North Canaan's Ilse coffee brewers
Owners Rebecca Grossman, left, and Lucas Smith of Ilse Coffee in North Canaan, Conn. 
Photo by Natalia Zukerman

North Canaan's Ilse coffee brewers

A very unique coffee experience is brewing at the Ilse coffeeshop on Railroad Street in North Canaan, Connecticut, in the old location of Jim’s Garage. 

The light-filled and airy space is a testament to the dedication of its founders, Rebecca Grossman and Lucas Smith. About five years ago, Smith, while working at Provisions, the café at the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, encountered a coffee that forever changed his perspective on the beverage.

“Until then,” Smith explained, “coffee was just this harsh, bitter thing they put milk and sugar in just for caffeine. And then I had a cup of coffee that tasted kind of floral and tea-like, and it just blew my mind. I never knew coffee could taste like that. And then that was it.”

Originally from the Berkshires, Grossman was home on vacation from Holyoke when she and Smith met at the White Hart. Through Grossman, Smith connected with a coffee roasting company near her school and found himself learning the art of coffee roasting and the intricacies of the coffee world. When Grossman graduated, the couple moved back to Smith’s hometown of Westport, Connecticut, to help his mother open a restaurant in nearby Fairfield.

There, they rented a roasting machine and started their company by buying coffee, paper bags, and a few stickers. “We were working full-time at his mom’s restaurant,” said Grossman. “We barely had a day off, so we would work after hours. It was just the two of us for the first maybe two and a half years of the business.”

“We had $1,000 and a credit card,” laughed Smith.

“It was pretty naïve, honestly,” added Grossman. “I think most people start companies with a lot more money than we did. We just kind of went for it.”

They went for it, and it began to work for them. Soon, Grossman and Smith moved back to Canaan and opened Ilse, named after Smith’s grandmother. “This is kind of where the journey started,” Grossman mused, “so it’s a very cool coming home.”

They started out with mostly a wholesale, direct-to-consumer business on their website, opening the cafe space just eight months ago. They transformed the old garage into a bright and cozy spot for coffee lovers, an open concept space that showcases their entire production. This transparency also translates to their inspiring mission of quality and sustainability.

Their approach is both global and personal, sourcing beans from countries such as Ethiopia, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Kenya and Rwanda. Their focus is on supporting small farmers by establishing a practice of buying entire harvests. Grossman explained: “We buy from producers, and we really commit to them, which is a super important thing. We’ll buy their coffee every harvest.”

Smith added: “Coffee farmers have one harvest a year, sometimes two. We’ve been in business for five years, and there’s a number of producers that we’ve been working with for all of those five years, which is really cool.”

Meeting and creating sustainable relationships with the coffee producers is a goal of their business. Smith said, “Our whole focus is really working to establish connections and relationships with all the countries we source.” They explain that this connection has been easier in some countries than others. The couple was able to travel to Colombia last January, and plans to visit every year. “Other countries, it’s a little bit harder to establish relationships,” said Smith, “but it’s a goal for us to have those relationships everywhere that we source.”

The couple has a clear passion for coffee, which extends to their passion for education. Each bag of coffee that they sell has the origin story on the back, showcasing the name of the grower and the farm. Everything from the altitude to the variety of the seed itself to the flavor profile is listed on the bag. There’s also a cost breakdown, which adds to the transparent approach.

“We get asked all the time if our coffee is fair-trade, and we’re actually paying far above fair trade,” Smith explained. “Fair trade is a certification that provides the producer X amount above the stock market price for coffee. And so, we don’t trade coffee based on the stock market. At any given time, we’re paying usually about 200% above the fair-trade price for our coffee. So, you can look at any of our bags, you just turn it on the back, and you can see how much the producer got paid and how much we paid for the coffee.”

Grossman added: “A lot of the farmers that we’re buying from are in producer-led initiatives. So the producers are setting the price, which is super important.”

Grossman and Smith’s business practices are unique, and so too is their roasting style, which they describe as influenced by Nordic methods. There is a focus on bringing out the natural flavors, showcasing the coffee’s inherent qualities. Their favorite, preferred and recommended brewing method is a manual brew method using a Hario V60 pour-over that they sell in their shop. It brings out the flavors and “makes a really nice, clear cup,” said Grossman.

There’s a bit more construction planned in the space to have it “exactly like we want it,” said Smith, but once the renovation is complete, the couple wants to host events and coffee tastings, home brewing classes, and a “seed to cup” course. Said Smith, “Most people don’t even know that coffee’s a seed of a fruit. It’s not a bean.” He almost yells with wonder, “It’s a seed!”

Grossman added to his enthusiasm: “It’s an agricultural, seasonal product, grown in a fruit. Our coffee is seasonal and rotates throughout the year. I don’t think people are aware of that.” She said, “I know I certainly wasn’t before I got into coffee.”

Smith and Grossman’s story is one of passion, dedication, and a deep respect for coffee and the people who grow it. Starting with minimal resources, they’re excited to be able to grow alongside the small and supportive community of specialty coffee roasters in the area. “There’ve been hard moments, but it’s been amazing,” said Grossman. Smith added: “When we started the company, our big thing was helping people experience how great coffee can be. So if people actually want to see coffee in a different perspective rather than the way that they know it, then I think this would be a good place to come and check out.”

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