WATERTOWN - Coffee beans rise and fall in the roaster. Think of it as a heated bouncy house turning beans into the brown, roasty nuggets that transform hot water into a magical elixir of dark, smooth wake-up juice.
The beans most often bouncing around in the air roaster at Berres Brothers Coffee Roasters come from Mexico for their smooth, minimal acidic qualities and medium body. It's perfect for absorbing any of the more than 40 flavors added after roasting.
"We like to have it where you taste the coffee, but then have the aftertaste of flavor," said Berres Brothers Coffee Roasters founder Pete Berres.
Berres Brothers roasts about 700,000 pounds of coffee beans annually. About 85% of those beans get a splash of liquid flavoring after roasting but before being ground and hand-packed into bags. Highlander Grogg itself accounts for more than a third of all sales.
Though, even when roasting dark Sumatra beans, they're never "burnt charcoal" dark.
As far as Pete is concerned, that's perfect. Let the coffee snobs sip bitter coffee. Berres sticks to delighting Wisconsin java lovers with flavors like banana nut, French caramel cream and Highlander Grogg.
The flavors are the base of the business, which employs about 35 people and is among the largest coffee roasters in the state, but Berres Brothers has gone through its share of ups and downs starting when Pete and his brother Jeff transformed their father's coffee service and vending business into a coffee roaster.
'We never tried to look like Starbucks — ever'
The brothers' father, Marvin Berres, started Coffee Host Inc. in 1970 as a coffee service to offices and restaurants in a 60-mile radius of Watertown. Marvin expanded the company to include soda and snack vending in 1978.
Pete spent one year working in the family business. He didn't enjoy it. But following Marvin's unexpected passing in 1990, the brothers, still in their 20s, wanted to make the family's office coffee service business more competitive.
They attended a coffee service convention in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted by John Conti Coffee, where they were seduced by the roasting side of the business. It happened during a tour of John Conti Coffee's plant.
“We toured the plant and, oh my word, is this romance," Pete said. "We’re smelling fresh, ground coffee for the first time. We were hooked."
The next year they went to Seattle for a specialty coffee conference where they first laid eyes on Starbucks.
"At that point we were like, we’re doing this,” Pete said of the decision to open a coffee roasting business.
In March 1992, they opened Berres Brothers Coffee Factory Outlet in downtown Watertown. Berres started with a small air roaster to keep beans from having prolonged contact with hot, metal surfaces that can add charring and bitter flavors.
"We couldn't get that burnt charcoal flavor with this roaster if we tried," Pete said. “We never tried to look like Starbucks — ever. We tried to look like Willy Wonka. That’s who we wanted to be.”
Highlander Grogg leads the way
Highlander Grogg — a blend of caramel, butterscotch and hazelnut flavors — established itself as a flagship roast for Berres Brothers almost from its first batch in 1994.
Overall, Berres Brothers sales grew thanks to its rapidly expanding line of flavored coffees. But one question raised doubts about long-term success: Were flavored coffees just a fad?
"I did think flavored coffee wouldn’t last. That was dumb," Pete said. "I think that scared my brother away. We were growing and knew we’d need to make a major investment and he wasn’t sure about flavored coffees. I wasn’t either."
Among the major investments was a bigger roaster. Until 1999, batches were roasted 25 pounds at a time and required the hopper to be filled by hand with 5-gallon buckets. After an argument with the roast master, Pete took over the process. His arms got sore after a couple of days. Berres Brothers upgraded its roaster to one that roasts 125 pounds of beans in about 15 minutes.
Doubts, or no, Pete said he was having fun, so he bought out Jeff in 2000 and expanded the business from being an outlet store to selling Berres Brothers coffees in grocery and convenience stores. In 2005, bolstered by growing sales, Berres Brothers moved operations into a new production facility that included a "Panera-style" restaurant.
However, a few years later, the coffee roasters went into what Pete calls the gray times.
Surviving Iraq, burning out at home
In 1988, Pete was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. In 2008, he was sent to Iraq as an Army representative overseeing contractors training Iraqi forces to operate M1A1 tanks bought from the United States military. He returned in July 2009 and retired as a major in 2010.
While in Iraq, a part-time CFO managed the Berres Brothers business operations.
When Pete returned, he said he came in guns blazing and said "yes" to everything.
"We went into full promotion mode without having a real good plan," Pete said. "We were motivated to add space in current stores and to push for new sales, and sometimes new sales aren’t everything."
He also said their look was getting stale, and they were more focused on growing the business without making marketing changes.
"I came back and we went from profitable to unprofitable," Pete said. "Those were the gray times. The company was flat and I was burnt out."
He denied it at the time, but Pete said his time in Iraq changed his personality.
“Every once in a while, I would snap," he said. It was just the fact of being away, and when you are there (in Iraq), time stops, and weeks turned into months and days into weeks, and I wanted to be home so bad. I had a young family and small business and I felt like I had handcuffs on and was stuck far away."
Pete said it's taken awhile to heal the effects of being stationed in Iraq, but the gray times began to lift around 2014.
By the time he was looking for a new CFO in 2018, he knew he wanted more than someone to provide financial reports. And if the company were to grow, marketing would be need to be involved.
Michelle started in January 2019. The job came with a to-do list. Packaging that popped topped the list. By August, customers could more easily find Berres Brothers' best-selling coffees thanks to their brand new bag designs.
A whole new bag (design) perks up sales
Package makeovers started with, of course, Highlander Grogg. Pete thought a highlander breed of cow would play into the coffee's name. Plus, it's a good bet that Wisconsinites will embrace a cow of any breed.
That sparked the idea to create a Grogg series. Flavors earning a spot in the Grogg series are the "cream of crop," Michelle said, "and taste exactly what the name implies with really strong flavor."
Flavors deemed Grogg-worthy: Bog Grogg, Caramel Overload, CinnaMan, Mocha Mint and Vanilla Wave.
Michelle singles out Vanilla Wave as an example of the new look perking up sales. It's the Berres Brothers version of French vanilla but didn't sell as well as French vanilla flavors did for other companies.
“We put it in a cool-looking bag and all of a sudden it becomes a top seller," Michelle said, "where it should be.”
Flavors like southern pecan cream, chocolate raspberry and banana nut bread are part of the candy line of coffees (17 flavors to choose from) filling a rainbow of vibrant-hued bags. Well, except for Packer Perc (a hazelnut and Irish cream blend) in a green bag with a football graphic. It garnered attention from the legal department of a professional football team in Green Bay. So, it got a second redesign.
Addition by subtraction focuses Berres Brothers on winning flavors
Berres Brothers now makes about 50 coffee varieties, flavored and nonflavored, including a seasonal rotation of flavors. That's about a third of the some 150 coffee combinations of flavors, roasts and blends the company was trying to manage when Michelle was hired. Among the 100 or so cuts was a blend of nonflavored coffee with Pete's name, his first name, on it.
When the pandemic hit, they closed the restaurant that had been adding more stress than sales since it opened in 2005.
"We labored through that for 15 years. We gave it a good try," he said. "We closed our restaurant and never opened it, and it's been glorious ever since."
While the pandemic crippled restaurants last year, ecommerce shot up 32.4% year over year, according to U.S. Department of Commerce.
Berres Brothers' online orders doubled in 2020 but only accounted for about 30% of its sales. Coffee drinkers grabbing packages off retail shelves still make up the bulk of Berres Brothers' business. It was a good year to have new eye-catching packages.
The 2-pound bags also proved popular, online and in stores. Michelle suspects that was due to more people at home drinking coffee all day long.
Meanwhile the combination of a bright yellow packaging for the banana nut bread coffee and a timely glowing review on Popsugar following banana bread's big TikTok moment in 2020 boosted its sales 400%. That moved it from cutting board to top 10, said Michelle.
Both Pete and Michelle believed the package redesign and focus on the best of the Berres Brothers coffees were going to get more people to try their coffee, but the pandemic moved up the timetable by a couple of years.
It seems many of those new customers have acquired the taste for the Berres Brothers approach to flavored coffees. Michelle said year-over-year sales are still growing in 2021.
Coffee for military members and veterans
Maj. Pete Berres retired from the U.S. Army Reserve in 2010 after 22 years of service. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1988, Pete was deployed to support Iraqi Freedom in 2008-09. He is a founder and president of Berres Brothers Coffee Roasters based in Watertown.
Vet Java, a medium roast blend, is available while supplies last with 15% of proceeds supporting Legion Wisconsin programs and scholarships.
Berres Brothers discounts are available for U.S. military members (current and former), military spouses and dependents, and first responders including law enforcement, fire and EMS. Click the Military & First Responders Discount link on the Berres Brothers Coffee Roasters website.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Wisconsin coffee roaster Berres Brothers bags mostly flavored beans