Tyler Philips

OTR: Alchemist Coffee Co. (Washington, D.C.)

Tyler Philips wants you to drink better coffee.

The founder and co-owner of Alchemist Coffee Company, headquartered in Washington, D.C., Philips knows from his more than decade and a half in the restaurant and service industry that coffee can (and should) be better across the board.

And he thinks he’s found the way to do it.

“Bringing high quality coffee to more people, to a wider audience is why I started doing this,” Philips said in an interview at his retail and production facility in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast D.C.

Tastemakers, a food incubator, in Washington, D.C. (JW on the Road)

Philips specially brews coffee designed to be charged with nitrogen — commonly referred to as nitro coffee. He works out of Tastemakers, a food and restaurant incubator of sorts, that brings together more than 40 food entrepreneurs in a shared commercial kitchen and food-hall-style retail environment. Philips has been in the space since January 2018.

‘Really amazing fruit’

From his time working in restaurants, bars and coffee shops across the D.C. area, Philips saw the problem — when coffee was great, it was exceptional, but with that also came the risk of coffee that was adequate, inconsistent, or bad.

“It’s not just this shelf-stable drug that sits in your cabinet that you want to pull out and drink to get some energy,” Philips said. “It’s actually an amazing fruit with a lot of complexity and a lot of variation depending on where it’s grown.”

Even as the specialty coffee industry grew across the U.S. and internationally, Philips said there was room for a better product that emphasized the level of quality and passion growers and roasters bring to the product.

“It has a huge variance in terms of flavors that are really, really, really delicious, really, really, really wonderful, but are hard to access right now consistently,” Philips said.

From Alchemist’s launch in 2015, until late 2018, Philips’ coffee was only available cold.

It was a problem he knew he would have to solve.

But last fall, Philips cracked the code: the nation’s (presumably) first hot draft coffee. The coffee comes out at 170 degrees and also has a crema-like foam on top from the nitrogen.

Draft coffee — hot and cold — starts to solve the consistency problem that specialty coffee has faced as the industry has pivoted from niche coffee fans to the mainstream.

Draft Iced Coffee
A draft coffee to go from Alchemist Coffee’s retail space (JW on the Road)

Take pour-over coffee, for instance. A customer picks a specific coffee, usually one that comes from a single origin point (think a single farm in a single country). Then, the barista measures a specific amount of coffee, and a specific amount of water. The barista grinds the whole bean coffee to a specific size, based on the coffee’s individual characteristics. Then, pours hot water (usually at a specific temperature) over the ground coffee through a device that looks like an open-face drip coffee maker at a certain rate of speed over a certain amount of time. The customer pays a higher-than-average price for that coffee with almost no guarantee that they will like the flavor of the coffee or that that barista did every step of the process perfectly.

“You just have to hope that the coffee’s fresh, that it’s roasted well, that it’s properly developed, that the person brewing it is not going to make a mistake and that the grind setting has been dialed in,” Philips said. “You just kind of have to hope that all those things are true, and yeah, at great shops a lot of the times they are. But sometimes they’re not.”

Philips said draft coffee is “right up there with the best of pour-overs,” and overcomes several of the dilemmas that specialty coffee pour-overs present — namely the ability to taste a coffee before committing to a hefty price tag.

“If you see a menu of pour-overs, you can’t taste a pour-over before you drink it,” Philips said. “Having the ability to taste something before you shell out four, or five, or six bucks for it is nice.”

In addition, Alchemist’s batch brewing and production method cuts down on waste. Kegged coffee also lasts up to 30 days, “so you don’t need to worry about throwing out coffee every night.”

Philips sources his coffee from four roasters — Ceremony (in Annapolis, Maryland), Heart (in Portland, Oregon), Counter Culture (in Durham, North Carolina) and Tim Wendelboe (in Oslo, Norway) — and brews it hot to specifications he has ironed out over the now nearly four years that he’s operated as Alchemist Coffee.

Then, he flash chills it. Putting it in a keg and charging it with nitrogen preserves the coffee for a longer duration by removing the oxygen from the keg, prohibiting the coffee from going stale or losing its freshness.

Alchemist Coffee's Retail Place
Alchemist Coffee’s retail stand at Tastemakers in Washington, D.C. (JW on the Road)

A server or bartender — at one of his more than 50 wholesale accounts or at his retail stand at Tastemakers — pulls on a standard beer tap outfitted with a nitro tip. And out comes the coffee, cold, crisp and as fresh as the day it was brewed. In addition, the coffee boasts a Guinness-style nitrogen foam head on top, giving it a beautiful appearance.

Addressing cold brew

Cold brew coffee — brewed by steeping ground coffee in room temperature water for long periods of time — has been around coffee circles for the better of the last decade, but hit the mainstream scene in 2015 when Starbucks introduced it nationwide. Some shops — like the Gregory’s Coffee chain — serve exclusively cold brew as their iced coffee offering.

Also in 2015, Portland, Oregon’s, Stumptown Coffee Roasters started charging their cold brew with nitrogen to provide the same frothy texture Alchemist’s coffee presents.

But the end products, Philips said, are different.

By brewing hot, Philips said Alchemist Coffee extracts the flavors that make coffee taste like coffee in the most effective and efficient way.

“A lot of the soluble compounds which make up the flavor of coffee do not dissolve well in cold water,” Philips said.

Chemical elements and compounds in coffee that make the drink taste bitter, acidic, sweet and complex don’t dissolve effectively in cold water. The two main selling points for cold brew to many customers — an extra caffeine jolt and a lack of bitterness — are compelling. But well-roasted and brewed coffee can provide a more-balanced beverage that brings out flavors the day-to-day coffee drinker may never have known were possible.

“One of the reasons why cold brew tends to be stronger than other coffees is because caffeine is very water soluble,” Philips said. “If you want to get a beverage that tastes like coffee, you have to use a lot more ground coffee in the [cold] water than you otherwise would with a hot coffee.”

The end result, Philips said, is something that mimics some of the flavors of coffee, but with more extracted caffeine due to the solubility.

Cold brewing coffee, however, can help soften some flaws in coffee, Philips said.

“If you have a high quality coffee that tastes amazing, and then you cold brew it, you’re not going to get a lot of that flavor,” Philips said. “You might get hints, or traces, of it, but if you have coffee that has certain flaws in it, if you cold brew it, it will taste fine. So, cold brew certainly has its uses.”

For Philips, Alchemist is about more than delivering that caffeinated product — it’s about introducing people to an incredible coffee experience.

“If you’re trying to introduce people to amazing coffee that will give them a nice, exciting experience that will open up their minds a little bit to what coffee could be, you have to brew it hot,” Philips said.

Introducing hot draft

While Philip believes he has a superior product to cold brew when it comes to the nitro coffee market, there was still something missing from his product suite: hot coffee.

“I knew, OK, I have to find a way to serve it hot,” Philips said. “Can I build something? Is there a way for me to heat it up? What can we do?”

The solution came when Philips discovered a draft technician headquartered outside of Chicago who created a hot draft system to serve hot chocolate at a stadium.

After the discovery, Philips brought a keg of his coffee to the technician’s headquarters to test it out and “it came out really well.” Enter hot draft coffee.

The machine is still undergoing wider production as of this writing. Philips has one of the first units produced at his retail location at Tastemakers.

“It tastes great, and it just gets around so many of the things that stand in the way of restaurants serving high-quality coffee,” Philips said. “The cleaning is very minimal, the training is very minimal.”

Hot Draft Coffee
Hot draft coffee pours with the same crema-like foam that the iced nitro offering has. (JW on the Road)

Serving the restaurant industry

The potential to bring hot draft coffee to a wider audience solves two key problems in the food and beverage industry, Philips said: a lack of mass-market, high-quality specialty coffee, and the inability for restaurants to serve great coffee with the ease of other beverages.

In the restaurant industry, even some of the most renowned restaurants struggle to be able to devote the time and energy necessary to brew specialty coffee well, Philips said.

The coffee industry — namely through specialty coffee shops — has grown into one where precision shines, and the flavor of the beverage you’re served is dependent upon that precision. In restaurants, that time and attention to precision is ordinarily reserved for the food — not for the coffee.

“Despite the best of intentions, despite everything else on the menu having a lot of thought and passion and craft put into it, coffee kind of falls by the wayside 99.9 percent of the time,” Philips said.

But hot draft — and the original nitro iced coffee offering — solve that problem for restaurants. Alchemist Coffee brews coffee with the requisite amount of precision, puts it in a keg and charges it with nitrogen.

All a restaurant has to do is hook that keg into its tap system.

“The infrastructure and training to serve delicious coffee is already there,” Philips said. “If we do all the hard work of sourcing high quality coffee, making sure we brew it when it’s fresh, pay close attention to it, use the right water, use a good grinder, then restaurants and bars can serve a high quality coffee using systems already in their wheelhouse.”

Draft Iced Coffee 2
Alchemist’s draft coffee, not cold brew, is available at more than 50 locations across the D.C. metro area. (JW on the Road)

Serving high quality coffee from roasters like Wendelboe and Heart would be akin to restaurants serving high quality wine and beer — something most restaurants already do quite well, Philips said.

“Restaurants don’t make their own beer, they don’t make their own wine, but they have a ton of delicious wine and beer there,” Philips said. “[With hot and cold draft coffee] restaurants can focus on food, and coffee can just be one of those things where they can offer a high quality product without having to literally brew it themselves.”

In addition to saving servers, bussers and other restaurant staff time, a product like Alchemist Coffee’s offerings offers a visually attractive product over a standard cuppa. The coffee, both hot and cold, pours with a thick Guinness-like froth head.

“It has a beautiful appearance, and people respond to it,” Philips said. “It looks special, it doesn’t just taste special, which is important in the world that we live in.”

‘A step in the right direction’ for specialty coffee

For the specialty coffee industry, hot draft is “a step in the right direction” toward access to high quality coffees in the mass market, Philips said.

Getting those high quality coffees in front of as many consumers as possible, though, is a challenge even the largest and most successful specialty coffee companies haven’t cracked yet. Some coffees that win international competitions sell for more than $100/pound green (or raw), but the average consumer doesn’t have the equipment to brew them for their money’s worth at home.

So, specialty coffee companies are investing a “ton of money” in ways to make that happen, Philips said.

“There’s a ton of money being put into specialty instant coffee, there’s a ton of money being put into pods, like specialty pods — not Keurigs, but getting high quality coffee and putting it into a pod,” Philips said.

And while work on those products continues and may see some results down the road, hot draft is a way for restaurants, bars, and coffee shops to cross that bridge now — at least with the coffee Philips offers. (Tim Wendelboe, a Nordic roaster whose coffee Alchemist carries and serves hot and cold, won the World Barista Championship in 2004 and the World Cup Tasters Championship in 2005.)

Hot draft can lay the groundwork for a world where baristas are more like sommeliers, instead of brewers, Philips said.

Now, in coffee shops across the country, baristas generally spend most of their time — both behind the bar and in trainings — on technical skills, but with a company like Alchemist supplying precisely-brewed and quality-controlled coffee on tap (hot and cold), those same baristas would be able to spend more time on studying the characteristics that make coffee special and truly embrace a sommelier-like position.

“To me, this hot draft coffee machine is a step in the right direction, and it tastes way better than any pod that I’ve ever had,” Philips said. “I give people a taste of it and they’re like ‘I had no idea coffee could taste like this.’ That’s exactly what I want to hear.”

From Mockingbird to Alchemist

Philips has worked in restaurants and coffee shops since he was 15 years old, and later got experience in bars. Those jobs, he said, formed both the business case for what became Alchemist Coffee, and the passion that went into the product.

In college, while attending Longwood University, Philips worked at a bakery literally called “The Bakery” that taught him about quality and integrity in the product.

“Incredible bread, incredibly good wine and beer, in Farmville, Virginia, at a time where there was nothing,” Philips said. “That kind of introduced me to good food, and having integrity for what you do in the food industry, and having pride in what you do, and not taking the easy route.”

Fast forward several industry jobs later, Philips became a bartender/barista at Mockingbird Hill — a now-defunct sherry-focused bar in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. In addition to sherry, though, Mockingbird Hill opened in the mornings on weekends and had a coffee program curated by Cory Andreen — 2012 World Taster’s Cup Champion and co-owner of Motel Coffee, formerly known as Brewbox — a cafe in Berlin.

On any given Saturday, Mockingbird Hill had nearly two dozen specialty coffees from all over the world available to serve via pour over. Customers could also purchase coffee cocktails, a weekly coffee of the day and nitro iced coffee.

“It wasn’t perfect, but oh my God, it was way ahead of its time,” Philips said.

The best seller though, for that coffee program, was the nitro coffee.

When Mockingbird Hill ended its coffee program, Philips knew his next move: take nitro coffee wholesale to serve the same industry he had spent so much of his life in.

With the purchase of some equipment, and the creation of a production space in the kitchen of his apartment in Alexandria, Virginia (where he lived with his wife, Heather), Alchemist Coffee was born.

“We converted the kitchen to the production space because the oven had a 220V plug which I needed for my brewer,” Philips said. “That meant our actual cooking had to be done on the grill outside or on our single convection plug-in burner.”

In the beginning, however, Philips continued to work multiple jobs — including bartending while he got his company off the ground.

Alchemist Coffee Co Sign
(JW on the Road)

“I started off doing this coffee company part time,” Philips said. “I was bartending. It was difficult to do — working in the evenings and then trying to drag yourself out of bed in the mornings to brew and sell and deliver coffee. It’s two different extremes.”

Eventually, after about a year and a half, Philips “was burnt out” and had to decide if he “wanted to continue to pursue bartending or try to make this idea actually work.”

He left his service industry jobs to take Alchemist Coffee full time.

In February, he brought on a partner to help with the day-to-day operations of Alchemist Coffee. Aaron Banschick was Philips’ employee first, but later bought into the business to support Philips’ vision.

“It’s great to work with someone who shares my vision for what great coffee service can look like,” Philips said.

Philips, his wife and their newborn child now live in a D.C. apartment not far from his space at Tastemakers. It has a fully-functioning kitchen.

Looking forward

Now that Banschick has joined the business, Philips’ main focus continues to be “brewing and selling good coffee,” but that doesn’t mean that’s all to expect from the future of Alchemist Coffee.

Draft Coffee and Tea
Nitro Iced Coffee (Left) and Nitro Hibiscus Tea (Right) are available at both locations of Washington, D.C.’s The Coffee Bar. (JW on the Road)

The company’s more experimental offerings are on tap at their Tastemakers retail facility, including a hibiscus draft tea, a seasonal chai, three coffees and a kombucha. Two coffees, from Heart and Wendelboe respectively, are also available on the hot draft system.

Last month, Alchemist released its first wholesale tea offering — a draft hibiscus tea to The Coffee Bar. The Coffee Bar, which has carried Alchemist Coffee offerings since July 2017, has two locations in D.C.

“The hibiscus tea is something extra we do for fun,” Philips said. “We’ve been serving it for a year at our retail booth, and due to the positive response, we figured it’d be a nice add-on for our wholesale customers.”

With hot and cold draft coffee (and eventually tea), Alchemist Coffee and Tyler Philips are still rooted in just one focus: “bringing high quality coffee to more people.”

OTR, short for “On the Road” — This series highlights a particular restaurant, place or experience. To be clear, these are not reviews, but instead a look inside an organization, a meal or flavors. While I think there’s a place for reviews (and maybe a place for reviews here sometime in the future), there are establishments and food worthy of noting and celebrating. That’s what these posts are about.

OTR: Gunshow (Atlanta, Ga.)

The blocks surrounding Gunshow are pretty unassuming — a few restaurants, a few bars and a coffee shop or two — but perhaps unknown to pedestrians walking by is that on the corner of Garrett Street and Bill Kennedy Way sits a culinary marvel.

Opened in 2013, Gunshow is a concept from Kevin Gillespie, the Atlanta-born chef, former Top Chef contestant and restaurateur behind Red Beard Restaurants.

The idea: Each night, a handful of chefs (there were 7 the night I went) develop a few small plates designed to be shared across the table.

When the restaurant opened, Atlanta Magazine called it one of “the most promising, perplexing, interactive, and utterly ballsy restaurants Atlanta has ever seen.” The Infatuation — a localized restaurant review website focused on “honest opinions” — described the Glenwood Park spot’s menu as one where “squid ink rigatoni [is just] as likely to pop up as mapo tofu or squash blossom dumplings.”

Inside the building, the restaurant feels open. There are few walls, and every seat in the house has a pretty decent view of the kitchen, which occupies a full side of the space.

According to the restaurant’s website, the name is a tribute to Gillespie’s family and the time he spent with his father going to actual, literal gunshows.

As for price, the bill can certainly get away from you here. The key is Gunshow is an experience. It’s the kind of place you go to for a celebration of life, food and drink. You’re going to want to try everything on the menu, and you should. So save it for a special occasion — or make it an annual treat, since it will be different every single time.

How it works

As you get seated, a server explains that one of the only times you will see him or her will be to ensure that your drinks remain filled. For the food, you’re completely in the hands of the chefs.

Shortly after you begin sipping your beverage of choice (and let me tell you, there are some choice beverages here), the chefs begin circulating and showing off their initial courses. From that moment on, you’ll be presented with a whirlwind of a dozen or so dishes and many choices of custom cocktails.

Because the exact menu changes regularly, you can never really guarantee what you’ll get at Gunshow. That’s the beauty of it.

On the table

Let’s dive in a bit on what was on the menu for our early-August feast:

Gunshow — After School Special Cocktail
The “After School Special” cocktail with rye whiskey, blackberry barolo chinato, créme de cassis, caraway and green peanut oil. (JW on the Road)

The cocktail program at Gunshow would’ve been the best part of the restaurant almost anywhere else, but because the food was so innovative and exciting, the cocktails took a backseat — and that’s a-ok here.

Not pictured: the three-to-five more cocktails I photographed (and consumed).

Roasted Wild Striped Bass
Roasted wild striped bass, served on top of summer beans and sweet peas, with spicy peppers and a pistachio puree. (JW on the Road)

This bass dish was the first plate to hit our table. I loved the colors here, specifically how the crisped fish stood out from the bright green purée on the bright white round plate. This dish was the most expensive singular small plate on the menu, coming in at $20.

Chilled Dashi Okra
Chilled dashi okra served in a tomato broth with a sesame custard. (JW on the Road)

I’m a big okra fan always, and the take on it here was really exciting. The okra itself surged with flavors of dashi (a Japanese fish stock made with kelp and dried, fermented tuna flakes), but was rounded out really well by the acidity in the tomato broth.

Summer Succotash
Summer succotash with whipped pimento cheese, shishito peppers, tempura’d pickled green beans and chanterelle mushrooms. (JW on the Road)

What a take on succotash! In heritage American cooking (in my home state of Pennsylvania, New England and in the South as well), succotash is typically a mix of lima beans, corn and some other vegetables. At Gunshow, they pay homage to that with those two elements, but add some chanterelle mushrooms and serve it alongside lightly-tempura-fried pickled green beans and a whipped pimento cheese. This dish worked best when you got a little bit of everything together.

Dhaba Chicken
Dhaba chicken served with okra pakora, eggplant and raita. (JW on the Road)

My father lost his mind over this dhaba chicken (spelled on their menu daba).

In India, a dhaba is a roadside restaurant that generally serves local cuisine, but doubles as a truck stop that gives weary travels and drivers a break from the road. This dhaba chicken dish pays homage to those roadside restaurants and comes with an okra fritter (called pakora in Indian cuisine), some rice and a raita dipping sauce. Raita is a condiment made from yogurt, cucumber and mint.

Beef Heart Polpetta
Beef heart polpetta on top of an olive polenta cake and topped with anchovies and a take on a puttanesca. (JW on the Road)

A polpetta, or meatball, made of beef heart? You crazy for this one, Gunshow.

The savory flavors of this dish hit perfectly with just the right notes of acidity over and over again. My Dad and stepmom wouldn’t try this, but my girlfriend and I took care of it. More for us. This was probably among the top three for me.

Beef Tartare BLT
Beef tartare “BLT” with bacon fat mayo, and local tomato, served on top of a lettuce cream. (JW on the Road)

Keeping with the beef theme here, let’s try some raw.

Again, another dish my folks wouldn’t touch. I, on the other hand, will eat raw beef any chance I can. This take on beef tartare is intended to mimic a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich). The raw beef is coated in a bacon fat mayonnaise and comes with fresh, local tomatoes. The coolest part of this dish? Lettuce cream! I didn’t know I needed puréed lettuce in my life — this plate told me I have been missing out.

Grilled Georgia Peach
Grilled Georgia Peach with fried feta, marinated tomatoes, fennel and sherry. (JW on the Road)

It’s Georgia. You’ve got to have a dish with a Georgia peach.

Gunshow must’ve known exactly the way I feel about peaches. I’m a big fan, but love them most when they’re grilled. Something about the way the sugar in the peaches caramelize when it hits the grill blows my mind every single time.

This time around, the peaches were not even the most outstanding part of this dish. Instead, it was this fried feta with a sherry sauce drizzled on top. The sherry complemented the sweetness of the peaches perfectly, while the saltiness of the feta shined when fried. We got this plate just as we were transitioning into dessert, which was the exact perfect place for it.

Old Fashioned Banana Pudding
Warm, old fashioned banana pudding. (JW on the Road)

I randomly got cravings for banana pudding before Gunshow, now I randomly get cravings for THIS banana pudding. No fanciness to describe here — just simple, delicious, perfect banana pudding.

Fig Tart
Fig tart with a sesame caramel, coffee, chocolate, yuzu and white chocolate ice cream. (JW on the Road)

Every time I eat anything white chocolate, I tell people that it’s not real chocolate. I don’t know why. It’s just what I do.

If white chocolate has a home, it’s here, with figs and sesame caramel with flavors of coffee, chocolate and yuzu (a lemon-y citrus fruit).

Final thoughts

I’ll be at Gunshow again. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

It’s not just a meal, it’s not just a celebration, it’s not just a dinner. It’s an education. It’s an experience.

JW on the Road (the blog) is kicking off with this post for a reason — Gunshow embodies everything that this site will hopefully be about. I can’t do it as well as these chefs can, but I can take you along on the journey. That’s what it’s all about in the end, anyway.

How do I eat this food?

Gunshow is in Atlanta, Georgia, southeast of downtown and not too far from the historic Oakland Cemetery. Reservations open up on Yelp one month in advance of when you plan to go, so mark your calendars.

OTR, short for “On the Road”  — This series highlights a particular restaurant, place or experience. To be clear, these are not reviews, but instead a look inside an organization, a meal or flavors. While I think there’s a place for reviews (and maybe a place for reviews here sometime in the future), there are establishments and food worthy of noting and celebrating. That’s what these posts are about.