Crested Butte-based coffee brand, First Ascent, is all about providing quality instant java to folks adventuring in the outdoors. In the next week, it will provide a caffeine hit to those in outer space.

Around 250 servings of the specialty coffee roaster’s Dawn Patrol Handcrafted Dark Roast are on the cargo list for NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 Mission to the International Space Station, set to blast off Wednesday, October 5. “The ability to have delicious coffee up in space, one of the most difficult places you can get to and where [packing] space is at a premium—it’s pretty cool,” says First Ascent founder and co-owner Mark Drucker. “It’s like an evolution of how the idea was born.”

Indeed, the inspiration for First Ascent’s instant coffee product struck in August 2017 while Drucker and his wife were backpacking in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Aware that their route would gain nearly 8,000 feet of elevation across almost 26 miles, the pair decided it was still worth loading what Drucker guesses was more than a pound of bonus pack weight to haul in a French press, fresh beans, and a hand grinder. The alternative—a lousy cup of coffee—would have been too much for the connoisseurs to bear.

That’s not to say Drucker wasn’t bitter about the extra payload. So there, heading up 12,415-foot Trail Rider Pass on the Four Pass Loop, “the light bulb went off,” he says. His mission clear, he set out to “make an instant coffee that actually tastes delicious, one you would want to take on these adventures.”

Drucker was no stranger to craft coffee at that point. He was three years into a hobby-turned-profession as a specialty coffee roaster (named, you guessed it, First Ascent) and even had a brick-and-mortar location on Crested Butte’s Elk Street that he co-leased with Mountain Oven Bakery. When he began prototyping instant coffee after the fateful backpacking trip, he had a solid (well, technically a liquid) foundation.

A person wearing crampons and sitting on a snowfield on Mt. Rainier dumps a package of First Ascent instant coffee into their mug.
Getting a caffeine boost on Mt. Rainier. Photo courtesy of First Ascent

By the end of 2018, First Ascent’s instant coffee was making a splash among the outdoor crowd thirsty for a good cuppa joe to go with a great mountain sunrise. A mention in Outside Magazine in May 2019 as the best all-around backcountry brew further boosted its renown.

As the company has grown (and to be clear, it’s still small with four employees), it’s remained committed to keeping all operations—from roast to brew to freeze-drying to packaging—in the mountain oasis it calls home. “There’s no question it could be easier to do what we’re doing somewhere other than Crested Butte or Gunnison,” Drucker says, noting real estate prices would be lower and distribution easier if they were to move. “But we love being a part of the community that we’re in, and as we grow, we’re hoping that we can create some high-quality jobs.”

Last August, it was there at his desk about two miles outside of town that co-owner and sales and marketing lead Sam Higby opened a vague email with “Military astronauts” in the subject line asking, “Can you guys do large batches of instant coffee?” He didn’t recognize the sender, but the email address’s domain name seemed legit:

The following day, at 0900 hours, Higby was on the phone talking with a soon-to-be-astronaut about the terrible instant coffee options currently available at NASA’s Space Food Systems Laboratory. The pair then discussed what it would take for First Ascent to replace them.

To make the lab’s list of approved foods and beverages, First Ascent needed to send its coffee (packaged as a retail item to ensure it wasn’t tampered with) into the lab for review and taste-testing. If the Colorado brand made the cut to head into space, the food lab would repackage it in a foil pouch with a valve on one end. In space, an astronaut would stick a straw inside, add hot water, shake, and drink. A year to the day after that first conversation with NASA, the government organization placed an order.

Higby and Drucker still seem downright giddy at the very way their coffee is taking off (pun intended). “We all imagine going to space and wondering what that would be like,” Higby says. “Now in our own way, we get to.”

Drucker agrees. “Here our coffee is made in this small mountain town in Colorado by this small company and it’s going to outer space,” he says. “I like the idea that there’s an astronaut up there drinking our coffee who’s super psyched before they start a day of doing whatever astronauts do on a space station.”