Brendan Smith thought his days of working in the coffee industry were over.
The craft beer and coffee bar he helped set up in Clearwater, Florida, was on life support within a year of opening and eventually closed in 2009. He didn’t want to start another coffee shop from scratch and knew being a full-time barista wasn’t going to cut it.
“I did not see a version of working in coffee that would pay the bills or that would be something that would be sustainable,” he recalls.
In 2015, he got another chance. A friend suggested Smith lead a group on a pub crawl-like tour of the best places to get specialty coffee in St. Petersburg, Florida. The 10 friends on the tour loved it, and Smith realized he was on to something.
“Between people trying to hand me cash and telling me that their co-workers would really like this, or their friends would really like this, it became very apparent that it was popular enough that I could make it a little business,” Smith, 37, remembers.
A year later, Smith opened St. Petersburg Craft Coffee Tour to the public. He works full time as a quality management supervisor for Jackson Hewitt but spends Saturdays sharing his passion with fellow coffee lovers on guided tours of different coffee shops around the city. It’s grown to become a profitable side gig, earning him around $10,000 a year.
Not Your Dad’s Cup of Joe
While some people scoff at the idea of paying $5 for an espresso, Smith thinks you’re getting more than just coffee with every cup. To him, high-quality coffee is more than just caffeine. It’s an indulgence. An experience.
“Coffee is definitely very trendy right now,” he says. “It’s a very social activity. It’s not as utilitarian as it once was. Going out for coffee is not only a popular thing, but there’s just more and more places to do it that are local and that are doing a great job.”
The craft coffee scene in Tampa Bay has exploded over the last three years, according to Smith. He hopes that people who go on the tour won’t be intimidated to try one of the exotic menu items the next time they walk into one of these establishments.
“[The tours are] pulling the curtain back on how coffee is produced, what quality coffee is and giving them the tools that they need to make really smart decisions about their own coffee when they get home,” he says.
The most significant difference between craft coffee from specialty shops and the coffee sold in grocery stores is freshness. “Coffee is like produce — it doesn’t last forever,” he says. Most coffee in grocery stores is typically four months old, while the beans sold in a craft coffee shop were roasted about four weeks ago.
People have a greater appreciation for quality coffee when they leave, Smith says, adding, “In fact, some people even send me pictures of them throwing out bad coffee after the tour.”
Every Tour Is Different
Around 9 a.m. on a Saturday in July, a group of 13 tired-eyed coffee lovers arrive at the first location on the tour. Many skipped their usual cup of coffee before coming, which Smith jokes is a “dangerous” way to start the day.
One of his goals is to make every tour seamless. “I don’t want a day of going to each shop and getting the same thing, so I make sure it’s a varied experience,” he says. To do so, he regularly changes up the tour schedule to feature different locations and coordinates with shop owners so no one repeats the same activity.
The first stop is Craft Kafe, where tour-goers enjoy some breakfast and try various cold brew coffees, including the Kyoto drip method. This brewing technique involves coffee slowly dripping out of large glass beakers and curving tubes that resemble something from Frankenstein’s lab.
Smith uses the knowledge he gained from years as a barista, shop manager and consultant to answer people’s coffee questions. He explains how coffee is farmed, the differences between washed processed coffee and naturally processed coffee and what’s unique about different coffee-growing regions around the world.
Between samples, the tour group discuss their thoughts about the brews, how they can taste the different notes and acidity levels, even the emotions evoked while drinking it. “Legitimately, people make friends, and I love that,” says Smith with a smile.
The second stop is Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters for what’s called a “cupping” demonstration, conducted by company sales manager Bryan Martin. Cupping is how buyers and roasters evaluate the quality of the coffee. This is done in three parts: smelling the freshly ground coffee, taking in the aromas after the hot water hits the grounds and a taste test.
Testers slurp up a spoonful of the brew to evaluate the flavor notes and consistency of the batch. “I love to see someone take a confident slurp,” Martin says. Once complete, they spit out the coffee into a paper cup.
Debi McCreary, 62, from Clearwater, Florida, says that during the cupping she can taste the different flavor notes in her mouth. “You never think there can be blueberries or flowers,” she says.
For the final stop, Smith leads the group to Intermezzo, a coffee and cocktail bar, for some coffee-inspired non-alcoholic mocktails. Owner Jarrett Sabatini highlights the non-traditional ways someone can enjoy coffee. He lines up a series of glasses and pours an espresso mint julep, using coffee instead of bourbon. The tour-goers smile from ear to ear as they sip their drinks on a humid day.
At the end of the tour, the patrons thank Smith for everything they learned on the trip. “They’re always very appreciative, and it’s really gratifying,” he says.
Introducing Craft Coffee One Cup at a Time
The shops and roasters featured on the tour are thrilled to be included. They see it as an incredible marketing and outreach opportunity.
Sabatini notes that Smith’s business is unique because coffee tours like his typically only happen in places like New York or Portland, Oregon — not Florida. “Anything I can do to support that, being in the industry, that’s what I’ve got to do,” he says.
“Educating the people is great for our business,” Martin says. “Even if they never buy our coffee again, it’s helping to grow the specialty coffee industry.”
For McCreary, these tours helped to open her coffee horizons. She attended Smith’s first tour in 2015. Back then, she never considered herself a coffee drinker because she couldn’t stand the bitterness of coffee growing up. After the tour, she changed her mind.
“When I tried it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, coffee is not so bad,’” she proclaimed. “I don’t have to put sugar or any cream in it.” Now she’s open to drinking coffee and has gone on the tour 10 times.
Heading Into the Future
Smith didn’t start St. Petersburg Craft Coffee Tour for the money. “I just wanted to make my coffee habit free,” he jokes. Now he has plenty of opportunities to satisfy his habit. When he first started back in 2016, he led one tour a month — today he averages three per month.
Recently he expanded to hosting tours featuring craft coffee shops in neighboring Tampa and hopes one day to “expand all over” by holding events in different cities. But until then, he’s happy sharing his passion with anyone wanting to learn more about the caffeinated arts.
“It is unbelievable that the thing that I would do for fun on a weekend all the time — show people great coffee shops and teach them about coffee — I can make money at it now,” he says. “It’s really, really great.”
Matt Reinstetle is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He’s looking forward to ordering another espresso mint julep in the near future.
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