MARQUETTE – The French Revolution started in a coffee shop, as owner and founder of Dead River Coffee Theo McCracken pointed out.
“Coffee has changed the world significantly,” McCracken explained. He outlined a brief history of the world coffee trade, illustrating with the large map that hangs above freshly-roasted beans in his shop on Baraga Avenue.
Coffee is actually a fruit that began as a food source before 1200 A.D., growing wild in the region where Yemen and Ethiopia are now, he said. Coffee grew in popularity over the centuries, as it was passed, often in secrecy and scandal, to different regions around the world. The red berry contains an almond-like pit containing two green seeds – the precursor to the roasted coffee bean many have come to know so well.
“I wanted to build a coffee shop that had a sense of history in this visually rich environment,” McCracken said.
And that sense of history applies to coffee, but also to the people that frequent Dead River, who, over the years, have brought eclectic trinkets to add to McCracken’s own, which are displayed around the shop.
An old shotgun, wooden antique skis, dolls and toys, books, treasures and other oddities are part of the unique ambiance. Sometimes people bring stuff because they have to leave town, and sometimes, for no particular reason.
“Things just started to show up,” McCracken smiled. “It’s become kind of a community project to make this place interesting.”
Regulars play cards, knit, read, use the internet, eat homemade pie, discuss local goings-on and, of course, drink coffee.
Hilary Metcalf, a Marquette resident originally from Ireland, has been a regular at Dead River Coffee for 10 years, she said. She even met her husband there.
“Theo. Coffee. And the atmosphere,” she said, when asked what the draw is. “Probably in that order.”
Joe and Rita Bray of San Antonio, Texas come to the northern Midwest every year around this time for Joe’s high school reunion and to visit Rita’s sister, Carolyn Snyder, and her husband Ken in Marquette. The four of them were catching up with McCracken on Wednesday, and Ken remembered how Dead River became a destination for them during these annual visits.
“Joe and I just sat here one day and watched all the local color,” Ken Snyder said. “To people watch, this is a good spot.”
Rita said it’s the character of it.
“It’s one-of-a-kind,” she explained, “with the roaster right in the coffee shop.”
Joe said it’s not like Starbuck’s and other chains, because it’s actually a good representation of the town.
“And you get a really good cup of coffee,” Rita added.
Born in Bay City, Mich., McCracken grew up near Ann Arbor and came to Marquette in 2000. He started Dead River on Washington Street, then moved to the new store at 119 West Baraga Avenue in 2008.
Before that, he served in the Korean War from 1971 to ’74. He worked for a coffee roaster in the late ’70s and realized it was his passion, but didn’t have the resources to start a coffee shop. So he became an accountant for General Motors, taught art at the Ann Arbor Arts Cooperative while attending Eastern Michigan University, painted houses, was a carpenter and consulted in opening coffee shops, among other odd jobs, he said. He eventually decided on Marquette as the place to establish his shop.
“Roasting, buying, selecting beans and then having some creative control over them, for me, is the most exciting part of the business,” McCracken said.
Starting in 1978 in Cleveland, Ohio, McCracken studied with coffee roaster Carl Jones – 1976 founder of the first Arabica cafe – who was at the time studying with Joel Schapira, a coffee roaster in Greenwich Village in New York City and author of “The Book of Coffee and Tea,” the first gourmet book of its kind.
“I learned this as transformational alchemy,” McCracken said. “My teacher was a spiritualist, a Sufi. So we talked about things differently.”
For instance, McCracken said that by roasting coffee and doing it consciously, he is sharing some of his spirit with the beans and eventually, the coffee drinker.
“Every day, I go through a mental checklist,” he said. “I spend a little time with myself, and then I kind of set myself aside. It’s no longer about me and whatever problems I’ve got going on. ‘Bills are due – I gotta sell this cup of coffee’ is not the kind of attitude you want to have, not if quality is your goal.”
McCracken said it’s not difficult to roast coffee; it’s difficult to learn what’s possible.
“If you can cook a hamburger, you can roast coffee,” he said. “But to learn what’s possible to do to the beans with this machine – how to move the flavor this way and that – is where the artistry is.”
Marquette native Sarah Reynolds has worked at Dead River for just over a year, but has been a barista for five, receiving formal barista training at the Muncie Alliance Church in Muncie, Ind., where the church ran a specialty coffee shop and internship program.
“Interestingly, I worked for a coffee roaster for three years and I never learned how to roast,” she said. It was partly because she was the only barista trainer and was too busy, but also just out of preference.
“I think, too, there’s different personalities with roasting and being a barista,” she said. “I think people are more naturally happy in one role or the other. I really love serving coffee; I really love being behind a bar and interacting with the community and just getting to know someone over coffee or through their order. And being a roaster has a little bit more solitude to it.”
Reynolds, a graphic design major at Northern Michigan University, has competed in four World Latte Art Open competitions, which take place at Coffee Fest trade shows around the country. She has won local competitions and placed in regional ones, but, she said, the competition is “pretty stiff.” She studied the current school of thought known as Third Wave Coffee, which focuses on precision and quality in crafting drinks.
Reynolds said latte art – a trend that involves creating a design on the surface of a latte by manipulating the flow of milk on top of espresso – is more of a practice than an art. In fact, she said it can be a “cheap trick” and not always an indicator of quality coffee as it once was in the industry. But she enjoys sharing a beautiful product with customers.
“I always tell people you don’t have to have an artistic bone in your body to pour latte art because it really is a mechanical process,” she said. “But, I don’t know, there’s some part of, I think, my heart that goes into it, because I like creating something that’s aesthetically pleasing. It’s really, really satisfying to put down a beautifully poured cappuccino in front of someone and see that they’re like, ‘Wow, you really care about coffee – you really care about me. You care about me having a cup of coffee that tastes beautiful and looks beautiful.'”
She said the shop has connected her to the community in a very rewarding way, and that working with McCracken has been “wonderful.”
“Theo’s been one of the most influential people in my life in the last year,” Reynolds said. “(He’s) not quite a father figure, but sometimes (he is)…He’s there as a friend, he’s there as a companion, a boss…He’s just sort of a lot of roles in a lot of people’s lives. He really means a lot to me.”
McCracken said this community means a lot to him, as well.
“I think Marquette is the longest I’ve lived any place in my life,” McCracken said. “And I’m happier here than I’ve ever been anywhere else. I really worried about coming up here and having this place, because it’s such a small town. And yet I feel like I am surrounded by friends. It’s just a wonderful place to do business.”
Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is email@example.com.