Grady Saunders, founder, and president of Heritage Coffee once said “A freshly brewed cup of coffee can warm a cold morning, cure the afternoon blahs, and provide a happy ending to a wonderful dinner. Friendships are nurtured over coffee, business deals are consummated to the sound of clinking cups and life is revitalized.”
And so it was for us on a chilly morning strolling through downtown Juneau, Alaska’s scenic capital city. Buildings surrounding us appear to cling to a mountainside. Old storefronts and slanted houses all seem held together by a network of staircases. And the waterfront is bustling with cruise ships, fishing boats and floatplanes buzzing in and out of the harbor.
A light fog had settled over the town accompanied by intermittent raindrops, so it seemed a good cup of coffee was what we needed to take away the morning chill. One of the locals dressed in a flannel shirt and well-worn jeans tucked into XTRATUF (pronounced extra tough) rubber boots that all Alaskans wear recommended Heritage.
Heritage Coffee Roasting Company is Juneau’s hometown roaster and the oldest privately-owned coffee roasting company in Alaska. The coffee company was established in 1974 after the owner, a huge coffee aficionado from San Francisco, had been traveling the world on a coffee tasting mission.
When he arrived in Juneau, he couldn’t find one place that brewed a good cup of java. He then decided to open his first coffee shop, originally called Quaffs Coffee & Tea.
Saunders contacted Alfred Peet from Peet’s Coffee hoping the company could ship its coffee from California to Juneau. Mr. Peet refused, reasoning the coffee would not be fresh enough shipped all the way from the Golden State. He did, however, suggest Saunders contact a small, little-known at the time coffee company in Seattle. That company just happened to be Starbucks.
Heritage eventually became one of Starbucks’ largest wholesale customers, but it wasn’t long before Jerry Baldwin, one of Starbucks’ original founders, suggested that Heritage should start roasting their own coffees.
The company had already changed their name to Heritage and in the spring of 1982, Saunders purchased a roaster manufactured in Germany and began the process of roasting their own beans. It didn’t take long for residents and visitors to follow the coffee aromas straight to Heritage cafes. Excitedly, Saunders found out this was the exact roaster that Starbucks had been using for roasting their own beans.
In 2006, Heritage purchased a larger German 1946 vintage Probat to keep up with the demand for coffees in their own cafes, and on the wholesale side to other businesses and cafes throughout Alaska. But, more importantly, Saunders found that the European drum style roasting produced coffees with even more intense character and depth.
Coffee beans are purchased from some of the best coffee growing regions in Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Kenya. Not only is Heritage committed to obtaining the highest quality beans, but each of the growers must support sustainable practices regarding the environment and have a strong commitment to taking care of its workers. This fits right in with the Juneau philosophy where residents proudly call themselves the “environmental and social conscience of Alaska”.
Despite the fact that Heritage has expanded to seven locations throughout Juneau, a visit to its location on Front Street was an absolute joyful experience. Friendly, efficient baristas with smiles on their faces treat each customer like a VIP while creating handcrafted espressos, cappuccinos, mochas and other coffee offerings.
Heritage manager Heather Schimanski-Lee has been with this location since it opened in March 2015. We wanted to try their best-seller, the Black Wolf Blend, a light roast, yet the most caffeinated of their coffees. A bold, smooth taste, this coffee goes down really easy. The coffee blend honors a local legend named Romeo – a lone yet social black wolf who roamed the area’s Mendenhall Valley for years.
For dark roast lovers, Black Gold is heavy-bodied, yet spicy with hints of sweetness and is so-named for the dark Alaska nights. Heather says with a wink that Black Gold is a perfect accompaniment to dark chocolate-covered French vanilla ice cream for one incredible dessert delight.
The Front Street location serves breakfast from its full-service kitchen and sandwiches for the lunch crowd. And for anyone in need of a gelato fix on a warmer day, this Heritage café has that too. Coffees and coffee-related merchandise can be purchased in the retail section of the café as well as on their website.
The definition of heritage is something handed down from the past, as a tradition, with pride and honor. Grady Saunders can certainly be proud of bringing to Alaska’s enchantingly beautiful capital city the wonderful tradition of outstanding quality coffee. What a perfect fit for a cool, rainy, overcast day.
Further reading about Heritage Coffee and Alaska:
Photos and article by Noreen L Kompanik