“We don’t have cream or sugar.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“We don’t serve cream or sugar with our coffee. We’d be happy to make you a latte if you’d like.”
“I just want a cup of black coffee. And then I want to add cream and sugar. That’s how I’ve done it my whole life! Is there a Starbucks or something around here?”
If you’re having this conversation with the white-bearded man behind the counter at Troubadour Coffee Roasters, just hear him out. That man is the shop’s owner and operator, Tony DiCorpo. He just got back from Nicaragua where he drove 5,000 feet up a mountain to meet the people who cultivate his livelihood. Up there in the clouds, close to the equator, conditions are favorable for producing some of the finest coffee in the world, but the process is delicate. Seasonal weather shifts, soil quality, harvesting time, washing or drying techniques—all have the potential to make or break a crop. The intricacies of this endeavor require dedicated farmers, living and working in isolation, largely unknown.
DiCorpo witnessed this daily toil and returned to Fairview Park, Ohio with a renewed commitment to his craft: to honor those farmers by showcasing the remarkable fruits of their labor. And the best way to do this is to roast the coffee in small batches and serve it black, one cup at a time. That’s it.
But no cream and sugar? That’s a little much, right? You can call him an elitist, a purist, a control-freak—most people just call him the best.
“If you literally want the best coffee in this area, this is really where it’s at,” says DiCorpo. “And I don’t say that with an attitude. I say that because that’s what people tell me all the time. I hear it all the time, and it makes me proud.”
DiCorpo has been building his reputation as a master coffee roaster in Cleveland since he sprang up at the Lakewood Farmers Market in 2010. After a few years of working local markets, DiCorpo had won so many loyal customers that he needed a more permanent location to serve them year-round. He’s been at his current location in Fairview Park for the past year and a half, and business has been good.
Sample a cup of Troubadour coffee and DiCorpo’s success will seem obvious. Each sip brings a sense of wonder and joy. DiCorpo roasts lightly to highlight the coffee’s natural acidity, its source of flavor. Roast coffee too much and those flavor notes are disintegrated, leaving a charred residue to dominate the taste. Some think that the resulting bitterness is an inherent quality of black coffee, but DiCorpo assures them that this is usually a mark of burnt or old coffee. Troubadour coffee is sweet and supple. It can have a pleasant mouthfeel and a consistency more like tea. You won’t experience the grit-your-teeth, take-your-medicine style of black coffee that many have accepted as the norm. Instead, you might notice a natural sweetness or nuttiness; you might taste a note of peach, cherry, or even grapefruit. Each cup is an engaging sensory experience that resonates long after it’s done. Even the empty mug retains a pleasant aroma. Afterwards, you’ll probably have a lot of questions for DiCorpo. Mainly, how the hell did you do that?
DiCorpo will tell you that he should have asked a few more questions himself before entering the coffee industry. Originally hailing from Cleveland’s East Side, his foray into coffee began in Austin, Texas around 2004. He was tired of his job as a corporate travel agent. He didn’t know what he wanted to do instead, but knew he had to make a change. “I’m the kind of guy that will throw caution to the wind when I see opportunity,” DiCorpo said.
So he cashed in his 401k and opened a coffee shop. He lost some money for the first six months before he started consulting coffee professionals who provided him with much needed insight and sparked something in him that he didn’t expect: a deep interest in coffee. At the time he was a self-professed cream-and-sugar guy, but after tasting great coffee for the first time and hearing it described with terms usually reserved for wine, he was hooked. He switched to black coffee, began roasting his own beans, and never stopped asking questions. He experimented and learned relentlessly for four years. Just when he was recouping his lost profits and hitting his stride, the 2008 recession hit. A poor location coupled with a drop in customer coffee consumption led DiCorpo to close his shop and head back home.
Back in Ohio, DiCorpo saw a coffee/restaurant joint venture fail and quickly found himself with less than a thousand dollars to his name. Knowing that he didn’t want to work for anybody else, he had few options. What he had lost in finances, however, he had gained in experience and resolve.To serve as a guide, DiCorpo jotted down a list of every mistake he made in his previous ventures, lest he stumble again. “I don’t believe a mistake is bad if you learn from it,” DiCorpo said. “That’s why they put erasers on pencils, right?”
Then he got back to work. He purchased some raw coffee from a local supplier and began to roast, compensating for the lower quality by making custom blends. But there was something bugging him: he knew there was better coffee out there. So he started digging, until he gained access to the world of high-grade coffee that he exhibits today. “It’s more expensive,” DiCorpo said, “that’s why people don’t touch it.” But by doing something different, that people were not used to, DiCorpo believed he would find his audience.
And so he has. DiCorpo has built a sizable and loyal clientele in Fairview Park and attracts people from all over who are looking for something better. More times than not, they’ve been referred by existing customers. DiCorpo says that one couple from Mentor visits him about every three weeks to stock up on coffee, often three or four pounds a haul. They like Troubadour so much that it has replaced some of their traditional outlets for entertainment, like movies.
People aren’t coming to Troubadour to see and be seen. They’re coming to hang out, drink coffee, and to learn. DiCorpo loves to answer questions about a particular coffee’s origin, its qualities, and how to direct someone to their new favorite cup. In the tradition of early coffee shops, Troubadour is a space for the open exchange of ideas. If you want to go even more in-depth, DiCorpo offers two-hour tasting sessions that fill up fast. While the extensive information is a lot to take in, it’s worth it to gain a bit of insight and to see DiCorpo speak about a subject that he’s clearly so passionate about.
“This isn’t work to me,” he says. “You know, I don’t make the kind of money I made when I was a corporate travel agent, but, at the same point, this is fun. I come in every day. I have fun. I get to meet cool people and really share what I’ve learned along the way and help educate people, literally one cup at a time.”