This week, Laura and Joelle are joined by Al Liu, vice president of coffee at Colectivo Coffee, located at 5425 N. Clark St. Colectivo is a Milwaukee-based coffee company that recently opened its largest cafe in Chicago yet. Colectivo Coffee provides house made coffee, tea, seasonal drinks, breakfast items and more to patrons. Colectivo is well-known for its bold designs and customizable approaches to its spaces.
“Andersonville just based on my experience here really is the kind of neighborhood we like to be in, but is a great fit for our culture and our brand: very neighborhood oriented.”
– Al Liu
Listen to Episode 41 with Al Liu!
Here are some references from Episode 41 that you may want to check out:
- Al is a Milwaukee native but he has lived around the country and in other countries as well. He started with Colectivo in 2000 and worked there for seven years as the Director of Culture and Communications when the company was called Alterra. In early 2008, Al moved to Seattle to work for Specialty Coffee Importer, Atlas. He did that for over eight years, then moved back to Milwaukee about 2.5 years ago to take on the role of Vice President of Coffee.
- Al’s interests in coffee originated after serving in the Peace Corps in Bolivia. He visited a friend who was working in coffee also in the Corps in Bolivia in 1999. Al got to see coffee getting picked and processed, and the rest is history.
- Al’s main responsibility as a Vice President of Coffee is to actually buy the coffees that Colectivo roasts and sells. Most of their coffee comes from Latin America, namely Mexico, Peru and Brazil. The largest origin for Colectivo Coffee is in Indonesia in Sumatra, which is fair-trade and organic.
- Colectivo Coffee has an extensive team working to coach employees on barista technique and new drink cultivation. For example, the grapefruit espresso drink was a part of their new cold-drink menu upon opening in late summer. View their cafe and food menu here.
- There are 13 Colectivo storefronts in the Milwaukee area and four locations so far in Chicago. Colectivo works with existing structures when it comes to designing their cafes. At their location at Clark and Rascher in Andersonville, the original “Cream City” bricks are used, which is a popular material in Wisconsin too. View all cafes here.
- Al considers cafes to be ‘third spaces,’ or basically spaces where people can be comfortable, but not at home and not at work.
- Colectivo was founded in 1993 by three men, Ward Fowler, his brother Lincoln Fowler and Paul Miller. The two brothers had a high-end speaker cabinet business and Paul had a business selling Milwaukee-themed clothing items and sheepskin lined slippers. The two businesses shared storage space in the same warehouse. They began talking to each other about how good coffee was hard to find in Milwaukee, so they made a plan and one year later opened the first retail Colectivo space in Milwaukee. Learn more here.
- By the time Al joined Colectivo in 2000, they had four stores. The main flagship store was where the roasting and packing happened. In 2002, Colectivo expanded to a lakefront location in Milwaukee in a building called The Pumping Station. The store in Andersonville is the 19th store.
- The name Colectivo is taken from the artful and funky buses used for transportation in Southern Mexico. “Anyone and everyone can join us on a coffee journey…anyone can get on the bus, so to speak, and have a coffee experience.” The owners used this name because they also wanted to nod to the far-away regions in which these coffee beans originate.
- Colectivo does not import coffee directly, but uses the services of green importers around the world. Some coffees are featured year-round, while smaller origins are highlighted for sometimes only a few months.
- January, February and March are busier travel times for Al, as he visits locations like East Africa, Mexico and Central America with their different grow seasons.
- Al says the most valuable thing he has learned working in coffee is the power of the human connection.
- The Colectivo creative director, Kevin Callahan, is responsible for the artwork and creative designs you see on their merchandise. He has a studio art degree from the University of Milwaukee, and he used to draw everything by hand.
- Al does credit Starbucks for pathing the way to specialty coffee in the Midwest, their first market outside of the Pacific Northwest. Al expects to see coffee markets pop up in developing countries and countries that typically haven’t seen specialty coffee consumption. Climate change is affecting coffee producers all over the world.
- Al drinks his coffee black and had to train himself to do that. He likes to taste the unique characteristics of each coffee. Al likes his coffee via french press or coffee that’s brewed on a batch machine with a filter. The Chemex method he likes to use on occasion, as it recreates the pour-over method. Al thinks he could even do a blind taste test!
- If Al could trade places with any other business in the Andersonville neighborhood, he would trade with Reza’s, (5255 N Clark) because he loves the cuisine and the complex flavor profiles.