WILMINGTON — There’s a sweet spot to making the perfect coffee, according to home-roaster Seth Keeler. He’s seemingly found it after seven years of playing around with different beans, temperatures and times. Though he has been making coffee for friends and neighbors since 2014 — first out of his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., and then after he moved to Wilmington, N.C., in 2016 — starting Sunday, Keeler will be taking his former Wilmington Roastery to its largest platform yet. The artisanal brand New Town Roastery will launch in The Cargo District.
The coffee shop, located beside Alcove Beer Garden off 16th Street on Hutchinson Lane, will open as a drive-thru and walk-up container at the former Outpost Coffee. The partnership comes with Keeler and longtime friend Shane Faulkner, who opened The Cargo District’s distillery End of Days in February 2020, as well as Billy Batten of Alcove Beer Garden and Leslie Smith of LS Smith, which built out the district of shipping container startups and other businesses.
Faulkner, a good friend of Keeler, began selling the coffee online and at the distillery last year. To be fair, though, the End of Days founder was a consumer of Wilmington Roastery first.
“I have been drinking this one particular roast for a very long time,” Faulkner said. “It is just unbelievable — the quality. I can’t drink any other kind of coffee. I told Seth, ‘Man, we got to do something with this.’”
Faulkner’s brew of choice was an Ethiopian medium roast, which at New Town will be called “Start of Days.” It’s a play on the obvious End of Days name, as well as the idea of beginning the day with a cup of joe, not to mention, according to Keeler, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.
“It’s where the coffee plant originated,” he informed.
Faulkner began selling 15 to 20 pounds of Keeler’s coffee a week through End of Days and its e-commerce site last year. Despite having launched a new distillery and making hand sanitizer at the height of Covid, Faulkner said he felt compelled to take on the pet project because of his love for the product — something he was sure others would gravitate toward.
His hunch proved right. The coffee garnered a cult following. “One guy has come in every week for a year to buy it,” Faulkner said.
Inventory would run out consistently for the $13 bags. Keeler would roast the beans upon each order so coffee would arrive at the consumer’s door within three days. Keeler said it’s the best way to drink coffee: from beans ground close to roasting time. At New Town he said he plans on roasting them once a week (he has a full-time job in an orthodontics lab) to provide optimal freshness upon each New Town sip.
“So when you go to the store and buy coffee off the shelf, you typically have no idea when that was roasted,” he said. “They’ve got ridiculous expiration dates — like, you know, drink before 2025 — it’s preposterous. After a few months, even coffee starts losing its flavor, especially once you grind it. It’s basically dying on a shelf.”
Start of Days is one of five varieties that will be offered at New Town Roastery. The medium roast contains hints of blueberries and apricot, Keeler explained, while Little Blue House is Guatemalan with nutty, chocolatey notes. A Shot in the Dark is an espresso blend made from beans from Brazil, Nicaragua and Ethiopia, and there is a Colombian decaf, Daydream Believer, Keeler describes as “silky — perfect for an espresso in the afternoon when you don’t want the caffeine.” Dark Matter is the darkest roast, with overtones of brown sugar, walnuts and chocolate.
Keeler compares the roasting process to finding the sweet spot of scoring a homerun in baseball. A batter can strike the ball at the base or tip of the bat, and it may feel too forceful or end in a foul ball. When hit at the perfect narrow area of the bat, it’s effortless and soars.
“Finding the sweet spot is the trick — that’s the magic of roasting too,” Keeler said.
“Ethiopian coffee might be bright and citrusy and floral at a lighter roast,” he continued, “but then you roast it a little darker and the chocolate tones come out. Then you go darker still and it just gets more complex with layers. . . . Every coffee has a sweet spot where it just shines. It’s like, that’s what that coffee is supposed to be.”
From an air popper to a cargo container
Keeler started toying around with coffee first on an air popper, normally used for popcorn, and has upgraded by converting a gas grill into a roaster. At New Town, he will be using a German-brand coffee roaster, Deidrich. Faulkner said it’s compact enough to fit into a cargo container, which will be built as part of the current Outpost space.
“It produces small-batch coffee that is consistent and we can do maybe 25 pounds at a time,” Faulkner said. “I want it to be very homegrown. I want to produce something someone can rely on — and, with anything small batch, you’re going to have some little nuances and variances to it that make it better.”
He’s already seen it create customer loyalty in the stills at End of Days, where gin, rum and vodka is made. The same can be said for the handcrafted tonic and bitters that Keeler also has been making for the distillery in the last year. Faulkner and Keeler want that heightened level of craftsmanship in the syrups used at New Town. End of Days will be launching a new menu this week featuring some of the same syrups shared between the locations.
“We have a small distillation, so I can actually take lavender and create a simple syrup to just spritz on an espresso,” Faulkner described. “Or we can do an orange liqueur without alcohol to splash in a latte. I have distilled elderflower to make a St. Germain without alcohol. I have rose hips, just to get like a nice floral on top of an espresso. We have one of the most creative teams. This is going to be the cocktail of coffee.”
For Keeler, he prefers his cup made simply: no cream, no sugar.
“My favorite way to actually brew a coffee is an Americano of all things: double shot of espresso with, like, four to six ounces of hot water,” Keeler said. “I think that really highlights the flavor of the coffee — better than any other brew method I’ve noticed.”
Faulkner will expand the New Town menu into specialty teas, iced and hot, as well as smoothies. He also wants to reach out to local bakeries and restaurants to serve quick grab-and-go breakfast items, like croissants, sandwiches, pastries, and donuts.
“As we have space, we also have the capabilities to increase the production,” he said.
First things first, Faulkner will expand New Town’s hours next week. The drive-thru will open at 6 a.m. rather than 7 a.m., specifically to catch the hospital’s shift change. “This is the thoroughfare,” he said, referring to the shop’s location on 16th and Queen, a mile from New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
Moreover, New Town was designed as a franchisable concept — a business-and-container all in one. The New Town name essentially represents “anytown USA.”
“So if you want to duplicate this process with the cafe and the roastery, we’ve got the flagship here,” Faulkner said. “We create the container, it’s got the roastery inside, and we ship it over.”
Wilmington’s cargo container will be painted black with an overlay of the Wilmington area map and New Town logo on it. “We are going to put a call out for artists soon to paint the mural,” Faulkner said.
The container will consist of all windows on one side so consumers can watch and smell the roasting process, as well as see the bagging production. “Then they can get it while it’s still warm in the bag,” Faulkner said.
“Coffee just has so much variety,” Keeler noted. “It’s very under-appreciated, but we’ve got a really good — I don’t know what you’d call it — a ‘boutique’ coffee scene starting here.”
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