Dan and Ryan are perfecting coffee one bean at a time.
By Leksey Maltzman
Photography By Alexa Nahas (alexanahas.com)
One would typically expect a coffee shop to be cozy and dim-lit, but upon entering Pilgrim Roasters, the first thing you notice is the serene amount of natural light that floods the new cafe. The small square tables are full of customers often sipping espresso, working on their laptops or enjoying a conversation. An artistically simplistic world map spreads across a large wall opposite the windows of the shop while a framed poster of “The Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel” is prominently featured on the adjacent wall above the cream and sugar. An endless playlist created by friends of the owners, entitled “Grooves,” is drowned out by the grinding of Pilgrim Roasters’ fresh coffee beans.
“We are just trying to do good coffee and have fun with it,” said Dan Faehl, co-owner of Pilgrim Roasters. Behind the counter, Dan’s long-time friend and fellow owner, Ryan Connelly, brews a fresh cup.
Although Dan’s words sound simple, owning a coffee shop and roasting single-origin coffee is anything but. When the owners of Pilgrim Roasters hand their customer a fresh cup, they are passing them much more than coffee — they are sharing an internationally imported and scientifically comprised cup of joe.
“We aren’t even doing the hardest part of the job,” Dan explained, “which is kind of humbling.”
Dan is referring to the time and effort of the farmers and importers that Pilgrim Roasters works with across the globe. The process starts with the importers who, for Pilgrim Roasters, are located in Oslo, Norway.
“We are using some very focused importers who source some of the best coffees in the world,” Dan said.
The importers find the individual farms in Africa, Latin America, and other locations around the world and source the coffee, which eventually makes its way to Manayunk.
People on the farms go and pick every individual ripe cherry,” Dan said as he went through the process the shop goes through to get “the best coffee we can,” as Ryan put it.
“We don’t do any blends,” Dan explained. “We do all single origins to highlight what is going on at that particular farm.”
This brewing process of Manayunk’s newest cafe is nothing short of scientific as the internationally imported beans arrive and the science experiments begin for Pilgrim Roasters.
And while the bright atmosphere and the distinct scent of freshly brewed coffee are two of the more noticeable things upon entering Pilgrim Roasters, there is another element that grabs your attention from the back corner of the cafe — a 1953 vintage German roaster. According to Dan, this roaster is originally from Paris where, at the time, no one wanted to do business with Germany due to their immoral actions in World War II. Because of this, the Germans smuggled industrial equipment, like this 1953 roaster, out of France after the war. Today, this vintage machine stands tall as the centerpiece of Pilgrim Roasters.
“There’s a lot of chemistry and physics in the roasting process, so it really appeals to my geek side,” Dan laughed.
“I think you could compare it almost to a musician using a tuner,” Ryan explained. “If you’re not extracting [tuning] it properly, it doesn’t matter what coffee you have or how good or bad your coffee is. You have tools that allow you to create things.”
The owners threw around terms like “moisture meters,” and “water pressure,” when describing the roasting and extracting process. When brewing, Dan and Ryan often use data relating to time versus temperature to create the perfect roast and bring forward the flavors they want to highlight most in their coffee. This continuous scientific experimentation and data collection helps them constantly strive for improvement in their roasting process. To the owners of Pilgrim Roasters, coffee is much more of a science than an art.
“We try to be very data based,” Dan concluded.
The extraction style used at Pilgrim Roasters is referred to as “light Scandinavian roast style,” a style that originated in the Nordic region of Europe and has begun to grow in popularity for many roasters in the United States.
After tasting some of their Ethiopian roast Dan worked so tediously on, it was easy to tell that the blueberry flavor is most prominent and the peach tea flavoring sneaks up on the taste buds at the end for a light and bright experience.
Considering how young Dan and Ryan are and how complex their new coffee operation is, one could say it took them a certain drive as young entrepreneurs to achieve their ambitious goals and end up where they are.
“You need to drink a lot of coffee,” Dan joked.
Both owners agree that in order to be a successful entrepreneur, it is important to have a true and sustainable passion for the subject of one’s business. Their thinking here is that any business venture is going to have a lot of low points and perseverance is the key to overcoming these down times.
“You go in debt and then you shovel your way out,” Dan said as he explained why passion for the industry is so important to stay motivated.
Besides saving “a whole lot of money” on coffee — one of Ryan’s favorite perks of owning a coffee shop — both owners love getting to know their customers.
“They say when you own a coffee shop, any problem that you have, you’re one customer away from solving it,” Dan shared.
According to Dan and Ryan, meeting all types of people with various backgrounds, employment, and personal interests is another great perk of owning and operating a coffee shop.
But why did they choose Manayunk as the landing point for Pilgrim Roasters?
The answer is simple; Dan is a resident of Manayunk and happens to have a family history on Main Street.
“My great grandfather had a tailor shop across the street,” Dan shared. “We’ve got roots here.”
According to Dan, his grandfather’s tailor shop existed about 70 years ago, directly across the street from where Pilgrim Roasters is currently located.
Ryan is looking forward to moving down to Manayunk as soon as possible. “We are excited to be in Manayunk — it’s a cool little place,” Ryan said. They particularly enjoy the variety of restaurants, as well as the many events and strong community ties in the area.
It’s clear these young entrepreneurs have a concrete plan in a small neighborhood they are deeply rooted in. So what does the word “pilgrim” have to do with coffee anyway?
“Pilgrim alludes to travel, to seeking more,” Dan said. “People can be seeking freedom from their anxiety, their stresses — we wanted to create an environment that lets people do that.”
It’s not only their customers that are seeking more. Dan and Ryan themselves are constantly seeking to push their business and coffee roasting skills to their highest potential. The dynamic duo are currently working on expanding their wholesale business and partnering with food companies to incorporate new, easy grab and go food items on their menu. Their drink menu is likely to remain simple without fancy syrups and flavors in order to keep the integrity of the coffee they work so tirelessly to perfect.
Dan and Ryan are clearly enjoying being new business owners and above all else, have a true appreciation for the local customers of their small business who seem to immediately understand their passion for specialty coffee on a deeper level.
“I haven’t been asked for pumpkin spice once,” Dan boasted, “which I’m very proud of.”