White Bear Lake native Sam Kjellberg and Madison’s Nate Broadbridge founded SK Coffee in the fall of 2018. Since the Twin Cities were already saturated with fantastic cafes, they decided to focus on single-origin coffee subscriptions instead.
Every Monday and Thursday, Kjellberg hops behind his “super manual” San Franciscan SF-25 roaster to transform hauls of ethically sourced green beans from Caravela Coffee, De la Gente, and Minneapolis’ own Cafe Imports into selections he then categorizes as smooth, blood, sweet, or unique. Each 12-ounce bag costs $15 (plus shipping) and subscribers can choose a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly delivery. The grind is also customizable: Your options are whole bean, medium ground, or fine ground.
One week a subscriber might receive a sweet peaberry from Guatemala with notes of almond fudge; another it’s a sun-dried Ethiopian with a hint of blueberry and a quirky tea-like quality. À la carte orders are also available and include limited one-offs like an Oaxaca roast with underpinnings of butter and marzipan.
SK runs a VIP membership program, too, for $45 per year, likening it to a “wine club for coffee enthusiasts.” The program grants members special access to exclusive coffees with a 10 percent discount, plus free shipping.
“I love coffee as an experience,” says Kjellberg. “When somebody puts you on their kitchen counter, they trust you to be part of their daily life, part of something sacred to everybody’s morning ritual. That is an amazing place and position to be in.”
Curious about SK’s early days and long-term outlook, we reached out to Kjellberg for more insights and wound up covering everything from the geekery of roasting techniques to his past life as a classically trained conductor.
How did you get into specialty coffee?
It started almost 10 years ago, when I worked at Glacier National Park. It was the first time I ever visited a roastery and my first experience with baristas who took care of their process. I also worked a few shifts at the lodge’s coffee kiosk, and got to know a world-class barista from L.A. who could pull a mean shot. He taught me a lot.
Fast forward to when I moved out to Boston and taught an undergraduate ear-training course at 8 a.m. three days a week. I remember buying whole beans from a local specialty coffee shop. (At the time, they carried Counter Culture.) Then I discovered George Howell Coffee, and the rest is history. Its perspective on sourcing, roasting, and presentation had an immense influence on me. Additionally, from a financial perspective, it was cheaper per cup for me to Chemex amazingly fresh coffee every morning than it was to buy crappy 7-Eleven coffee, which I was doing for a while…. You can get roughly 15 servings out of a $20 bag of coffee; that’s only $1.33 per cup!
I moved to Boston to study choral conducting at Boston University. I was away from Minneapolis for five years: two in Boston, studying and working; one in England, studying and performing; and two more in Boston, working and starting SK out of my apartment. Boston still has a special place in my heart.
What type of music do you play?
I have played every type of music you could think of — minus pop-country, I suppose. I was in a heavy metal band that played at The Quest; an indie-pop band that opened for OK Go; and I once was the tenor soloist in a quartet for a BBC Radio 3 broadcast with the CBSO Chorus and BBC Philharmonic.
Also, crazy story from when I was in the Birmingham Cathedral Choir and singing at St Paul’s Cathedral…. The one-and-only Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope of the Episcopalian Church of England, walked in during the processional!
Did it take you a while to learn how to roast coffee well?
It took about a year to get a good groove going. I started on a Whirley Pop, which helped me understand how the beans react to heat over time. Then I moved to the Huky 500, which is a cult machine made by Kuanho Li in Taiwan. You literally just email him, PayPal some money, and your roaster arrives at your door a little over a month later.
It sounds sketchy, but the community surrounding this roaster creates an amazing trust factor. I started selling coffee once I got the Huky, but could only roast one bag at a time. I could not keep up with demand while working a full-time and part-time job, so we upgraded to the Mill City 2kg. That allowed me to roast five bags at a time. But we actually just sold our Mill City 2kg and upgraded to a San Franciscan SF-25. I absolutely love it.
How would you describe your roasting style?
To get really technical, I roast each bean to a similar profile “shape” and try to accomplish a well-developed end product. There are three phases to a roast: the drying phase, the ramp up, and the development (Maillard reaction). I aim for the Maillard reaction to take up about 15 to 18 percent of the roast time from first crack. I believe this ensures full caramelization of the compounds needed for sweetness. We aim for sweetness because “bitter” is an integral part of the coffee profile in general; it’s actually its defense mechanism.
Was the reaction from that initial round of roasts what inspired you to pursue coffee full-time?
Absolutely. I loved seeing people enjoy an experience that I helped facilitate. I couldn’t describe it then, but I see the roaster position as a facilitator. We bring a community together around a compelling product. The producer is the maker, we as roasters translate, the barista presents it, and the consumer is part of a community of fandom and experience. All stages are equally important.
How did you meet Nate, and why did you decide to go into business together?
Nate is the husband of the sister of my college singing friend. We met when I was trying desperately to get out of the non-profit music world. I had already started the seedling of SK and wanted to learn more about how to properly run, build, and scale a business. I reached out to anybody that I had a connection to the consulting world. We talked for several weeks, he did his consulting schtick for SK, and we realized that our varied approaches and skills would make a great team to turn SK into something real. We’ve been partners ever since.
Why did you move back to Minnesota?
The ability to launch SK in a place less difficult than Boston — no offense, it’s just ungodly expensive — was a big factor. But my family is also here and I had been meaning to come back for a long time. My wife is from Massachusetts, so this was a big move for her, but it was the right time. My grandfather and mother were very sick when we moved in the fall of 2018, and both passed away within a year of us moving. It was a tragic but amazing experience to be home during those difficult times.
Why did you decide to categorize the roasts as smooth, bold, sweet, and unique, as opposed to focusing on bean origin?
We wanted a trusted way to bring people into the complex world of specialty coffee. Many specialty companies assume a lot of prior knowledge. The difficulty with origin categorization is that flavor profiles can be so dramatically different based on region, harvesting, and processing.
We drink coffee to taste it, so I thought flavor categorization would be the best way forward. My initial categories were fruity, floral, and chocolatey. But that already assumes a lot. So when listening to community members and customers we realized that people described coffee in three (or four) distinct ways: smooth, bold, sweet, and/or unique. Unique is sort of a catch-all, an attempt to highlight something interesting in the origin, variety, flavor, or process.
If you signed up for a weekly subscription, would you receive one bold, one smooth, one sweet and one unique bag over the course of a month?
Our subscription rotates you through the four flavor categories each shipment. Depending on our lineup, it is possible for somebody to get a completely new coffee every shipment. While we aim for more than 24 distinct coffees each year, we can’t always promise it; 52 distinct coffees a year is a slight reach for us right now.
What have been some of your favorite beans to work with this year and why?
I have two. One is the Colombian we have from Nariño and the Los Rosales collective, sourced from Caravela Coffee. It is just so rich, creamy, and fudgy. Every roast turns out superb. Another was a micro lot from the Democratic Republic of Congo, sourced from our local partners at Cafe Imports. This one was surprising — not the most pleasing coffee initially, but very complex, with lemon zest and bright citrus overtones and an effervescent base. It was interesting, and folks seemed to really enjoy it!
One honorable mention: a honey process from the Las Lajas micro-mill in Costa Rica. It had the most interesting sweetness — like a jalapeño pepper without the spice, although it did have a slight bite on the nose.
How do you decide what farms to work with?
We have three wonderful importing partnerships: Cafe Imports, Caravela Coffee, and De la Gente. From there, I am slowly building direct partnerships with farmers and producers in order to bring in much smaller, highly specialized lots. For example, we just got FedEx’ed a Geisha Red Honey and three lots of uniquely processed Tabi variety from our partner Nicolas Ocampo Maya and his team at Finca la Julia in Columbia. I hope to continue to grow both channels, as direct trade is good but not the only way it should be done. Buyers and importers are important for so many reasons.