Yuba-Sutter's ultimate 'coffee nerd': Inside Bridge Coffee and the man who wants to bring a better cup to all

Mar. 17—Tim Styczynski's first experience drinking coffee was communal.

In his younger days, the CEO of Bridge Coffee Co. worked as a paramedic, enduring long hours and stressful situations that only the hardy could put up with. In between those intense hours, Styczynski said he found solace in a warm cup of coffee and good conversation with colleagues.

It was here that Styczynski fell in love not only with the power of coffee to bring people together, but the actual drink itself. What Styczynski didn't know, however, was that this love affair would soon blossom into a full-fledged marriage between what he feels is an ideal cup of coffee and delivering that ideal cup to the masses.

"I fell in love with coffee before I knew good coffee," Styczynski said. "I started working on ambulances when I was 19 years old. And working on ambulances, when we would shift change, we would go to a local diner and we'd all sit around the table and drink a cup of coffee and share stories about life and what was going on. And I loved that. You could have that kind of community around coffee."

Shortly after those first experiences, Styczynski said he was lucky enough to go to Stanford for his paramedic education. Down the street from his campus, he said a local cafe really opened his eyes to the depth of the coffee-drinking ritual.

"This was 1993, but I can remember like it was yesterday, walking into that cafe and the subway tile on the wall and the line of people to the espresso machine," Styczynski said. "I ordered a single espresso — I never ordered just a regular espresso, mocha, mocha latte, but never a straight espresso. It wasn't roasty, but it was strong. It was chocolatey and it was caramel and citrusy and just so complex and I was hooked. I had to figure out how to make that."

From that point on, Styczynski said he was on a mission to find the freshest cup of coffee available. In 1997, Styczynski learned he could roast coffee at home.

"I was getting better and better at roasting. I was still working on ambulances. In 2001, I started flying on airplanes and helicopters full time," Styczynski said. "I had an incredible career — I worked overseas, I was training doctors in trauma care. Bridge was a hobby. We landed, literally, in Yuba City and I was working on the ambulance here and I had people who I didn't know asking if they could buy coffee because they heard I was roasting coffee. Noone was roasting."

Origins of Bridge

Now with a standalone location in Yuba City and a warehouse space in Marysville, Styczynski launched Bridge much in the same way many entrepreneurs begin — in their garage.

"I started Bridge in my garage over in Yuba City in 2015 on a cottage food permit. Just literally one bag at a time and then selling at the farmers market," Styczynski said. "I knew I wanted to do some wholesale business, so I got a Class B cottage permit. Justin's Kitchen just opened up and he was a great resource and he was my first wholesale customer. There was a fine foods store in Yuba City called The Crave and they sold bags of coffee."

Over time, Styczynski said he would pick up restaurant after restaurant until he got larger wholesale customers.

"I was outgrowing and outpacing my cottage permit working out of my garage," Styczynski said. "I was looking for a place to park the roaster and I bought Clark Avenue Coffee on Clark Avenue in South Yuba City and started roasting there. I only had room for one pallet and I was having to put bags of coffee where customers were sitting."

Basically, Styczynski was running out of room.

The idea of and need for expansion hasn't stopped. Styczynski said his next goal, beyond getting a new cafe in Marysville started, is to open up 20 Bridge Coffee locations. While he wants to shy away from inviting investors into his company at the moment, he said once additional stores open up, then bringing in more investors to grow the company further certainly would be a realistic option.

"If I had 20 locations, that would be a solid plan for the future of Bridge Coffee Co. to be able to have a really good investment opportunity," he said.

Styczynski said he didn't know he would eventually have this great love of coffee. That love, he said, led to this idea of serving the community through the sale of quality goods and making an investment in Marysville.

"As part of serving this community, it also meant investing in this community," Styczynski said. "I love this place, this town, and the people here. The crazy history that it has. I really wanted to be a part of it. So, investing in Marysville was part of the reason why I came to the community."

Styczynski said it's been a "fun challenge" to educate the community about Bridge Coffee Co. and what can be special about a good cup of coffee. He sees other businesses such as Starbucks and Dutch Bros. as motivation to make Bridge better.

"I don't view them as my competition, but they have my customer," Styczynski said. "... There's a lot of reasons not to like them. But for whatever reason, (it has) become a habitual routine for our community to go through their drive-thrus. ... I want more competition. Because, I have friends that have coffee roasting businesses in Sacramento. It becomes a great challenge and fun competition to outdo one another."

He said breaking people of those habits and routines to try something new and different is one of his goals for Bridge.

"If they enjoy a really great glass of wine or a really wonderful meal where they enjoy having a chef prepare a meal for them, we're gonna provide that level of experience with the cup of coffee that we're doing," Styczynski said. "The transparency, the sustainability, all of the things that we're hoping to have in agriculture, we are doing that with Bridge. We're also working with farms that are growing exquisite coffees. They're just delicious. Honestly, I can tell people you're gonna get the best cup of coffee you've ever had in your life."

While Styczynski's attitude toward coffee may come across as snobbish, he said he's actually just a "coffee nerd."

"I just love it," he said. "My hope is that I'm drawing people from Sacramento, Roseville, Chico, Napa to come here and try a cup of coffee."

He said he has had people from outside the Yuba-Sutter community come to Bridge for his coffee, including famous professional skateboarder Tony Hawk.

The firehouse

Styczynski's main hub of operations for Bridge Coffee Co. resides inside one of Marysville's old firehouses that sits along 3rd Street in an area of downtown. Built in the 1860s, this building not only housed one of the city's first fire companies, but also a carriage-making business.

"It changed hands from the fire company to a carriage factory. Most people know this as the carriage factory," he said.

Over the years, it has served many purposes, but largely laid dormant until four years ago when Styczynski bought the building not only for his growing coffee company, but also for his family — he lives upstairs with his wife and his mother has her own studio apartment in the sprawling remodeled loft-like space that features five bedrooms.

"It was an ancillary building," Styczynski said. "This one and the original city hall where the library is now was built by the same architect. There were like eight fire companies for Marysville. This one was an auxiliary station and stable yard for the horses."

Styczynski said he bought the building four years ago because he was in the market for a warehouse in Marysville.

"I really wanted to invest in Marysville with Bridge and I really wanted something old and a brick building. ... I was also looking for a house that had a detached apartment because my mom was getting priced out of her place," Styczynski said.

While at the moment Styczynski's space within the old firehouse is mainly used for storage and general office work, his plan is to open up the first floor to the public as a new cafe, featuring locally-sourced goods and, of course, high-quality coffee.

"I want to showcase just how unique and special coffee can be," Styczynski said. "There's definitely a market for people that want to experiment ... be able to have a blueberry muffin Ethiopian coffee and then pair it with a really great pastry. I also want to showcase high-end wines, high-end craft beers and produce that's grown in the community for a simple, yet exquisite menu."

He said the west side of the building will be the "artisan bar" and then the production aspect will remain where it currently sits. Styczynski said he would like to get the new Marysville cafe up and running as soon as he can, but barriers such as funding and finding the right project manager remain a challenge.

"It's just so expensive to build right now," Styczynski said. "Part of it is not just money, though, it's having the availability of the project manager. Having a project manager that can see the project from beginning to end and understands 160-year-old historic building codes, the vision in my head, and how to get the contractors lined up and make it happen."

Currently, the office area and bathroom are already completed. The majority of the work Styczynski needs done involves getting proper "fire separation" between the retail space on the first floor and the residential space above. He also said he may drop the ceiling down to hide some of the exposed wiring seen throughout.

"I do have a plan for some nice hammered tin ceiling tiles that still look vintage," Styczynski said.

Toward the back of the first floor, Styczynski plans to have a training room, a scullery kitchen, a storage and break room, bathroom, and a small walk-in fridge. Styczynski said, as of now, he's about a third of the way done with his vision for what the cafe could be.

While he said he was still searching for a specific project manager to take over renovations, he did say he had one that "is looking at the project" and expressed hope in funding from a bank who may be interested.

"We gotta know how much it's gonna cost in today's environment," Styczynski said.

He estimated that, in total, the project would cost about $250,000-$350,000 to complete.

Once finished, Styczynski said he would like the cafe to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

Sourcing the coffee

Sitting inside Styczynski's warehouse space in Marysville are large bags of unroasted coffee from all parts of the world — Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador, Ethiopia and others. Among the bags was decaffeinated coffee from Colombia that Styczynski stressed was made without the use of chemicals through a method called the Swiss Water Process.

"No chemicals used whatsoever in removing the caffeine," Styczynski said. "Most of the time, like Folgers and Starbucks, most of the decaf that's done is done with methyl chloride. It's very hazardous to your health."

While most coffee drinkers would prefer caffeine, Styczynski said he wanted to make sure those that needed to drink decaf had the same enjoyable experience.

To get the best quality coffee he can, Styczynski utilizes several brokers that he trusts who will send samples that he can roast, brew and taste. When attempting to identify the best coffee, Styczynski said he focuses on the acidity. And much like wine, he said the "character of the coffee" will surprise you.

"Like an Ethiopian (coffee) will taste like a blueberry muffin. It's just from really exceptional high-quality coffee," Styczynski said.

Styczynski said coffee still grows wild in places such as Ethiopia.

"You can actually get wild-picked coffee, like blackberries for us," he said.

Another reliable source of coffee Styczynski is able to bring to the community comes from a family in El Salvador.

"They have been growing coffee for six generations in El Salvador. In 2009, they won the Cup of Excellence, which is an auction, and was the best coffee in the world," Styczynski said.

At some point after that award, however, that family lost about 40% of its coffee crop after being "decimated" by a "coffee leaf rust" fungus.

'The kinetics of coffee'

Always striving for the best cup, Styczynski is not only the CEO of Bridge Coffee Co., but he's also somewhat of a scholar in the world of coffee.

He's currently studying and teaching "the kinetics of coffee" at UC Davis.

"There's some Ph.D. students that are doing peer-reviewed articles about roasting coffee and how it goes from green to brown," Styczynski said.

He said the students also are examining the chemical effects and properties of coffee and how some may even be good for you — including some cancer-fighting abilities.

"We're seeing how we can develop those in the roasting process," Styczynski said. "It is the leading thing that people get the most antioxidants in their body from, coffee. It really is healthy for you."

Along with large bags of unroasted coffee occupying the shelves within Styczynski's space at the old Marysville firehouse, he also has two large roasters and several coffee brewing machines that Styczynski uses to experiment with — always striving for the perfect cup.

"This is actually creating something of a pour-over," Styczynski said of one of his brewing machines. "I dialed in an old brew ratio and it siphons through the basket to extract every bit of yummy goodness out of there."

One of the biggest accomplishments for Styczynski in the world of coffee was becoming a certified Q Grader. Those officially licensed as a Q Grader are often compared to a sommelier for wine.

Managed and operated by Specialty Coffee Association of America's charitable trust the Coffee Quality Institute, the Q Grader program involves a general knowledge exam that a person must pass to become professionally accredited.

According to the Coffee Quality Institute, "certified Q Graders are professionals skilled in sensory evaluation of green coffee, and are employed throughout the industry. ... Certified Q Graders share a common language of quality used by producers and buyers alike, facilitating communication and access to markets. After one is certified as a Q Grader, opportunities in the coffee industry expand because the Q Program is globally recognized by coffee professionals. Employers know the rigorous tests students must pass to become certified, and that they will reap the rewards of those graders' knowledge in product quality, analysis of flavor profiles and consistency through evaluation."

Styczynski said after nearly 20 years of his desire to become a Q Grader, he was able to pass the licensing test last month.

"I can cup coffee, which is like tasting coffee, professionally for these producers around the world," Styczynski said. "So if they've got a contract with Starbucks or Starbucks can contract with me as a third party with the producer. ... The coffee, if it cups at 83 points or 84 points, that's a significant increase in quality. No coffee has scored a perfect 100 points."

Styczynski said the highest-scoring coffee he's ever had was 97 points, just one point shy of the highest he's ever seen. The 97-point coffee, he said, was valued at about $3,000 a pound.

"It was so uniquely good. The acidity was a perfect balance with the body," he said.