The story of Mighty Good, Ann Arbor’s coffee mainstay

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 5:34pm

Mighty Good Coffee

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Mazie Hyams/DAILY

 

“The voodoo priest and all his powders were as nothing compared to espresso, cappuccino, and mocha, which are stronger than all the religions of the world combined, and perhaps stronger than the human soul itself.”

—   Mark Helprin, “Memoir from Antproof Case” (1995)

Thanks be to coffee, the sweet life-sustaining stimulant. Wherever the coffee lover falls on the spectrum — addicthealth-freak or simply in it for the cat cafés — from cold brews to cortados, there is no beverage more ubiquitous or more versatile. The cornerstone of cafés elevates spirits and tiramisu, enables the nocturnal writer, electrifies the early bird and even gives the fidgeter something to do with their hands on a first date.

If there’s anything Ann Arborites love more than a Zingerman’s sandwich or football Saturdays, it’s coffee. Yet attempting to navigate the murky waters of Tree Town’s coffee culture is no easy feat. There’s a corporate chain lurking around most major street corners, a few hometown hotspots and plenty of student-ridden dives; and then there’s Mighty Good Coffee, with three locations scattered throughout the city.

Thanks be to coffee, but first, thanks be to goats.

850 C.E.: Legend has it that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia by a goat herder named Kaldi. Following a berry bush snack break, his herd was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever and he wanted in on the bliss. After sampling some berries, Kaldi, too, took a turn for the chipper. He then prescribed his energizing remedy to a narcoleptic monk who often dozed off during services. The monk got creative, brewing the berries into liquid form and soon swore by their pious properties. Word travelled fast, and the caffeinated creation quickly became a staple for the devout and pagan alike … and so it remains.

2006: Commercial photographer David Myers is searching for a break from his day-to-day life. After brainstorming a new career path and rekindling with a friend who had failed in his coffee venture, Myers finally decides to pursue the business of beans and brews. He purchases all of his friend’s equipment and begins roasting part time, eventually constructing a small starter café on Main Street in 2009. They soon outgrow the compact coffeehouse and decide to relocate to an open space just down the street. Fast forward a year, and Mighty Good Coffee is born.

Last week I strolled into the eclectic café’s Main Street location to talk all things really good and caffeinated with Myers. As current co-owner, a title he shares with longtime friend Jim Levinsohn, Myers spends most of his days focused on the coffee itself — where to buy and from whom. The Mighty Good philosophy is simple: sourcing quality coffee from people they’ve met and farms they’ve stood on.

“The cool thing about coffee is that I can talk to the person who’s growing the coffee,” Myers said. “I can talk to the person who’s drinking that same coffee, and everyone in between. It’s about the chain of people connected in the coffee industry, and that’s a worldwide connection of people.”

During his most recent business trip, Myers and a barista travelled to Colombia and visited 11 farms over a few days. The duo toured farms by Jeep, foot and even horseback for an inside look at coffee production.

“We go walk on farms and see how they’re producing and what their coffee tastes like,” Myers said. “We rely on trust when we buy our coffee.”

All of Mighty Good’s Colombian coffee is purchased from a partnership mill — an alliance between a U.S. company and a Colombian family — in the city of Jardín. According to Myers, the mill buys the best coffee from surrounding farms in the area. Along with the ever-popular Colombian brews, the café sources a majority of the beans from Guatemala and Sumatra.

“I spend a lot of time interacting and meeting with people from the broader coffee community around the U.S. and internationally because that’s what coffee does, and it’s more unique than a lot of other industries,” Myers said.

Two to three times per year, Myers attends events hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) where he educates newbies and connoisseurs alike on the craft. This April he’s set to teach roasting classes at the Atlanta, Ga. convention. Myers also routinely attends Barista Camps — events hosted four times per year, during which baristas from around the country exchange tricks of the trade.

“It’s just a collection of people driven to improve their craft,” Myers said. “Everyone from beginners driven to open coffee shops, or those sent by their companies.”

Along with fostering national and international relationships within the coffee community, the café maintains a focus on local involvement. Mighty Good was approached by both Blank Slate Creamery and the Ann Arbor Distillery, which are now its current collaborators — their brew gives Blank Slate’s coffee ice cream its essential flavor and their cold brew is crucial to the distillery’s coffee liqueur. Special collaborations within the city are Myers’s preferred projects.

“We focus on what we do and the law of attraction seems to work in our favor,” Myers said. “You can get a great cup of coffee in a lot of places in Ann Arbor and a lot of places around the country, but it’s about what kind of community we build and how we interact with our community that I think really drives what we are about.”  

Though Myers refrains from any sort of push-marketing, assuring me he’ll never “be out on Ann Arbor street-corners blowing the Mighty Good horn,” the coffee shop is wildly popular — particularly for its brown sugar sea salt latte, an original creation.

“We came up with it four or five years ago,” Myers said. “It’s probably the most successful drink we’ve ever come up with. We make that all from scratch; everything we make here is from scratch.”

Among their scratch creations are slow jams, butters and apple compote. Other gourmet innovations include their unique adaptations of nitro cold brew and continually trending toast bars — my personal recommendation is the brie and apple compote toast; upon first bite I was weak, in love, crying, etc.

“I’d been looking at toast bars for a long time, ever since I started reading about them in San Francisco,” Myers said. “We started it here maybe a year or two ago and it was slow to pick up, but it’s really popular now.”

Mighty Good aims to provide as many local ingredients as possible. Bread and Sunday pastries come from Detroit’s Avalon BakeryTasty Bakery provides gluten-free treats and the Pastry Peddler supplies their beloved baked goods. Despite offering a diverse food menu, Myers regards the noms as secondary to the coffee.

“We’re careful not to dilute that we’re a coffee shop and that food has to complement that, not be who we become,” he said.

During the coffee shop’s infancy and original menu development, they offered only brewed coffee and flavorless lattes. Myers refers to the sparse drink menu days as the cafe’s “purist track.” Eventually, a barista mixed flavors from scratch on her own time and assembled a book of her creations. She presented her ideas to Myers, the staff chose five of them to sample and eventually narrowed it down to a few, which remain behind the bar.

“Any development is the work of collective intelligence,” Myers said. “It’s a way better way to work when everyone’s involved.”

The team-inclusive menu amendments typically occur with the changing of the seasons. The honey lavender latte, for example, was a springtime addition.

“At the end of the day, we’re coffee snobs to ourselves, but not to our customers,” Myers said.

Besides the fueling function of caffeine, Myers stays motivated by the creativity of the coffee industry, one that harkens back his memories of art school. He missed the artistic craftsmanship that once seemed a relic of a bygone era, but rediscovered it through the medium of coffee.

“When I was in art school I was doing hands-on craftwork,” Myers said. “Computers took over and digital art took over. The pace of everything compressed, so your output was more important than the craft of what you were doing and I missed that. This is more like what I went to art school for — it’s a craft business.”

But when he was plotting a career shift 10 years ago, Myers couldn’t foresee Mighty Good’s trajectory. What were once spreadsheet business goals as part of a 10-year plan quickly became realities within a few years.

“Ten years ago I wasn’t thinking about any of this, I was just figuring out how to start a business that could turn into something,” he said. “Now that I have an opportunity to do something for the people who work here and people in the community. Now it’s, like, how can I create stable jobs for people? How can I maintain our core business and not screw that up? How can I do more community involvement?”

When he’s not pondering Mighty Good’s progress or future projects, Myers makes a point to stop in the Main Street shop whenever he can — occasionally making himself a specialty drink or sipping black coffee, his drink of choice. During my visit on Valentine’s Day, he was waiting on a heart-etched latte to Instagram.

Maybe it was his passion for the work talking, or the fact that his wife was working alongside him that day, but Myers divulged the best way to take your coffee.

“Just sharing it with someone. That’s a fantastic way to drink coffee every day.”