La Colombe confident in bottled, chilled coffee even if some devotees are not

It’s a busy afternoon at Lore’s Espresso Bar in Center City, Philadelphia. Jaime Fountaine’s the barista here, and she’s fiercely loyal to local coffee producer La Colombe.

“We were one of the first coffee shops to carry La Colombe when they first started their business,” Fountaine said.

People, she says, just love it. It’s cool. Unique. Exclusive.

“They’re excited when they see that we have La Colombe,” said Fountaine, “and they’re excited that they can buy their coffee from us both by the cup and by the bag.”

But not by the bottle.

Despite being an early adopter of La Colombe’s products, Lore’s does not carry the new, iced and bottled Pure Black.

But they do sell La Colombe’s regular coffee as a cold brew — they just pour it over ice.

Dave Reibstein is a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“One of the temptations for those independent stores is to just say, ‘Hey, I could just brew it and refrigerate it on my own,'” said Reibstein. “And it’s much cheaper.'”

He’s right — that’s a far cheaper method for a small retailer. With a short shelf life, required refrigeration and a $2 per wholesale bottle price tag, Pure Black is sort of a hassle.

But, Reibstein says, enough people will still buy it. The La Colombe “cool factor” is just that strong.

For now.

“They need to be really, really careful,” he said, “because what do you do when Whole Foods comes to you, and then Wegmans comes to you, and then Walmart comes to you and they want to carry you?”

Well, if you’re La Colombe, you risk losing the very thing that made you so popular in the first place.

“I wouldn’t recommend someone buying something from me because I have a strong brand,” said Todd Carmichael, co-founder of La Colombe. “This is what differentiates me from most businessmen. I’m a craftsman, and I’m going to die doing this.”

Carmichael was born into a fruit-farming family in Washington State, and got his first college job at a then-little known coffee company called Starbucks.

He says his coffee sells because it’s the best.

“You can’t look me in the eye and say that you can afford the best bottle of wine in the world. Or the best house. Or the best anything,” said Carmichael. “You can’t. But you can be just an average guy and enjoy the best coffee in the world. You can do that. It’s the ultimate luxury within reach of everyone.”

Carmichael roasts his coffee at a warehouse in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. Back in the far corner are the cold-press tanks, and the Pure Black bottling line.

He walks among the production, explaining the process.

“I take the coffee and I steep it in cold water with nitrogen for 16 hours,” he said. “Then we pump it off and we put it through a series of filters.”

He runs around 60 bottles an hour through the line, and does around four hours per day. As the weather warms, and if demand grows, he’s prepared to do more.

Once the coffee makes it into a sterilized bottle, it gets Carmichael’s signature ingredient.

“I put a drop of liquid nitrogen in it, which then expands,” said Carmichael. “It pushes all the oxygen out. Then when I cap it, it’s under pressure. So when you open it, it makes that ‘pop’ sound, like it’s a beer.”

Back in his office, Carmichael pops the top off a freshly bottled Pure Black and pours the “sweet nectar” over ice.

“I don’t want to be a geek, but doesn’t that look beautiful?” he asked.

Geek is probably not the right word.

Carmichael holds the world record for trekking the fastest-ever journey through Antarctica to the South Pole — and he did it alone.

He’s adopted four kids from Africa.

He hangs out with Leonardo DiCaprio.

And what’s next?

“I’m going to Cuba,” said Carmichael. “And I don’t give a f— if I get arrested.”

He also doesn’t care if retailers want to carry Pure Black. Enough will, he says.

So even as the brand La Colombe becomes more pervasive, the man Todd Carmichael is doing his best to keep bringing the “cool factor.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.