The story of Valentine coffee starts with loving all things delectable, then wondering why. Robb and Joe sensory evaluate everything, and their backgrounds in the food and wine industry across the globe have fueled that passion to understand what makes coffee, and really anything they come across, taste good.
Born in Seattle, Robb moved with his family to Milwaukee as a young boy in 1976. What began as casual coffee drinking in high school grew to copious consumption as a student at Marquette University. At the time however, all there was to be found was insipid, commercial-grade diner coffee used mostly as a study aid.
After college, Robb began a restaurant career. Here his curiosity was met and encouraged, and he developed a palette for food and wine. The mid-nineties found Robb in Poland following a dream of playing pro soccer. He traveled light by necessity, but coffee stayed with him. Relying on a Melitta filter and a hot water kettle, the lessons of weight, grind, temperature, time and — most dramatically — origin caught Robb’s full attention. Alas, professional soccer just wasn’t in his future. He spent some time in London before returning to the States and ultimately settling in Oregon. It was there that Robb had his first exposure to micro-roasting and specialty coffee. The different methods of roasting and the nuances of flavors and aromas immediately struck a chord and reminded him of the language he was familiar with from his wine experience. It was most certainly an “a-ha” moment. From there, life and work took him to the Big Island of Hawai’i, where he began thinking about coffee farming, processing and terroir.
Robb ultimately moved back to Wisconsin and began selling wine. Conversations about wine led to its similarity with coffee and back, and an idea formed. More conversations and the daily pursuit of a delicious, balanced cup of coffee caused the idea to take root. After much research and hands-on classes with industry leaders, Robb began roasting. Batch after batch, every day for a year, he worked in his garage. In 2009, Robb and his wife Virginia took the big leap and purchased a Diedrich IR-12 roaster; Valentine Coffee Co. was born. Later that year, the first pour-over cup of Valentine Coffee was sold at a farmers market in trade for a bag of snap peas.
What started as a preschooler sipping the leftover half-cup mom left on the kitchen table, Joe’s first experiences with coffee left a lasting impression. Later, working in restaurants at a still early age when everyone else was drinking sugary soda for sustaining caffeine, Joe chose coffee. Soon it became an integral part of his life and daily routine. Cooking and drinking coffee through high school, it was no surprise that his first college paper was on the burgeoning specialty coffee scene in America in the early nineties.
Predictably, as a young college man his taste evolved to include beer, and just as predictably he grew interested in the “what & why” behind this industry as well. With a new American craft brewing scene in full bloom, Joe took a job at a brewpub, got involved, and learned what he could. Whiskey was next, leading to extended trips to Kentucky, Tennessee, the library and the store. These were early introductions to what he would come to know as terroir — the particular “somewhereness” of a sensory experience, an identifiable stamp of tradition, time, and place.
By the time Joe was running his own restaurant & bar, an ever-present affection for and fascination with wine was calling to be answered. This led to a pulling-up of roots, relocation to California’s Napa Valley, and three years of terroir education. Through and through, Joe maintained a healthy relationship with his first love, coffee. The earliest days of Valentine were catalogued in regular parcels of green and roasted coffee from and daily calls with Robb. When the timing was right, Joe returned to Milwaukee to join the effort; within hours he was at work and hasn’t looked back.
Not long after that Robb came back to Milwaukee and started managing restaurants where he met Joe, and found they were like-minded. Their friendship started over a stout and a whiskey and the conversion was lively as they discussed the beverages and how they taste & work together. Their Kung Fu was very strong, and a typical conversation about food, wine, beer, or coffee might go like this:
Wow, this tastes good.
Ok, you taste berry, what kind of berry?
Is it a young or old?
Is it cooked?
Is it ripe?
Is it macerated?
Their mutual love of all things that taste good, and the desire to dissect everything they tasted, fueled the friendship. Through these conversations and the respect they both had for coffee, the realization came that they couldn’t find a good cup anywhere.
Joe was getting serious about wine, and as he had done with everything else he was serious about in life, he jumped in headfirst. That could only mean moving to Napa, and immersing himself in the wine growing region’s culture and people, so he could get the experience that could only be gained first hand. About this same time Robb was working in Milwaukee selling wine and developing wine lists, but something was missing, he wanted to work for himself, and he needed a great cup of coffee.
In daily contact from across the country with Joe, Robb started roasting coffee in his garage, on a sample roaster, ½ pound at a time. For about a year Robb roasted coffee every day and each time changed one thing. Taking meticulous notes on each roast he figured out what each change did to the coffee. Robb was was learning about time and temperature curve, about the process of developing a roasting profile.
Robb Recalls: “I remember the day I called and said Joey, I just made good coffee! That was the Bering Sea Blend.”
From there they went to Diedrich in Ponderay Idaho and took a class on roasting coffee, all of the information was at their fingertips and it was overwhelming. Roasting coffee on a larger scale was the next step; the only thing to do was take a tax return and a credit card and buy a refurbished roaster. Naturally they needed a place to roast coffee, so Robb called his friend Joe Bartalotta who helped him acquire the first space in an old commercial kitchen. Valentine roasted there for 2.5 years on the larger machine, until they found that same level of balance they had during their sample roasts. The first cup of coffee was a pour over sold in Menomonee Falls to a farmer who took one sip and said, “That’s damn good coffee” and bought a bag of beans.
The business grew quickly and eventually it became more than Robb could handle on his own, so Joe moved back to Milwaukee and became his partner in the newly formed Valentine Coffee. Valentine is a family name, Robb’s grandfather is from the Pribilof islands near the Bering Sea, and it was always said if you were stuck on an island in the middle of the bearing sea, a good cup of coffee might be nice. Now serving coffee in restaurants and retail outlets across the city as well as in the newly constructed tasting room and roastery on Vilet Street, Valentine is growing rapidly. The goal as Joe puts it very succinctly, “Is to sell our coffee to anyone who enjoys it.”