Doug Smith was a coffee aficionado from an early age.
Ten, as he recalls.
Although, he'll be the first to admit, his taste in java left something to be desired. He drank what his parents did - probably Folgers - and loaded it with sugar.
His taste buds have matured since then. Smith drinks his java straight-up black. And you can bet it ain't Folgers. One of his favorites these days is Guatemalan coffee, with its well-balanced flavors and recognizable notes of fruit and spice.
And that's the kind of coffee you'll find at Smith's new venture, Exo Roast Co., near downtown.
There's no sign out front of the glass-and-red-brick warehouse at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street.
"It's been the softest of launches," says attorney Christopher Byrne, who along with Smith and another friend, restaurateur Peter Wilke, owns Exo. "It's like a speak-easy."
But, people are finding it - through strong word of mouth and probably by just following their noses. You can smell the unmistakable, earthy fragrance of coffee from the sidewalk outside.
A smattering of tables ring the spartan space, which has scuffed wooden floors. A turntable provides background music. A 1991 German Probat roaster - cast-iron and natural-gas fired - looks right at home in the warehouse that, Smith says, still sports original lettering from the 1800s on the walls.
While there's no shortage of coffee shops around town, Exo (the name comes from the exothermic reaction that occurs while roasting beans) aims to be different by serving as a gathering place for people to listen to live music, watch films or just learn about coffee.
"One way we want to set this place apart is with education through cuppings," says Smith, an anthropologist who did his dissertation on coffee farmers.
"Cuppings" are the coffee version of wine tastings. They'll be free and likely will start next month or September, Byrne says. That way, people can be introduced to the kinds of beans roasted at Exo, which seeks out fair-trade and environmentally sustainable coffee.
"I search long and hard for what we really want to buy," Smith says. "We're really selective, and we want to see what's best. We all do tastings, and we all have different palates so it's fun to see what everyone thinks."
Aside from the coffee, Exo offers sparkling water and a few fancy fruit sodas along with about a dozen pastries from The B Line, Wilke's Fourth Avenue eatery. "And when they go, they go," Smith says of the baked goods.
The emphasis is on the joe.
Exo's small menu includes coffee in its many forms from espresso to the more frou-frou mochas and macchiatos. You don't see "venti" or "grande." Here, a 10-ounce cup of coffee is listed simply as a pour-over, with prices ranging from $2.50-$4.50, depending on the brew's rarity.
Making an order looks somewhat like a chemistry experiment with a digital scale, glass beaker and a Chemex coffee maker.
"You can control every single aspect of a cup of coffee," says Smith, who does most of the roasting. "The grind, how many grams, how much water, how much time for extraction - all that really matters."
Little cards clue customers into a particular coffee's features. The description for Asobagri, a fair-trade, organic from Guatemala: "baker's chocolate and raisin. Hints of dark rum and citrus rind."
Byrne says Exo will always carry certain styles of coffees, but you won't find the exact same selection from month-to-month.
"We fight to get really tiny batches of coffee from small farms, small providers," he says. "As a result, we sometimes don't buy a full bag. We might get 50 pounds and have that coffee for just a few weeks, and then it's gone. It's sort of bittersweet."
But, he adds, that's also what makes the business so much fun.
"We want to expose people to coffee they've never had before."
If you go
Exo Roast Co.
403 N. Sixth Ave., 777-4709, www.exocoffee.com
• Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; closed Sundays. Hours will expand in August.
• Prices: From $2.25 to $4.50
• Et cetera: Expect a grand opening in August or September. Free, public coffee tastings will be announced on Exo's website and Facebook page.
Exo's coffee is also available at Time Market, Wilko, The B Line, Hub Restaurant & Ice Creamery and the Food Conspiracy Co-op.