Kevin Ashtari learned a couple things in the U.S. Navy: how to replace the explosives under the ejection seat of an EA-6B Prowler and how to roast a perfect batch of coffee beans on a gas-powered barbecue grill.
In 2001, Ashtari, a Naperville native, was an ejection-seat technician stationed on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. Until then his taste for coffee had been limited to Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and navy swill—which is to say, he didn't have much taste for it at all. But 30 miles south of Seattle, at Victrola Coffee Roasters—off-duty, of course—he had his first sip of joe brewed from freshly roasted beans.
"It was just an epiphany," he says. "One of those enlightening moments. Chocolatey and crisp and smooth all at the same time. It wasn't long at all before I said, 'Oh man, I have to do this.'"
He mail-ordered some green coffee beans and in the backyard of his house on the base tricked out a triple-burner grill with a high-speed rotisserie motor and a one-gallon stainless-steel drum. "It was probably six to eight months of just screwing everything up," he says. "A lot of coffee burnt and ruined." But eventually he got the hang of producing consistently even roasts, devoid of the lighter-colored "gingers," rogue beans that refuse to roast and will ruin a cup of java. He upgraded to a ten-gallon drum and began selling beans to friends, neighbors, and superiors. "The chiefs were tripping on it," he says. "The officers were big coffee fiends. Navy coffee's pretty crappy, usually."
In 2003 he was transferred to a base in Rota, on the southwestern coast of Spain. Beans were a little slower coming in the mail, and the hotter temperatures had him turning down the flame on the grill. Something else happened too—he and his wife, Corrine, fell in love with a pace that was easygoing, even on base. Blame the siesta: "It was a different navy at that station, just because it was in Spain," he says. "It was a totally different mentality. There would be a lot of days where stuff could just wait. We'd do our little daily inspection and we'd be out of there by noon. Other bases you'd be working all the time. The fact that the whole town shut down at two o'clock sort of rubbed off on the base."
Passing through San Francisco in 2005, Ashtari had his second epiphany: he took the opportunity to queue up for a cup at the Blue Bottle Coffee Company, famous for its $20,000 Japanese siphon bar, a coffeemaker that according to owner James Freeman in the New York Times makes a "sweeter, juicier" coffee with "kaleidoscopic" flavor and sometimes "a texture so light it's almost moussey." Most of the time, though, baristas at Blue Bottle prepare regular drip coffee manually in porcelain strainers lined with unbleached filters, grinding beans for each order, pouring hot water over them, and stirring until a perfectly extracted cup fills up below.
Manual drip is probably most primitive and inconvenient way to make a cup of coffee, but because it allows absolute control over water temperature, proportion, and extraction, in the right hands, it can be dangerously good.
"I was standing in line for like 20 minutes," says Ashtari, apparently not completely transformed by his relaxed assignment in Spain. "I was kind of pissed off, I guess. But it was worth it. The body that it creates and the clarity of the cup—that's the only way to get them."
Ashtari was discharged in 2006. He and Corinne shipped back to Seattle, where he bummed around for a few months trying to figure out what to do with himself. He just needed one more epiphany.
It would come that summer, when they moved to Chicago and he took a tour of Intelligentsia's Roasting Works on Fulton Street. Instead of being cowed by the scale of the operation, he was energized.
"I really didn't understand how a roastery works," he says. "It was really inspiring to see it. I was like, yeah, I can do this." Ashtari took three semesters' worth of business classes at UIC and then dropped out to start the Asado Coffee Company, opening the doors to his 15-seat Lakeview cafe in January.
In addition to espresso, cortado, cafe con leche, and iced coffee, Ashtari sells hot, made-to-order manual-drip coffee in just one size: 12 ounces. "That's all you need," he recently tweeted. Every step he takes to get it from raw green beans into that cup is small-scale, lovingly methodical, and hands-on. He invested in a custom-built 12-kilo roaster from the U.S. Roaster Corporation that takes up one corner of the space. "I was looking for a manual roaster without a computer," he says. Every day or two he roasts a new, small batch of Ugandan Bugisu beans, which he buys from the direct-trade co-op Crop to Cup. None of the roasted beans he sells in the cafe—or at the Downers Grove farmers' market on Saturdays—are more than two days old. Most times they're not more than a day old.
While the beans are tumbling in the drum, Ashtari makes coffee. For each order of drip, he grinds half a cup of beans somewhere between fine and coarse. He then wets an unbleached, conical Melitta filter, to wash away any potential paper taste that could pollute the coffee. He inserts the filter into a porcelain dripper, set on a rack above a cup, then pours in the coffee and a dollop of hot water, just under the boiling point. Grounds bloom up in the filter and he stirs, slowly adding more water, still stirring and scraping the grounds down from the side of the filter. In about two minutes he's made a bright, full-bodied, perfect cup of coffee, without a trace of bitterness.
Using this method, Ashtari only gets about seven cups out of each pound of beans, and though he charges two bucks a pop, the only reason he makes any money is that he's roasting his own. "That's not as high of a margin as the typical coffee industry likes to see," he says. "But it's all about that cup for us."