefully calibrating heat and time to accentuate a particular bean’s flavor characteristics. The beans are then packaged into blends designed around a number of factors, including acidity and body.
The company currently offers 15 coffees in light, medium, and dark roasts as well as espressos and decaffeinated coffees. The J. Brooks coffees are available online and in many area stores, including Miss Cordelia’s, Fresh Market, Whole Foods, and City Market. They provide coffees for area offices, and several restaurants serve their coffees as well. J. Brooks also creates special blends for businesses, such as Gnome Sweet Gnome served at Muddy’s Bake Shop.
Pitman says that J. Brooks was started just as a cultural wave was forming in the area. Restaurants like Restaurant Iris and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen raised expectations. “We wanted to be part of the wave, not jump on it,” he says.
But, at the same time, Memphis is not exactly Seattle when it comes to coffee consumption. The Spirit of Memphis, J. Brooks’ second-best-seller, was created as a gateway brew of sorts to introduce folks to what coffee can be. It’s a medium-light roast, chosen specifically to reflect the tastes of the city’s population, with a blend of beans from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It makes a rich cup of coffee that is brisk and fruity — and not too jarringly different from what people are used to around these parts. “It was designed on purpose as an obvious leap up in quality,” says Pitman.
Other coffees in J. Brooks’ arsenal are Onyx, a dark blend and the company’s number-one seller; True North, a medium roast named in a nod to the founders’ Christian values; and Morning Mercy, a light roast for easing people into their day.
Pitman says that J. Brooks is in “cruising altitude,” that they want to grow the brand organically but not too aggressively.
The goal for J. Brooks is simple, Pitman says: “We want to be the premier coffee of the Mid-South. It’s not hype. There really is a difference.”