Get to Know Boxcar Coffee Roasters

Get to Know Boxcar Coffee Roasters

Up in Boulder, Boxcar is combining creativity with science to perfect high-altitude coffee.
by Team Trade | April 18, 2019

Husband-and-wife duo Vajra and Cara Rich returned to their hometown of Boulder, Colorado chasing their perfectly roasted passion. Together, they founded Boxcar Coffee Roasters and conquered high-altitude brewing along the way.

Why the name Boxcar?

“The story of why we chose Boxcar as the name begins when my wife and I were living in the Bay Area, years before starting Boxcar. Back then, I had gained a reputation of getting onto my ‘soapbox’ every chance I had to tell anyone who would listen about how great coffee could be. That it could be sweet and rich and unlike most of what we were able to get in the area at the time. Years later, when we were thinking about what to name our roasting company, those same friends suggested I name it Soapbox Roasters.

We really liked that name and the story behind it, but also felt strange to have the word ‘soap’ as part of the name of the company that was trying to make the most delicious coffee it could! So we started thinking of derivatives of this name and in a roundabout way we came to the name Boxcar, which is another name for a soapbox derby racer. We loved the imagery of the racers and this American pastime, of building something out of nothing and sending it down the hill to see just how far you could go. In a way, that’s how we felt when starting this company, so we settled on the name Boxcar.”

Tell us more about your team.

“We are lucky to have a really talented and dedicated team that is responsible for the success we have had so far. We have four employees that have a tenure of over six years and a large percentage have been with us for over three years.

Our café manager, Sean, was our first hire at the café over nine years ago. His organizational skills are second to none. He’s actually working on his MBA at the University of Colorado right now while managing the café full-time so the guy has some serious work ethic.

Charles, who is our Head Roaster and Green Coffee Buyer has been in coffee for over 13 years and got his start in the Pacific Northwest before coming to us in 2012. After that many years in coffee, he has developed an ability to help our staff and customers relate to coffee in a way that is mature and meets them where they are. This helps to keep our coffee program grounded and approachable.

His wife, Milli, is our Pastry Chef and leads a team of talented bakers at our Pearl Street location. The pastries they produce are seriously out of this world and they do it all out of what used to be our office in the back of the café!

There are so many more people who I could mention, from Linnea in account managing, to Emily and Joe in the café who have put so much energy and effort into competitions. All of them take so much ownership over their positions and this company, which has been instrumental in its success.”

How has Boulder’s physical location shaped Boxcar?

“The high altitude of Colorado definitely played a big part in how our company was shaped. Because water boils at a lower temperature here (202 Fahrenheit as opposed to 212 Fahrenheit) we were having a hard time getting our lighter roasts to extract at a high enough level. As the opening date of our café neared, I was tinkering around with different ideas of how to get a brewer to dispense hotter water when I remembered a brewing method we employed as a kid when camping up in the mountains here in Colorado. Basically, we would boil a large pot of water and drop in ground coffee and voilà! I set out to figure out a way to modernize this idea using scales, repurposed Bunsen burners from chemistry labs, custom flasks, and careful timing. What we ended up with is our brew-by-the-cup service called Boilermakr.

Going through this process forced us to think a little outside the box of what we thought was possible with coffee, an ideology which has stuck with us to this day. We now store a lot of green coffee in freezers, we have a freeze dryer to make instant coffee, we custom-build modifications for our espresso machines, and have equipped our roasters with equipment more likely to be found on the wing of an airplane. This sense of experimentation is definitely a direct result of trying to deal with the altitude here in Colorado."

Describe your relationship with the Boulder community.

“Our main point of contact with the Boulder community is our one café on Pearl Street. From the onset, we have put our focus on hospitality and treating our customers with as much kindness as possible. We share our cafe space with a company named Cured, which specializes in specialty foods and has an amazing cheese and wine selection.

This creates a very dynamic space where a lot of different types of people come to celebrate not only coffee but a huge range of foods. From the roasting side, we have always worked to find a home for our byproducts such as chaff, spent coffee grounds and test batches. Currently, we are able to give most of our chaff to the non-profit Growing Gardens, which donates 100 percent of what it grows to local low income families.

Additionally, we donate leftover coffee from our test batches and production samples to local organizations such as the Boulder homeless shelter, Bridge House, and Attention Homes. These folks are doing the real work here in our community and we are happy to be able to support them in whatever way we can.”

How does Boxcar approach sustainability?

“We think a lot about how our company and the coffee industry in general impacts the world at large. We have packaged our whole bean retail coffee in compostable paper tin-tie bags since day one, we use all compostable to-go wares in our cafes, and we compost all our spent coffee grounds. That said, we try to look at the issue of sustainability and our impact on the world a little deeper than just offering compostables or recycling.

In that spirit, we helped launch a reusable cup program called Vessel here in Boulder that is free to customers. This program acts like a library for reusable cups where customers can check out a stainless steel cup and return it within a week. We also think about how efficient we are in our coffee roasting, cold brew production, and brewing standards. There is the potential for a lot of waste in roasting and brewing coffee and if we can produce the same quality product using a smaller dose, less water, or a more efficient roasting style then we will drastically decrease our impact on the world."

What is your biggest take away on the specialty coffee space?

“We have a long way to go — and I mean that in the most positive way possible! We have seen a huge surge in quality and innovation over the last 10 years within the specialty space and that is being driven by the hard work and openness that is inherent in this community. I think this is just going to continue within specialty space. Coffee in five to 10 years is going to be even more dynamic, delicious, and consistent than we can imagine. So, in that climate of constant change, I think the most important takeaway for us has been and will continue to be: have an open mind and be willing to adapt and continually learn.”

— Vajra Rich, Co-Founder of Boxcar Coffee Roasters

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