Made in Tri-States: Dubuque coffee company emphasis ethical sourcing, meticulous roasting

Coffee beans are weighed. Shireman follows ethical sourcing for them. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

For Darin Shireman, the majority of the past two decades have been defined by his various roles in the coffee industry.

The Platteville, Wis., resident started in the industry in 2003 in a small coffee shop before moving south and spending multiple years working for a large chain. In 2010, he returned to the tri-state area and began running Badger Bros. Coffee, a shop that remains in operation to this day.

In the past couple of years, however, Shireman had an epiphany that would shape the trajectory of his career.

“I decided recently that what I really wanted to do was pursue the roasting side much more intentionally,” he said.

Shireman recently sold Badger Bros. coffee and committed to his roastery full time. He now operates the roasting facility — dubbed Wayfarer Coffee — on Cedar Cross Court in Dubuque.

He said there are two motivating factors behind his commitment to the roasting business.

First, he wants to make sure that the coffee growers with whom he works are paid fair prices and given the opportunity to make a living. Moreover, he wants to build a business that can be passed along to his two young children.

“I would love to build something that, if my boys were interested, they can take over and do some really cool stuff with someday,” Shireman said.

IN-DEPTH PROCESS

Those who know Shireman best understand his commitment to the places and people where coffee gets its start.

Hannah and Austin McCourt purchased Badger Bros. earlier this year, taking over the business that was long under the direction of Shireman. Prior to the change of ownership, the McCourts worked alongside Shireman and saw the depths of his coffee knowledge.

“He has taken the time to travel and build the relationships with these coffee growers,” said Hannah. “I know for him that is a huge part of his passion in coffee — going to the source of it.”

Shireman launched Wayfarer Coffee about 10 years ago, initially operating the business out of southwest Wisconsin. It was only in 2020, though, that he committed to it full time and opened a roasting facility in Dubuque.

Shireman prides himself on building personal relationships with coffee growers, as well as establishing close ties to industry brokers who have track records of treating growers fairly.

Shireman feels this is particularly important as he navigates an industry where these growers often are exploited. He said many of the labels attached to coffee products — such as “certified fair trade” — often do little to ensure the proper treatment of growers.

“There are a lot of buzzwords that float around (in this industry), and none of them really mean anything in any concrete way,” he said.

By taking a hands-on approach, however, Shireman is able to ensure two things: The growers are earning a fair wage and they are creating a product that is of the highest quality.

Through the years, he has visited coffee growers in Burundi, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

“I used to have a shotgun approach — I wanted to go everywhere in the world,” he said. “Eventually, I learned you cannot do that. You can make more of an impact and form better relationships if you focus on a few places.”

ROASTING TO PERFECTION

While sourcing quality coffee is key to the final product, Shireman has learned that the roasting process also serves a critical purpose.

Within his Dubuque facility, he operates highly modified roasting equipment that creates a product that meets his high standards.

By keeping a close eye on time and temperature, Shireman can alter the product in subtle, but important, ways.

“There are chemical reactions occurring as the coffee is roasting,” he said. “Very minute changes can make a huge difference. A couple of degrees here or a couple seconds there can really change how the coffee tastes.”

Through the years, Shireman has perfected the process. It is a skill that has captured the attention of industry peers, including Hannah.

“There is a lot of chemistry involved, but there is also an art to it,” she said. “The way that he has improved his coffee through experimentation and intuition is really fantastic.”

Wayfarer Coffee remains, in essence, a one-man operation, with Shireman carrying out the vast majority of duties.

But he has involved multiple generations of his family, with his father frequently chipping in and his sons — ages 3 and 5 — getting acquainted with the business as well.

Wayfarer Coffee sells its products to other businesses and makes them available on its website. Shireman said the coffees will become available at an increasing number of retail locations.

He believes a more astute base of consumers is increasingly ready to embrace a product that is ethically sourced and meticulously roasted.

“Consumers today are much more aware of where their products come from and the ramifications of buying the cheapest thing on the shelf,” he said.