Locals may have seen the Six Degrees coffee logo in an area café or on one of their white delivery vans or may have passed the sign by the Six Degrees warehouse off Cohasset Avenue near the Chico airport. In bold text next to an outline of a steaming mug of coffee, the business’s name Six Degrees conjures social psychologists’ small world notion, the idea that such is the nature of our social networks that just six degrees of separation connect us all. Everyone knows someone, who knows someone, who. . . . That is, there’s a connection between you and me, and between everyone, just six people away.
It has been called an urban myth, but the notion perfectly fits what founders Amy Louis and Elizabeth Goldblatt want to accomplish with their coffee service and distribution business Six Degrees. Their business’s tagline, “Coffee connects us,” expresses the way they treat business customers and the way they support coffee farmers throughout the world. “We treat customers the way we want to be treated,” said Amy. The Golden Rule also extends to those farmers. As Elizabeth put it, “We simply will not be able to have specialty coffee if we don’t give them a hand.”
It was local connections that drew the couple from San Francisco to Chico fifteen years ago to start Six Degrees. Elizabeth had made her mark as a finance officer, and Amy had a long career in coffee, including work at Peet’s, Starbucks, and the San Francisco market Bi-Rite. She had also graduated from Chico State, and she and Elizabeth had often traveled back to Chico to visit old friends and, in summer, “sit with our feet in the creek,” recalled Elizabeth. It was a quiet respite from a busy San Francisco life—a life that eventually came to register too many losses. The two had lost forty friends to the AIDS epidemic, had begun a family, two daughters they didn’t want to lose to an upbringing by nannies, and had experienced too-early deaths of family members. With Amy’s contacts in the coffee industry and Elizabeth’s expertise as a financial officer, the move north to Chico and the prospect of starting Six Degrees seemed the right choice.
Six Degrees serves every kind of coffee venue from kiosks to grocery store coffee counters to cafés, even coffee setups in local workplaces like Klean Kanteen, and meets customers where they are. Some contact Six Degrees as start-ups. Amy talks to these potential customers about how they envision the venue, its identity. “She’s very good at this,” declared Elizabeth. This sense of identity influences everything, what the space looks like, which roaster’s coffee is served, what brand of espresso maker is selected—like breaking down components that will express the soul of the place and deliver the desired coffee experience.
Articulating a customer’s identity sets the stage for a cavalcade of decisions. Amy and Elizabeth have designed Six Degrees’ services to aid at each step. Designing the space, for example, might ensure that water lines are placed so that the barista making the coffee doesn’t have his back to customers, the better to engage coffee drinkers in the brewing process. Amy also aids the customer in selecting equipment; she noted that her connections within the industry from her years in San Francisco enable Six Degrees to offer better prices on equipment than the equipment maker’s own distributors. The Six Degrees team works with customers on recipe development and trains baristas to perfect the recipes and present them to their customers. Once the venue opens, Six Degrees continues to serve it.
Take a most basic question, what coffee to serve. Six Degrees offers a choice of several coffee roasters, most of them in northern California, Thanksgiving Coffee in Fort Bragg, Taylor Maid in Sebastopol, Equator Coffee in San Rafael, Chico’s Cal Java. Offering customers such selection does two things. First, it allows customers to fit the coffee they choose to the identity of their venue, often reflected in the price point of the beans. And, second, because Amy and Elizabeth curate the roasters, the pair can assure traceability, that is, connections back to coffee farmers who farm responsibly and are paid fairly.
The roasters Six Degrees sources from promulgate values like “Think Globally, Drink Locally” (Cal Java) and “Not Just a Cup But a Just Cup” (Thanksgiving Coffee). Said Elizabeth, “I know all of our roasters. They’ve been to ninety percent of the coffee farms who supply them.” And there’s further benefit to working through Six Degrees. Their customers place weekly coffee orders, the coffee is roasted to order, and Six Degrees delivers the freshly roasted coffee to the customer’s venue each week.
Six Degrees serves more than start-ups and equips customers with more than coffee beans. Six Degrees sells all the accoutrements expected these days in a coffee place: flavored syrups, teas (with a values-based sourcing of teas, as with coffee); almond, soy, rice, and hemp milk; biscotti and instant oatmeal; bottles of smoothies, kombucha, and cold brew coffee; filters and napkins and coffee stirrers—“We sell a lot of things to a few customers,” said Amy. New trends like nitrogenated cold brew coffee or kombucha on tap—Six Degrees supplies both. They even supply coffee pods.
Elizabeth admitted that she had never predicted the popularity of coffee pods and doesn’t really understand it. “I can show you a way to brew a delicious cup that takes one minute more,” and, not incidentally, better fits the company’s values. (Although the coffee industry currently puts much more effort into solving the long-standing problems with coffee pods, wasteful packaging, stale coffee, inferior brewing method, expense, it has not yet solved them.) Six Degrees wholesales the device Elizabeth favors; it’s called Clever Dripper.
Service Beyond Stuff
While initial consultation with customers, venue setup, and ongoing delivery of supplies certainly qualify as providing service, Six Degrees also services the equipment they sell, the water filtration systems, espresso machines, and nitrogen taps used for cold brews. Its technicians install and maintain these systems. Said Amy, “We walk the talk. Equipment distributors charge more, and they don’t provide local service like we do.”
Six Degrees also employs a lead trainer who teaches baristas what they need to know to pull a quality cup of espresso. It’s definitely not about the delicate and fragile coffee art atop the cappuccino. Lead trainer Joachin Garcia pointed out, “It’s about the whole process,” while Amy ticked off “water quality, freshness of the roasted coffee, grind, and proportion of ground coffee to water. “
Behind a coffee counter Six Degrees helped design at New Earth Market in Chico, Joachin checked in with barista Emily Hilbers. He had already trained baristas. This was a review of the steps in making espresso. There are four: grinding the coffee, assuring the right amount of coffee, tamping the ground coffee into the espresso machine’s portafilter, and brewing the espresso via the machine. For this refresher course, Joachin spent most time tamping and brewing.
Tamping assures an even density of the right amount of ground coffee within the filter; that way, the water extracts the ground beans’ water soluble components uniformly. The goal of brewing is to extract the perfect amount of flavor, over extracted and the espresso tastes bitter and burnt, under extracted and the espresso tastes weak, watery. Joachin demonstrated the right amount of ground coffee, the right motion and pressure on the tamper. Emily watched and mimicked. They timed how long the 200 degree water flowed through the portofilter before two ounces of espresso steamed in a small glass. Yep. Perfect timing. That meant the grind and the tamp had worked well. That meant a good espresso.
It was 2013 when Elizabeth traveled with Thanksgiving Coffee to Nicaragua. “You can’t go watch these farmers and not be changed,” she declared. The group not only watched, they participated, meeting los cafeteros, the coffee farmers, picking coffee beans, wielding the rakes used in drying coffee, visiting cooperatives, and talking about sustainable growing practices.
It sounds like a conversion experience, but actually it took Elizabeth’s commitment to a new level.
Six Degrees’ commitment is rooted in Amy’s years with Peet’s Coffee. Albert Peet, who opened the original Peet’s in Berkeley in 1966, was known as the grandfather of specialty coffee, credited with introducing the United States to coffees from all over the world and to fresh roasted coffee. Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee, referred to Peet in a New York Times obituary as “the big bang” who started the movement from canned, pre-ground commodity coffee to specialty coffee roasted very near the time of drinking.
The fifty plus years since Peet’s Coffee, Tea & Spices opened have seen the creation of standards, codified and measured in many cases by industry associations, for all who take coffee from seed to cup: growers, green coffee buyers, roasters, baristas, even consumers. Amy and Elizabeth spoke passionately about the growers like those Elizabeth met. Amy: “Coffee doesn’t just come in a cup.” And Elizabeth, “We simply will not be able to have lovely coffee if we don’t give the farmers a hand.”
The two owners of Six Degrees Coffee do, both in their business and in their private lives. This year, Elizabeth was the top fundraiser for JavaJog, a five or ten kilometer walk/run held during the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual meeting. SCAA is a leader in setting standards for specialty coffee, and JavaJog donations fund projects targeting women in coffee growing regions of the world. Elizabeth has participated in several of these events and believes in the cause, not only because women do much of the work in coffee growing communities. Women use awards, she also noted, to fund what sustains a community: its families, educational systems, good health. Climate change, coffee leaf rust, food insecurity are among the threats to coffee growing communities—and to our ability to drink coffee—and JavaJog’s donations to programs like Grounds for Health, which addresses cervical cancer, and Girls Gotta Run, which offers scholarships to allow Ethiopian girls to stay in school, support strong coffee growing communities—the human resources that might ensure that supplies of specialty coffee can flourish despite global threats.
Both women speak fervently about these issues. In fact, while Elizabeth was in Nicaragua, Amy was speaking about them to Soroptimists International of Chico, as she does at many local service and business organizations.
Small is Big
Six Degrees Coffee certainly helps the local coffee scene flourish. Despite the many coffee-related supplies and services the company offers, “we act small,” said Elizabeth. “We answer our phones.” Added Amy, “We answer texts. We’re not just a third party distributor.” In short, they connect. And behind their connections on the local coffee scene, the dailiness of orders, delivery, service, lies a passion for coffee growing communities, without which there would be no cup of special java. “This is why we have to have this business,” declared Elizabeth. “We don’t care about anything as much.”
Coffee grows as a tree or medium sized tree and is a drupe, a stone fruit. Coffee beans are the stones, its seeds, valuable and twinned inside a thin layer of fruit, which gets removed in milling the beans. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the term specialty coffee refers to quality coffee beans—geographical microclimates produce beans with particular flavor profiles—and to milling, roasting, and brewing methods, all performed to particular standards. High standards impact the quality of the bean before and after roasting and the quality of the cup of coffee. More recently, the definition of specialty coffee has expanded to include quality of life—the quality of life afforded everyone who works that coffee bean, from farmers to coffee drinkers, including the earth. The term has come to represent relationships, of the farmer to the earth, of coffee buyers and roasters to sustainable coffee producing communities, of coffee drinkers to those coffee venues serving up nuanced flavor.