K-Bay Caffe gets in the Alaska coffee game

The road to Homer isn’t so long when there’s a destination in mind like K-Bay Caffe. The little drive-through espresso stand is just a taste of the vision K-Bay owner and roaster Michael McGuire has for coffee and for the rest of the world.

With its roots firmly planted in Homer since the late 90s, and its reputation spilling over into the local Anchorage restaurant and café scene, little K-Bay is making a big splash in a pool inhabited by some of Alaska’s roasting giants. McGuire has thrown his hat into the roasting ring with Kaladi Brothers, Café Del Mundo and other local roasters. It’s almost heretical for an Alaskan to make such a move considering the reputation of the local roasting scene. But McGuire has done it with such a style and intimate knowledge of his profession that there’s been more than just eyebrows raising.

K-Bay’s roast selections range from the much sought-after Ethiopian Misty Valley Idido bean, to the K-Bay Dream Blend, an espresso blend used at K-Bay in Homer, around Anchorage and at several places throughout the state.

McGuire said K-Bay is committed to providing consumers with organic beans produced by observing fair trade stipulations, while also roasting some of the most select green beans in the world. K-Bay isn’t taking names at any august international roasting competitions quite yet (although McGuire has accomplished such feats in the past). But that’s not really what they have in mind, McGuire said. Keeping K-Bay’s coffee at a high calibre in Homer and Alaska is top priority for him.

McGuire said Homer has provided fertile ground for starting the roasting operation, and residents have been receptive to the education he’s offered through cupping sessions and coffee newsletters.

K-Bay’s business matches up with a concept that’s gaining ground in the United States: that of buying locally grown produce and goods.

SlowFood USA, an organization that promotes linking local food with community and environment, has started a movement to effectively place small, local farmers and producers in the spotlight. K-Bay is basking in that spotlight.

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The K-Bay dream is displayed as a mural in the roasting facility. It is a dream that involves all parties, from the growers and gatherers to the consumers of a product that has been hand selected and gingerly molded throughout the process.

McGuire endows his roasts with an intimate knowledge of the trade. His coffee education is rooted in the tradition of the Italian master roaster Francesco Illy. He also knows the green bean side of the business. McGuire said he maintains an ongoing dialogue with growers and coops in South America and Africa. It is this dialogue he continues to stress.

He also emphasizes the importance of facilitating a relationship between artisan and consumer. K-Bay and McGuire have approached this meticulously. Not only are they concerned that growers receive a fair wage for their crop, but they have formed bonds with their growers personally. McGuire said he has met and spoken extensively with between 80 and 90 percent of his growers through coffee conferences. He has made trips to Nicaragua and Guatemala, and has sent an employee to Mexico to check out grow operations. McGuire said he also funded a graduate study program for Oromia, the largest coffee cooperative in Ethiopia.

McGuire said that investing in the actual growing operation is a risk he’s willing to take. It uses funds that could otherwise be put into marketing and advertising, but investing in growers ensures a consistent crop.

“A little bit of investment at origin is going to have a much greater impact than our own marketing project, [especially] on the quality of the coffee,” he said. With funds to sustain proper irrigation, plant nutrition and organic certifications, growers are given the tools to make a fantastic product.

Which, in turn, makes its way into the cups of K-Bay Caffe’s customers.

It’s a long way down to the end of the road in Homer, but maybe not too long a way to go for a shot of K-Bay from baristas trained by McGuire.

If that doesn’t entice, McGuire’s got more in the works for little K-Bay Caffe. New facilities located up the road by Bear Creek will open soon, and they include an expanded roastery and café that overlook Kachemak Bay. There’s a trailhead right out the back door and a creek running alongside.

While McGuire led me around the new facilities, he took a moment to call my attention to something.

“Wait,” he said. “You hear that?” He craned his neck. “It’s the creek.”

I heard the creek. But what I wanted even more was to be sitting on that deck after a run down the Bear Creek trail, gazing at one of the most beautiful sights in the world, sipping an espresso and living the K-Bay Caffe dream.