You may grumble about paying $5 for a latte. But the coffee supply chain has increasingly come under scrutiny for its questionable ethics—even fair-trade-certified beans have been called into question for their potentially negative impact on small coffee farmers in developing nations. With Queen City Collective Coffee’s “farm-to-cup” mantra, however, Denverites can be sure that their morning java habit is benefitting—not disenfranchising—small bean producers around the world.
The two-year-old company, which already sells its coffee wholesale to accounts around town (including Crema Coffee House and Old Major), opened its first cafe in June in the Baker neighborhood. There, a series of rotating brews and espressos showcase coffees from six countries around the world, imported from producers whom Colorado Springs-born brothers and co-owners Scott, Luke, and Eric Byington know personally. “Our goal is to source beans directly from farmers who we know and trust and create sustainable rural livelihoods through coffee,” Scott says.
Queen City was born from the Elias Fund, a development nonprofit that Scott and Eric ran from 2005 to 2012. The organization was a collaboration with the band Dispatch—personal friends of the brothers—and was named for a farmer that member Chad Urmston met during a trip to Zimbabwe (and later wrote a song about).
What began as a fundraiser for Elias’ children’s education warped into a full-blown grassroots organization with medical, economic, and educational development projects throughout southern and central Africa. After seven successful years, however, the brothers realized that making a long-term impact would require straying from the non-profit model; they decided to temporarily shutter the nonprofit to focus on building a sustainable business. “As much as commerce and capitalism had been a negative thing for rural communities, if it’s done right it’s the only way we could see some long-term, sustainable change,” Scott says.
While the Elias Fund wasn’t originally a coffee-based endeavor, the brothers saw the positive impact that the coffee industry could have on small communities. Their younger brother, Luke, was working as a coffee roaster at the time, and it seemed like a natural fit. In addition to their connections with growers in Africa, the trio scoured Central and South America to find producers that they trusted. In particular, they prioritize female farmers, because “when you empower women in rural communities they are much more of a catalyst for community change than men,” Scott says. The name Queen City is homage to a group of female growers in Rwanda who first gave the brothers the idea for a coffee company, plus a nod to Denver, which was once known as the “Queen City of the Plains.”
At the coffee bar, located next to Novel Strand Brewing off First Avenue, the brothers keep things simple with a menu of drip coffee, espresso, and cappuccinos and lattes flavored with house-made syrups. While customers won’t find Frappuccino’s or nitro cold brews, they will find friendly baristas who know their name and order. “The shop is meant to be very simplistic and approachable, not to have people feel overwhelmed by the specialty coffee ego that exists in other shops,” Scott says. To better connect customers to the story behind their java, they company has also rolled out new packaging. Each retail bag will come with the story of the farm where it’s from and a label—gold for single origin, red for double origin, and green for “made by her” for their women-produced beans—an ode to the colors of Zimbabwe, where the Elias Fund had its roots.
Beyond providing income for the famers they work with, Scott says a major goal of Queen City is to eventually realize a nonprofit arm that would provide additional funding for projects, such as community centers and seasonal vocational training in their producers’ hometowns. For now, though, Scott says, the objective is simple: “We just want to get our farmers’ coffee to as many people as possible.” Your latte may still cost more than a breakfast burrito, but at least you’ll know it truly benefitted the farmers who produced the beans.
If you go: Queen City Collective Coffee is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. 305 W. First Ave.