A Mocktale of Two Roasters: Chris Christen and Sam Brown and Coffee Wizardz
Neither Chis Christen nor Sam Brown can tell you exactly how they met each other. They’ve just known each other forever, running in their adjacent circles: barista/customer, friend/friend, DJ/musician. They’re both from Wisconsin, are food and beverage enthusiasts, and accomplished in the art of the specialty mocktail, which is a passion that led them to coffee.
Chris and Sam are now co-owners of the café Coffee Wizardz, which started in 2018 as a popup shop that appeared all over Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The successful string of popups, from vegan restaurants to breweries, led them to start asking questions about the coffee they showcased in each specialty beverage. They wanted to bring coffee to “spaces not usually associated with coffee,” Sam says.
And they also wanted to be intentional about the coffee itself. Rather than highlighting coffee that had been roasted somewhere else, by someone they didn’t know, they decided to take matters into their own hands. That way, they knew exactly what was going into the roaster—and which exact flavor profiles they could create, and then pair with exciting and inventive secondary ingredients—like Nilla wafers or edible flowers, for example.
“You can’t go to a place called Coffee Wizardz and drink boring coffee,” Chris says.
The space they’ve built, now that they’ve own and co-operated a café-roastery in Allouez, Wisconsin for over a year, is also not an ordinary coffeehouse or roastery. For one, customers who come in can see beyond the counter and into the roasting space, where an MCR-20 is their current tool of choice for consistent roasts. This setup is intentional: “we want transparency in coffee,” Sam says. “We want people to see and think about where it comes from.” Seeing the roaster in action helps customers imagine the life their coffee lived before it was a specialty drink in a glass.
And in the drinks served here, there’s an element of whimsy and un-tradition that’s worth a second look. Maybe you want to order a coffee soda with a Red Vine straw. Or a shaken latte with powdered-sugar foam. Or coffee caviar, perhaps? Of course, they have a traditional café menu too, with recognizable and beloved classics—but what Coffee Wizardz is trying to do is create a space that engages every who comes in, and their vehicle of choice is the bizarre and enticing nature of the specialty drink.
These drinks are one strategy the duo uses to get people interested in coffee and its life cycle. The nature of coffee is its dependability—many people rely on its caffeine content to get through long working days (or nights). But what Chris and Sam want customers to imagine is coffee pushing its limits; coffee in a fun and exciting new light, like what you might expect to find at Meow Wolf, or a festival. Except here, you can order it every day, in a space curated for interaction and curiosity.
The layout of the space is another strategy used to get people interested in their coffee. The average café customer doesn’t think about where their coffee comes from—maybe they have a vague idea of a coffee farm, complete with shrubby trees and branches heavy with little red berries, but the image ends there. Sam and Chris want people to start thinking more about the supply chain, and the amount of work it takes for so many people—from harvesters to mill workers to importers to roasters to baristas—to coordinate the existence of a single coffee soda with a candy straw. So they made a place where someone could contemplate that, while also royally enjoying themselves.
The location of the Coffee Wizardz brick and mortar is another strategy. Sam describes the café as a third space; coming after home (first space) and work (second space), it’s also an alternative to the other third spaces in the area, which are largely breweries and bars, and not family-friendly or comfortable for everyone. They decided to open in a residential area, hoping to foster and expand a sense of community and neighborliness.
All in all, it’s a much different business plan than a drive-thru. And it’s much more ambitious; it takes more time to curate the details of a dedicated coffee space that’s meant to enchant and inspire (and its corresponding menu, which changes seasonally) than it does to knock out another chain quick-stop store.
But the payoff is so, so worth it. Chris has seen customers who didn’t know each other before strike up conversations—become friends, even, outside of the shop. They’ve connected consumers with the best part of coffee: the experience, and they’ve done it in a way that’s bold and unique. “To be able to serve rad coffee is a dream of mine,” Sam says. “And to be a part of the community and support the goings-on is very important to us.”
And they’ve found a way to continue the supply chain even further, stretching the coffee horizon to include art and design. One upcoming event for Coffee Wizardz is an art show featuring local graffiti and tattoo artists, who will show in the back roastery section of the café. It will be an opportunity for the community to reach even further into all that coffee can be and include: and they’ll be able to support other local creators as well.
This aspect of business ownership is Sam’s favorite. Running a business is a collaboration with the surrounding area; it takes support to give support. The team used the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter to fund their first foray into roasting, and so they have reason to commit to their community. Because other people believed in their vision, Sam and Chris now want to use their business to give others an opportunity to create in a unique way too.
Whether it’s an artist painting a exterior-wall mural or a friend using their leftover coffee grounds to grow mushrooms and microgreens, the team loves playing a part in surrounding projects. They’ll go to creators—or let creators come to them—with a general idea, and let their freedom of expression and creative instinct take over from there. Chris says, “I want you to do what you love, and I want to pay you to do it.”
This love of community makes Coffee Wizardz a vibrant and exciting part of Green Bay. And this excitement, too, is intentional. The energy starts with cupping, where Chris and Sam taste everything blind and choose the notes that they feel most eager to experiment with. With their focus on the niche of unique specialty coffee, there’s a lot of room to be playful; there’s less room to make choices because they’re safe or common. So they pick for notes that could be complimented by unusual flavors.
That excitement builds in the next phase of menu development, where Chris and Sam get to create novelty drinks that build off the chosen roasts. These rotate depending on the season, but the next summer limited release to come out will be cereal-milk ice cream affogatos, where the notes of the coffee roast will match up perfectly with a few select cereal-infused homemade ice creams.
From there, it’s easy to see how the excitement can translate to the café customers. It’s exciting to discover something new; not many customers see a roastery as a mad science lab where something like coffee caviar or cereal-infused affogato could be created.
And all that excitement, when it’s drunk, can spark a conversation. The customer might ask, “why is this so good?” “‘What’s happening here?’ And that’s a gateway comment to get people engaged,” Sam says. If in the answer is a nugget or two of information about how cupping works, or how the teammates blend flavors, then it’s an in for the consumer to get engaged in the entire process.
In a lot of ways, Coffee Wizardz is a lightning rod for originality and symbiosis. They take inspiration from Green Bay and greater Wisconsin, often using local ingredients from farmers markets and friends to spin straw into gold—or, in this case, leftover edible flowers into small-batch summer drinks. They’re part of a tight-knit community, and what they’re creating is a culmination of their love for both Green Bay and the food & beverage industry. And they’ve nailed it; now, they’re setting their sights on expanding their wholesale presence, which will give their loyal fans a way to play scientist at home, with the same brews that Chris and Sam use in the roastery.
If you want to try your hand at homemaking your own coffee caviar or Nilla-wafer lattes, you can buy their blends from their website. You can also stay updated with upcoming events, like the graffiti-tattoo art show, by following them on Facebook or Instagram.