Ben Crowell is the founder and owner of Glassworks Coffee. In the first installment of Spillin' the Beans, Ben discusses how Glassworks came to be.
My Dad was a big coffee enthusiast, and would drink it all through the day, even at dinner (which I thought was crazy as a child). I remember deciding at a very young age that it smelled better than most things, and looked forward to the day when I could appreciate the way it tasted, then allowing it to become a large part of my life. Although my love for coffee has been lifelong, the road to becoming a roaster was circuitous. As I have realized, life does not always offer a direct path.
I moved to Chicago toward the end of the century, and what drew me here was an extremely vibrant and important music and art scene. Within a short time, I was lucky enough to find myself interning at Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records, which quickly led to an opportunity to work there for close to a decade.
When Touch and Go announced they would be relocating and slimming down, I wasn’t completely sure what the next step was going to be but had some time to figure it out. I toyed with a few ideas, like becoming a piano tuner or finding a box of money. I was actually in line at the café around the corner from the T&G offices that I visited on a daily basis (now Spoken) when the idea dawned on me. I was able to then draw a line in my head to someone I knew through music that had taken a job in coffee, and inquired accordingly.
As Halloween approached, I was able to get a job at Metropolis Coffee Company, with the intention of being trained to roast. I mostly trained with Patrick Grzelewski, who has been at Stumptown in New York for years now. I think I was officially roasting on my own shortly after the new year. I roasted for Metropolis for over three years, and was the head of the roasting department for about two and a half of those. Coffee roasting allows you time to sit with your thoughts, and during that time entrepreneurial gears started turning inside my head. I have many ideas that come and go, but this one persisted and I decided to follow it through.
One of the biggest hurdles to opening a new business is finding a space, and with many things in life, it involved a little serendipity. As a long time resident in the Albany Park/Lincoln Square neighborhoods, I’ve been a regular at Rockwell’s, especially during the nascent stage of planning the roastery. It served as a good location to meet with people to pick their brains, discuss artwork, eat nachos, etc. If think you are a fan of nachos, and have not been to Rockwell’s, well you haven’t had nachos. Two of the bartenders and managers that I became friendly with were in the process of opening up a brewery called Aleman. They had recently secured a space on the Northwest side of the city. One day I mentioned in passing what I was trying to do and asked what their accommodations were like. I hinted that it might be beneficial to both companies to consider the idea of the roastery occupying a corner of their space and we rolled with it. They’re a bunch of really down to earth, nice guys, and the environment is very conducive to brainstorming, experimentation and collaboration.
The next step was to find a machine. I’m roasting on a small, Frankensteined pre-WWII Austrian machine manufactured by Otto Swadlo from Vienna. You don’t see many of them around, particularly since the well known German company Probat bought them in the 60s. I appreciate the simplicity of the machine, and enjoy seeing something manufactured so long ago (the molds, castings, and dies are from the 1920’s, possibly modified slightly in the 30’s) finding purpose and driving a small business nearly a century later in Chicago.
Glassworks, as a company, was several years in the making, and went through a handful of incarnations, each named differently. Music has been a large and driving part of my life and inspiration for as long as I can remember, and I’ve had a huge respect and admiration for Philip Glass since I was first introduced to his music as a teenager while skipping school to see Candyman. I had started playing the piano when I was four years old and airy, minimalist piano work has long held a very special place in my heart. I was a kid in a Samhain t-shirt reading Lovecraft, Burroughs and interviews with Danzig, Sonic Youth, and the Jesus Lizard while also enjoying the meditative qualities of records like Glassworks. To this day, this record acts as a calming, centering and inspiring tool that I use when I feel anxious or stressed to the max. Honestly though, while I find Glassworks to be an absolutely beautiful, pristine record, I would be lying if I said it was my favorite work of his. The problem is, who would buy coffee from a roaster named Solo Piano??? I also have a huge appreciation of and regularly use the Chemex coffeemaker, not only for its superior brewing, but also it’s design. After a decade of working for Touch & Go, a company that is famous for integrity in its business practices, the word glass embodied this idea of transparency and honesty.
Aside from music, horror has been a long-standing passion of mine. In my childhood, I drew skeletons and jack-o-lanterns all year long in anticipation of Halloween, would spend hours lost in tales of weird and cosmic horror fiction and quietly watched films late at night. I’ve never been able to shake it and never saw a reason to. When I started working in coffee in 2010, I quickly started noticing that espresso was commonly abbreviated as ESP, which immediately caught my eye. I was equally intrigued that I could not find evidence of anyone using the very obvious (to me) Black Magic as a name for a coffee. Things took shape from there. I’ve kept the references subtle, but there are many, and will continue to be. Visual aesthetics are of great importance to me, and I’m fortunate in that I am friends with several extremely talented artists. I spoke with a handful of them about my ideas, and eventually settled on working with Ben Chlapek (Never Sleeping). His hand drawn imagery works really well, and is reminiscent of the illustrations in spooky books I read as a child. When it came to label design, I again lucked out by being able to work with David Babbitt, who was the art director for Touch and Go for a number of years, and also did design and graphic work for many Wax Trax! artists through his work at Interzone, not to mention other artists such as Chris & Cosey, Psychic TV, Coil, Andy Cohen, Bottomless Pit, Mint Mile, and countless others. He took Ben’s imagery and basically didn’t listen to anything I said I’d like him to do with it. Instead, he designed what is now the aesthetic of Glassworks, utilizing coffee stains, a nod to Ouija boards and even found a way to squeeze our shared respect for Factory Records in there.
In Espírito Santo, a coffee growing region of Brazil
Once all of the logistics worked out, I was finally able to think about the most important thing, the coffee! When you talk about region, the biggest differentiator will be the terroir, or the soil composition, topography, and climate. Personally, I have strong leanings toward Central/South American, as well as African coffees. The chocolate, nut and caramel notes you find in nice coffees from countries like Brazil, Colombia, Peru and others really get me. Coffees from Africa tend to have more floral and even bright fruity characteristics, which can be exciting and exhilarating (at least within the confines of being a beverage). I have cupped African coffees that taste and smell like Fruity Pebbles or orange soda, and that’s pretty incredible if you think about it. I tried some Chinese coffees a year or so ago and was surprised to find them much more in line with the fruitiness of Ethiopians than the herbal, woody aspects of Indonesian and other Pacific island coffees. I have a great appreciation for single origin coffees, but also for well curated blends. Finding coffees that, in appropriate proportion, enhance and elevate each other is really gratifying. There’s an underappreciated culinary aspect to it, in my opinion.
It’s interesting to see how all the different threads of your life can come together to make something unique. It’s much easier at this point of my life to say how music and coffee go together than to think of how one would separate them. That said, I know there are people out there that aren’t driven by music, or don’t like coffee. I wish you well, but stay as far away from me as possible.
I’ve spent most of my years reveling in the stimulation and gratification I find in creative accomplishments, and have found them in both music and coffee. Music affects me very deeply, inspiring me to look for creative new approaches to various things, painting pictures in my mind, helping me focus as well as helping me escape. It serves as a key to unlocking different levels to my creativity. Sometimes, if I find myself stuck on something, I will actually repeatedly listen to the same music until I overcome the obstacle in my brain (which is precisely happened with naming Glassworks). There is so, so much absolutely horrible music in this world, but man, the good stuff is stuff that I can no longer separate from the core of who I am.
Coffee is interwoven into decades of music related memories for me, and also shares similar alchemical qualities in my mind. Days spent drinking coffee and listening to records with friends. Quiet mornings alone with coffee and a perfect record. Making breakfast for a band that slept at your house on tour. These are all things I look back on fondly and always will. Aside from that, the ability to concoct and assemble something as an expression of your creativity translates to coffee. You’ve painstakingly worked on every aspect of a package, hoping that someone will shuffle to their kitchen cabinet and grab it at the start of their day, when company stops by, or when they need a pick me up. Having them choose what you've put out there is an amazingly gratifying experience.