Ypsi’s newest startup, Hyperion Coffee, wants to do more than just roast the best coffee in the world

At some point in the next six weeks or so, a new business will be opening in Depot Town, a coffee roastery by the name of Hyperion. It’s the brainchild of Eric Mullins and Dan Kubera, both of whom were, until recently, employees of Ypsilanti’s Ugly Mug. Here, with more, is the transcript of a recent conversation I had with Eric, Dan, and their partner Alex Merz.

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MARK: I’m curious as to how long the two of you, Dan and Eric, have been in the coffee business. Was it something that you’d already been involved in before joining the Ugly Mug, or is that where all of this really started for you?

DAN: I’ve been working in coffee for around five years. I started out working as a barista in Ann Arbor. I was at Babo, and I eventually managed the coffee program there. After that, I began working at the Ugly Mug with the intention of gaining as much knowledge as I possibly could from people like Eric and Ramiro (Miro Lomelli). When Eric left the Ugly Mug, I then took over his role as general manager.

ERIC: I‘ve been in the coffee industry for about ten years, working for about a dozen different cafes, coffee roasters, and coffee-related ventures, with the most recent being Commonwealth in Birmingham. But I’ve also worked with the likes of Anodyne Coffee Roasters out of Milwaukee, Madcap and Direct Trade Coffee Club out of Grand Rapids, and Zingerman’s and the Ugly Mug locally. The Ugly Mug has played a big part in my development as a coffee professional and I owe a lot to the employees who have worked there throughout the years. They have always been the heart and soul of the place… They’re only thing, in my opinion, that has made that place survive until now.

MARK: How about you, Alex? What brought you to Hyperion?

ALEX: My road is a lot different than these guys – but, for what it’s worth, I was actually at the opening of the Ugly Mug way back in September, 2004, and I’ve been a regular there ever since. I spent a lot of time since working in a variety of different businesses, both large and small – most recently Amazon in Seattle and Google in Ann Arbor. But I was born and raised right here in Ypsi, and it’s great being able to do some really cool stuff in my home town.

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[ABOVE PHOTO: Eric top left, Dan top right, and Alex doing the kneeling fist-to-the-chin in Hyperion’s new Depot Town space.]

MARK: I know very little about the business side of things when it comes to roasting. Clearly there are some pretty successful local players, like Mighty Good, RoosRoast, Ugly Mug and others, who are each kind of attacking the market in a different way. Mighty Good has two retail operations and a few distribution deals with regional grocers. RoosRoast has a cafe that’s a little more off the beaten path, but also sells at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, and through a number of restaurants and grocery stores. And Ugly Mug always seems to be trying new things, like their recent partnerships with Ghostly, which I suspect you, Dand and Eric, were involved with. I’m curious as to where you see Hyperion fitting into this local ecosystem?

ALEX: One of the amazing things about the coffee business is the fact that there’s so much room to grow, and a lot of different models for how to be successful. All of the coffee companies you mention are quite successful in their own ways. And, if you look further afield, there are other companies like Counter Culture, Blue Bottle and Stumptown, that have been incredibly successful going about the business of roasting in different ways. One thing that Eric and Dan did a phenomenal job of at the Ugly Mug was developing their partnerships, like the one you mention with Ghostly. They also did some incredible work with regard to sourcing. They went directly to farmers, spent time in their homes, and learned exactly what was going on there. And we’re replicating a lot of that at Hyperion. In fact, Dan is actually in Uganda right now doing a lot of that work. What we will bring to the community which is different, I think, is a lot of the education, outreach and feedback. We will focus on educating our clients and bringing the caliber up a notch. We want to ensure that they know about the coffee that they’re serving in their restaurants and selling in their stores. We will also be hosting labs and gatherings, so anyone who wants to get serious about coffee can come in and learn about it. And we’ll have frequent preparation videos. Also, thanks to my connections in the tech business, I’ve been working on some things which we think are pretty special. Stay tuned for those.

DAN: I don’t really want to get into comparisons, but I think our sourcing program and our coffee quality is going to be what will set us apart in the local market… along with the training lab and community involvement.

ERIC: Without reiterating too much, and comparing too much to others in the area (which I feel is inevitable), I really do think that our level of knowledge, empathy and pride in what we are doing, and our community, will be enough for us to accomplish our goal, which is to connect the stories of the farmers with the locals here in the A2/Ypsi area.

MARK: I’ve heard people speculate in the past that coffee could follow the same trajectory as craft beer, saying that, while there are certainly some big, successful independent roasters, like Intelligentsia, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle, there’s still a lot of flux, and room for new players, as the market is still expanding, and since no one really “owns” the space. Would you agree that the there’s still quite a bit of room for growth, and that we’ve yet to hit the ceiling?

ALEX: It’s interesting that you bring this up. It’s one of those things where people like to try and find a parallel product and say, “Oh, coffee is kind of like beer, so that trajectory and outcome must be really similar.” I actually kinda view the market a bit differently. First, I think coffee is more akin to the wine industry than the beer industry, because it’s based in a single ingredient crop and therefore the flavor profiles are influenced more by nature than with beer. Coffee, therefore, is likely to be a lot more scattered than beer, because the expertise and care necessary to get a bean to a cup intact has a lot of variables where something could go wrong. Second, the industry is still changing relatively quickly. Unlike the alcohol-based industries, we’ve only got two decades of knowledge when it comes to specialty markets and the skills necessary to do it right. It wasn’t long ago that people were talking about origin regions, let alone countries, and now we’ve started talking about terroir, varietals, elevation, and shade cover in a way that wasn’t even conceived of five years ago. So I think the definition of what the industry is is still largely in flux, and there is still a LOT of room to grow, both size-wise (aka, with revenue) and skills wise (aka, with looking at new ways to explore coffee and new ways to connect to the community with it).

ERIC: There are a lot of big players in the beer and coffee game. We’re all playing with the same product essentially, but the gap that separates what we are trying to accomplish, and what the majority of other roasters are trying to accomplish, is akin to Sidetrack being concerned that the McDonalds down the road is going to be infringing on their burger business or something to that extent. Honestly, Intelligentsia is on the level of a really big brewery, and our goals are more on the level of just trying to fill a need in our community that isn’t currently being taken care of. People have been having conversations with me for years now about wanting more from local business, a ‘buy-in’ for instance from places like Growing Hope and First Fridays, where the community really wanted them, and has kept them around. All they have now for coffee is places that exist to make the profit off of the community and not really a community-grown project that exists to connect our area with others around the world.

V__361DMARK: A few years ago, I interviewed Miro “Ramiro” Lomelli, who left the Ugly Mug to go to Chicago and help launch Gaslight Coffee. I know it must be difficult for the owners of the Mug to lose good people, but it has to be kind of cool knowing that they’re turning out so many good people who are going out and doing good things in the industry, right? [RIGHT: Dan preparing to leave for Uganda]

ERIC: Ramiro has been my best friend now since the summer before 10th grade, and I don’t know of a better coffee professional that has come out of the Ypsi-Arbor area, but I really wouldn’t credit the owners of the Ugly Mug with that. I have always felt that the magic of the Mug as a place comes from the great employees there knowing that they have a place where they can brew good coffee.

ALEX: That being said, If you look at the shops and roasters that are Mug inspired or Mug related, the list is long and growing longer. Gaslight in Chicago (Zak Rye and Miro Lomelli), Comet Coffee in Ann Arbor (Jim Sabrio), Anthology in Detroit (Josh Longsdorf), and the new Cultivate Coffee and Taphouse (Billy Kangas) to name a few. I think its due to the fact that the Mug has always had a great location and a really eccentric group of people that can come together to create and inspire something wonderful. It’s kinda funny, but, I think about the Mug in the same way that I think about my day job employer (Google) in that it’s really an incubator. You need to be surrounded by inspirational people and creative minds to do anything remarkable, and the Mug definitely serves as that for the local… hell, regional… coffee scene. I’m really excited to work with Eric and Dan on Hyperion because they were such a huge part of making that place unique and special over the last few years, and having that energy at Hyperion will be truly wonderful.

MARK: As I suspect that a lot of people in the audience don’t know about coffee roasting, can you explain what it is that you do… both the art and science aspects of it?

ERIC: Really, I think the part that needs to be explained here is that the physical act of roasting the coffee is only one piece of the puzzle, part of a long chain of crop-to-cup. First, there is the farmer, which is where the whole story really begins. We build relationships directly with farmers and importers to really get the best coffees. We view ourselves as storytellers for them, and we try to make something that is truly representative of what they grow. Second, there is the physical act of roasting, where we turn a crop into something delicious. I often describe it in the ways of baking bread by developing sugars and acids, by way of brewing beer and wine by means of heat, smell, taste, and chemical change. And, third, it’s all about the customers and education. At Hyperion, we’ve made it part of our mission to bring knowledge to the community and raise the caliber of coffee appreciation, so you’ll see a lot of coffee labs, guest speakers, and training sessions happening at the space. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of moving pieces, which is why it’s so difficult to get it right.

MARK: I’ve heard two stories and I’m hoping that you could tell me which one is right. I’ve heard that you’re not planning to operate a cafe in your new space, which is next to the Food Co-op. And I’ve heard that you are planning to operate a cafe. Can you tell me which is correct?

ALEX: Initially, we are not planning to operate a full-blown cafe in the space. Think of it more as a retail location. We’ll be roasting there, training there, and selling there, but we won’t be really making coffee to take away. Part of the short term reason why is due to the space itself – we’d need to make a number of big modifications to the place in order to operate an official cafe. That being said, our goal is to eventually have a take away espresso/pour over bar, because we will have much of that equipment already installed. And the community outreach has been huge – so many people have come up to us and asked “when is the cafe happening?”, so it has gotten us thinking about this option.

V__4617DAN: Longer term, sure, a cafe location is definitely in the cards. We’ve spoken with a number of people about this, and there’s been a bit of interest, but where and how this eventually manifests itself is kinda up in the air. Could be Ypsi, could be Ann Arbor, or even further afield (Detroit or Ferndale). [RIGHT: Their beautiful 10kilo Ambex roaster]

MARK: I’m curious as to how you capitalized the business. Did you have to raise money in order to purchase the equipment that you needed, fund your purchasing trips abroad, etc? And, if so, was that an arduous process?

ERIC: So far it has been all out of pocket by Dan, Alex, and me, as well as with the help of our amazing friends and family. Seriously, the amount of support that we have gotten from people has been something that I can’t really begin to get into here. We have actually received a lot of requests from people in the community about how they can help and how they can lend a hand. Right now, we are setting up a kickstarter to raise a few more bucks to accomplish some projects in the shop to get it up and running. Hopefully we will have it launched by the end of February, so stay tuned on that as well.

And as far as something being arduous, yeah there have been a lot of very late nights, lots of hours on phone calls, and many hours logged driving around the country to pick up equipment. So far, very worth it.

MARK: So, what should people expect from Hyperion Coffee?

ERIC: What expectations should the community have for Hyperion? Great question… I think that we really want to push the idea that we want to make connections and hope to bridge the language gap of good coffee to the consumer by way of education, working with farmers and importers to source good coffee with solid ethical grounds, and an active engagement in trying to make the coffee better in the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti area. We hope to start that by continuing some established relationships with farmers in Honduras and coffee from Uganda as Dan is there now meeting with farmers.

[According to current projections, Hyperion should be open and brewing coffee at 306 North River Street at some point in March.]

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13 Comments

  1. Josh Wilkins
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Are the guys Handsome Jack fans by chance?

  2. Anonymous
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Is anyone else sensing a lack of respect for the owners of the Ugly Mug?

  3. Marissa
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    To answer the person’s question below – I’m pretty sure this town is big enough for two coffee shops.

  4. Eel
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    I wish these young men all the luck in the world.

  5. Erika
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    My husband and I attended a seminar by the owner of Biggby coffee, based in East Lansing, about the rise of quality coffee and how it is becoming a craft. He said that research has shown that when there are more specialty coffee shops in an area, the overall consumption of coffee increases, rather than the shops competing for the same amount of business. That’s because people become more educated and familiar with the potential for quality and variability in coffee (as with craft beer, wine and even chocolate), so they want to experience the different options now available to them, and they start attributing more value to getting a cup of coffee from a good roaster, rather than just the grocery store stuff. It’s sort of synergistic. A rising tide lifts all boats.

  6. XXX
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    But he was also trying to sell you a franchise, Erika. Be cautious.

  7. Ypsi
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to hear that there is a coffee shop opening up across the street in the old Ted’s Auto Electric building. Has there been a dialog between businesses?

  8. Liz DMG
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    This is really cool to see. A slight tangent though: Why doesn’t the Ugly Mug seem to be inspiring any female entrepreneurs? Why are all the roasters & shop owners male? (Nothing against them. Just happened to notice that.)

  9. k
    Posted February 6, 2015 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    The owner of the ugly mug, head roaster,account manager,general manager and coffer trainer are female. Isn’t Dan on a origin trip provided by a connection he made from working at the Ugly Mug? Anyways many people have started their coffee path at the Ugly Mug most in which recognizes the opportunity the owners provided for them. As well as a good staff goes it starts with a solid foundation of ownership .

  10. Yen
    Posted February 6, 2015 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Congratulations and best of luck on your adventure!

  11. Dan K.
    Posted February 6, 2015 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    In response to the origin trip comment, Eric began the relationship with Crop to Cup over two years ago and was one of the first people to have a serious interest in specialty coffee from Uganda. The trip was fully funded by Hyperion and the Ugandan Coffee Development Association and was open to buyers across the country.

  12. thoughtful coffee addict
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The great thing about ypsi is that small businesses here are usually FOR each other. They’re on each other’s teams, supporting each other. The tricky thing here is that Hyperion needs to be careful not to exploit information about the Mug. Dan’s last comment as well as much of what was said in this post, get’s into tricky territory. What Hyperion partners or employees did at any previous place of employment, is irrelevant to their practices as a roastery today. There’s enough room for both roasteries in this town. Let’s let them each be their own entity, and grow as they each see fit.

  13. Elize Jekabson
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Guys! Hyperion coffee just opened their doors and are selling bags of beans! I live right across the street and wandered over and became their first walk-in customer. Go check them out and support these guys!

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