Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Thistle Coffeehouse: Coffee Culture and Community in Midtown

Nicole Rupersburg
I first heard about Thistle Coffeehouse from Pastor Brenda Jarvis (of Riverside Community Church) and her son Kevin at a large group dinner at the Whitney in October 2009. What they told me sounded too good to be true: a third-wave coffeehouse offering free WiFi, free printing, late-night hours, student art showcases, in DETROIT. I immediately went home and wrote my then-editor at Model D, telling her how exciting it is and how we just have to cover it. This was early on in my business coverage days and I wasn't quite yet aware of the general journalism rules of thumb, which include not covering a business that has no lease, no equipment and no business license, just an enthusiastic idea and some business cards. She let me down easy, saying, "It sounds like heaven. If it ever opens."

Sometimes the truth hurts. Truth is, a lot of people have a lot of ideas. Making them a reality is something different entirely.

A year and a half later, I get a Facebook message from Kevin: "Thistle Coffeehouse now open!"

I'll be damned.

Er. Maybe I should re-phrase that...

Thistle Coffeehouse occupies the former pizzeria space across the street from the Bronx Bar on Second Ave. After a long drawn-out process of trying to find a building (which had been ongoing already as of October 2009 when we first met), Brenda and her husband signed the lease in late November, started the build-out in late January and was finished by early April. Thistle officially opened on April 17th.

"I've always loved Detroit," Brenda explains. "When I first came back [to the area] in 1990 until now it is completely different. There is a lot of revitalization; for the first time you can actually feel hope. I love the fact that this is a bigger spot so we can do more to help the community and offer a place to meet ... it's been a lot of fun really getting to know the different personalities and people; I really enjoy that."

As for ending up in Midtown, the favored front-runner of Detroit 2.0: "I really love Midtown," Brenda says. "I love the energy that's going on here. We were looking on Woodward initially, then someone showed us this place and it just felt right. Having the parking lot is great too."

Yes, there is a parking lot with free parking. In addition to that, there is free WiFi and plenty of power outlets, free printing with purchase of a coffee (up to 10 pages; then a nickel per page up to 30), late-night hours on Fridays and Saturdays (until midnight; open until 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday), and discounts for students and DMC employees. They also accept the Wayne State OneCard, have discount nights for bikers (Wednesdays) and BIKERS (Saturdays), and are completely open to showcasing student art at no charge.

"We're very into hanging artists," says Brenda, and I recall that when talking to her and her son previously this was a very real passion of Kevin's, who is an artist himself and understands how difficult it is for new artists to get exposure. (Kevin has since taken on a less active role with Thistle, working as a consultant instead.) "We're really trying to help people be seen."

A new artist/art showcase is featured on the first Friday of every month, and once the website is up and running photos of each piece will be taken and posted until the artist sells it and tells them to take it down. They're also looking to do open mic nights on Fridays and Saturdays; the youth-oriented group Citywide Poets will be hosting an event on June 25th. "We're just trying to be open to the artistic community and provide a place for the community itself to meet and gather." If you're interested in showing your art, contact Brenda at

Being involved with the community is one of Brenda's foremost passions and the primary mission of Thistle. Brenda is a pastor at Riverside Church, now located next to Thistle ("separate but together," as Brenda says). The Church has a VERY come-one, come-all mentality and encourages its members to be actively involved in the community. "Our members are infants to almost 80 and span the color spectrum. We've got folks who are living comfortably to folks who are homeless. I really love it because I look across that body and think, 'This is what we’re supposed to be about; we don’t all look the same or act the same or come from the same place.' We're Presbyterian but we don’t act like THAT; it's not quite my mom’s church!"

But if that gives you pause, get over it: "This isn't a place that you're going to come in and people are going to beat you over the head; it is a way for us to do more in the community that we're in, a means to an end." Brenda's long-term goal with Thistle is to be able to do more for the community, specifically to open a school for special needs children in the city. "My heart is broken for the state of the school system here," she says. "This community can’t be what it could be if the school system continues on as it is. Most school systems mainstream special needs children; it would be nice to see kids who need a little more time get it ... Everybody needs a chance."

"We've got big dreams," Brenda continues. "Opening a school is a big dream. I meet people who have kids [and they're fantastic people and] I want them to stay; I don't when them to leave [the city] when they have kids."

But the world will probably see a commercialized form of cold fusion before that riddle is solved. In the meantime, there's coffee. Really freaking good coffee.

Thistle is a third-wave coffeehouse, which means that it seeks to situate coffee in the same category as wine and craft beer - as an artisanal product with a complexity of flavor profiles dependent on a variety of variables (I'll be delving much more deeply into this in a forthcoming piece on Metromode). "We strive for a very specific excellence in everything we do here," explains Brenda. "Every day we test the grind because humidity changes the grind, just to make sure that what you get is the best you can get. Everything is French-pressed so the oils aren't broken down. [All staff is] trained on steaming and grinding."

The beans are ground in-house and sourced from a roaster in Indiana, Alliance World Coffees, which tests their beans every few minutes to make sure they're not over-roasting and works very closely with small farmers - farmers so small they can't afford to be Fair Trade Certified, even if their methods are in compliance. "We went for real Fair Trade," Brenda says. "It costs money to be certified Fair Trade; if you can afford to be certified then you probably don't need to be. [Alliance World Coffees] is a group that takes great pride in finding the best possible product from independent family farms, people [for which] this is their livelihood." Alliance is an independent company working very hard to get people to know about them. "If we’re coffee snobs, they’re the kings. I had to wait on my decaf because they didn’t like the product they got and sent it back; they wouldn’t sell it. I like that integrity."

The beans come in three days after roast. Brenda won't serve them until five days after roast so they've had time to de-gas. 10 days after roast they start to lose their flavor and get trashed. "They're great for compost!" Brenda jokes.

Thistle's espresso machine is top of the line, always maintaining the water temperature at the perfect 240 degrees so that it's not so hot it's scorching the oils but not so cool that the oils aren't being extracted. "Again, we're looking for consistency and excellence in everything we do," Brenda states. "There's a reason we set it at this temperature. There's a reason the press pot is set at a certain time with the coffee in it. It's good coffee, I want you to taste it!"

Part of that is getting away from the sugary coffee-flavored milk drinks that Planet Starbucks has trained would-be connoisseurs to understand as "coffee." "We don’t do whipped cream," Brenda says with a smile. "I like that we can say that [a particular coffee] is a nice medium- to medium-dark coffee with a chocolatey, earthy fragrance and educate the palate."

Currently Thistle offers a small selection of organic fruits and vegan goodies. There may also be a partnership with the Bagel Brothers down the line (thanks to a little birdie...tweet). Brenda's long-term plans are to build a full kitchen. All their service items are biodegradable from Michigan Greensafe Products. Inside, they saved everything they could in the build-out to reduce their global impact - pipes and wiring, any stick of lumber that was salvageable. They used wood from an architectural salvage for the molding and countertop. Even the furniture was either bought at Habitat's ReStore, gifted or purchased at local yard sales. "The only thing that's new here is the coffee machinery because our life blood depends on it."

The name Thistle is appropriate for the city, too. It came from a farming practice: "If you’re a farmer and need to redo your soil because it’s overworked, the first thing you do is grow thistle," Brenda explains. "They’re very stubborn and very hearty but when they die they put nitrogen and nutrients in the dirt and renew the soil."

It may not be the phoenix-from-the-ashes and Speramus meliora... people like to reference in talking about the city's renewal, but it works.

Monday through Thursday 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. to 12 a.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

View more photos of Thistle Coffeehouse on this Flickr photo set.

The Thistle Coffee Shop on Urbanspoon