Rubbing Elbows

Magic Beans


Jay Gestwicki

Jay Gestwicki traces his decades-long love affair with coffee back to boyhood when he sipped it out of his father Ron’s thermos on early, misty morning fly-fishing trips with his brother, Tim, near their summer cabin on Five Kezar Ponds, Maine.  

It continued his first year at AU as he chatted with new friends and nursed mugs of coffee in the School of International Service’s (SIS) Davenport Lounge and the Terrace Dining Room. “We joked all the time about the coffee in TDR. It tasted like mud then,” says Gestwicki, SOC/BA ’93, his tousled brown hair tinged with grey falling over his blue eyes.

“If you would have asked me back then if I could have made a career in coffee, I would have said, ‘Of course not.’”

He would have been wrong.

When the first Starbucks on the East Coast opened near the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, during Gestwicki’s senior year, the possibilities began percolating. “That was kind of mind-blowing to me that you could have a full-service, high-volume espresso bar, and you could attract major crowds,” he says.

Three years later, Gestwicki plunged into the craft coffee industry when he returned home to Charlotte, North Carolina, to open the original Caribou Coffee stores in the Queen City. After seven years as a roaster and brand manager for Dilworth Coffee, he branched out on his own, founding Magnolia Coffee Co. in 2010. He serves as director of coffee at the company, whose arabica beans roasted in small batches, 10 to 20 pounds at a time, are available online and served at bakeries and coffee shops across the Carolinas.

“When I tasted Magnolia Coffee espresso at an out-of-town coffee shop, I immediately felt compelled to find out more about this company,” says Molly Arnold, owner of Rude Awakening in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “After 19 years with the same roaster, I made the switch. Jay and his team consistently deliver exceptional coffee.”

One hundred miles west, at Daphne’s Bakery in Mint Hill, North Carolina, the iced coffee made with Magnolia’s Papua New Guinea Timuza blend—with its hints of molasses and chocolate—is the store’s top-selling drink.

Gestwicki’s sense of community is brewed into his business model. He donates a portion of the proceeds from the 18 Magnolia blends—including one named for his 20-year-old daughter, Lila—to causes that support clean water and education (his parents were academics). Magnolia’s Dreamlands blend memorializes his late father, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and late-in-life environmentalist who saved the western Maine watershed where his family fished. “After all, a great cup of coffee starts with clean water,” Gestwicki says. The North Carolina Wildlife Federation, where his brother is chief executive officer, benefits from sales of Dreamlands. 

In 2018 Gestwicki launched a second brand, Charlotte Coffee Company, which pays tribute to Buzz City with monikers like 704 Blend and 980 Blend—the local area codes—and Firebird Espresso, which honors the winged statue in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The company donates 10 percent of its retail sales to local organizations that tackle hunger and homelessness, like Loaves and Fishes, a network of food pantries in Mecklenburg County, and Julia’s Café and Books, which is affiliated with Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. 

“Coffee is a vehicle for me to make a difference in people’s lives,” Gestwicki says.  

That sense of community extends far beyond the Tar Heel state. 

He uses direct trade practices whenever possible, sourcing beans for his Magnolia and Charlotte brands from small farmers mostly in Latin America—to ensure both the highest quality, most delicious coffee for his customers and fair, consistent prices for the growers. He aims to visit all of the farms he sources from and has been to Colombia, Costa Rica, and Honduras, so far. 

“When you are deep in Honduras or Costa Rica or Sumatra, you see how this [growing coffee] is their only way of possibly making a living. So, I feel a responsibility to make sure the farmers get a premium price so that they can survive,” he says. “I enjoy traveling and meeting the family farmers who are producing the product. I enjoy having a meal with the farmers, meeting their kids, and knowing I am going to do some really cool things with their products.”

The coffee market is volatile, and selling their crops on the free market can be unsustainable for farmers. Businesses that use fair trade and direct trade practices that cut out the middleman allow farmers to get better prices for their coffee. “The benefit of direct trade is that Jay has a relationship with his farmers and those producers have a ready buyer,” says SIS professor Elizabeth Cohn, who teaches Breakfast in the Americas: Bananas, Coffee, and Sugar, a class on Latin America’s political economics.

Still, social-minded coffee lovers need to do their homework. “All these companies are trying to respond to the demands of the conscious consumer, like the AU students who want to buy their coffee at the Davenport because it offers fair trade coffee. And that’s terrific. Our challenge as consumers is to be able to follow the bean and supply chain to know that the [companies’] websites are accurate,” Cohn says. 

For many farmers, their livelihood is based on one crop a year that yields just a few hundred pounds during a peak harvest that might last one week. “That’s why coffee is so labor-intensive. It’s not just picked and thrown in a bucket. It’s got to be dried. The cherry has to be picked off, and it’s got to rest,” Gestwicki explains. 

He views Magnolia as the link between the coffee farmer and the coffee drinker. “Having seen firsthand how the coffee is grown and how much work it is, I feel like it is my job to do these farmers justice with the product they’ve created. That’s why we’re meticulous with how we roast the coffees. Then, we’ve got to be meticulous with how we train our end users to use the coffees,” Gestwicki says.

“Each step of the way, it’s a community.”

The perfect cup

Gestwicki likes his coffee black—what he calls “pure.” Coffee is “nature’s fruit, it’s naturally sweet,” he says. “It’s the seed of a cherry, so when it’s roasted properly, there is no need to add a thing.” 

A good cup of coffee for Gestwicki starts with identifying and sourcing quality beans that have been grown, ripened, harvested, processed, stored, and imported properly, then roasting them to peak flavor. Craft roasting “is a blend of culinary art and science” that requires roasters to use their senses of smell, sight, taste, and sound to cook the beans until the moisture reduces and draws out the natural sugars to the flavor profile for that specific coffee. The process takes about 15 minutes. 

Brews boast different flavor profiles based on the characteristics of the terrain in which their trees are grown. Gestwicki’s favorites come from Central and South America and Africa. The length of the roast depends on the source of the beans. The type of coffee a drinker prefers also depends on the roast the bean requires. “Some people want to taste roast. The best analogy I can give is: How do you like to toast your marshmallow? Some like their marshmallows barely toasted, others a little brown, and still others, burnt,” says Gestwicki, dressed in a navy blue t-shirt sporting the Magnolia Coffee logo—an abstract Magnolia flower in shades of fiery orange that resemble the flames in the roasting process. “There’s no wrong answer.”

Sipping history

The story of coffee begins in the wild forests of the Ethiopian plateau with the legend of Kaldi, a goatherd who observed that, after nibbling the berries from a certain tree, his flock became so energetic they could not sleep at night. Kaldi took the berries to a nearby monastery, where the abbots began brewing a drink from its seeds that helped them stay alert through their evening prayers. 

Word of the drink spread to the Arabian Peninsula where coffee was first cultivated and traded in the fifteenth century. By the 1500s, public coffeehouses, known as qahveh khaneh, popped up throughout the Near East. Coffee was popular in Europe by the 1600s, after travelers to the Near East brought back stories of a magical black beverage.

Coffeehouses spread throughout the major cities of Europe and became fashionable places to socialize and exchange information. Many Europeans began drinking coffee for breakfast instead of beer or wine and found that they were more alert and energized, and the quality of their work vastly improved. Coffee came to New York City—what was then known as New Amsterdam—by 1650, but it wasn’t until the Boston Tea Party in 1773 that coffee began to replace tea as America’s drink of choice. 

Today, specialty coffee is a booming industry. According to Allegra World Coffee Portal’s 2019 report, the $45 billion US coffee shop market grew nearly 4 percent over the past year. There are 35,616 stores nationwide, and almost 60 percent of US consumers visited a branded coffee shop chain at least once 
a month in 2018.