From Bean to Brew: Small Batch Roaster Handlebar Coffee in Santa Barbara

Maker Tour

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Who: Aaron Olson and Kim Anderson
What: Handlebar Coffee
Where: Santa Barbara, California

It's no accident former competitive cyclists Aaron Olson and Kim Andersen are running a wonderful micro roaster in Santa Barbara: they're used to training hard, crazy physical demands, and diehard determination. In fact, the qualities that made them star athletes have helped turn them into the star small business owners of Handlebar Coffee.

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While traveling the world on their bikes and taking coffee breaks at fabulous cafes, Aaron and Kim got bitten by the caffeinated bug. (Once you have a superior cup of coffee, it's hard to go back to anything mediocre!) When the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, Aaron was without a cycling contract, as many pro athletes were at the same time, so he and Kim decided to turn their attentions to coffee full time. They bought the best roaster they could (a barely-used Probat made in Germany) and began to experiment in their garage. After a year of testing and barista school at the American Barista and Coffee School in Portland, Oregon, they found a sliver of a space in between several other food businesses on a historic corner in Santa Barbara, and in 2011, Handlebar Coffee was born.

The roast at Handlebar shifts with bean variety and point of origin. Overall, the coffees are light in style, showcasing the bean's flavor beautifully. The shop has an unpretentious, happy quality with tons of natural light and a mile long line most times of day. The staff here is friendly and the coffees are served alongside locally-made pastries, some of which are vegan and gluten free.

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Handlebar Coffee operates in 450 square feet of a historic building in Santa Barbara. The space is streamlined and efficient, it's a jewel box of a shop, with tons of natural light flooding in and plentiful outdoor seating. The outdoor alley shares seating with a great deli next door, so customers can have lunch and grab a coffee and interact with each other and neighbors. The alley is communal and has that laid-back European feel.

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Now that they've been open for two years, Aaron and Kim have learned what works and doesn't work for them with their business and have made goals to achieve the good stuff. This couple aims to grow deeper in their business and have a more balanced life, rather than expand in a more traditional sense. After traveling the world through cycling competitively, it was strange to dig into one project (and one city!) for the coffee operation. Ultimately, they'd love to get back to traveling to actually meet the farmers who grow much of their coffee. Their aim in doing this is yes, adventuring again, but also to enrich their knowledge of their product and continue to evolve an even higher quality cup of joe.

Handlebar wants to grow smarter, not bigger —such a refreshing way of operating! Their coffee beans are available via their website, in shop and at one other coffee shop, Caje, in Isla Vista. They plan to keep this scale, and enjoy the ride!

Visit the Online Shop → Handlebar Coffee

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Quick Questions for Aaron Olson

1. How do you usually enjoy your coffee? With breakfast? In the afternoon? Tell us about your daily coffee ritual.
Since opening our cafe/roastery, my coffee ritual has changed a lot. Usually I have a cup brewed via press pot (French press) in the morning. I typically try the espresso throughout the day to make sure it is where you want it. I'm hooked on Almond Milk Gibraltar's right now.

2. Do you have any advice for novice home coffee bean roaster?
My only advice would be, you have to pay a premium for good coffee. Sweet Maria's has exceptional coffees for the home roaster to choose from. Experiment, find out what roast level you like.

3. If you could have any two people over for a cup of coffee (dead or alive) who would they be? What would you make them?
Tough question, wow... Maybe the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. Both people I am intrigued by and like things they have done for humanity during/throughout their lives. A fresh pot of coffee is in order, lots of questions and lots to learn from them.

4. What is the best piece of advice you've received about running your own business?
Best advice: keep it small. We have a humble cafe, small in size, but hopefully one in which quality and customer service are at the top of the list. Rent is expensive. We are fortunate to have so much outdoor seating. Keeping overhead low, especially in the beginning, was great advice.

5. What is the one thing you can't live without?
One person I can't live without, along with my family, is my girlfriend of 12 years Kim. She is awesome. So fortunate to have her in my life. Best friend.

Thanks, Aaron!

(Images: Leela Cyd)

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