a man stands by a coffee roaster

Ad Astra: Roasting on Common Grounds

Written by Meghan Barnes

If you had to drink only Maxwell House or Folgers for the rest of your life, I bet you’d just quit coffee altogether.

I asked this of Kristi Whalen, ’07, co-founder of Hillsdale’s newest, and only, specialty coffee roaster, Ad Astra. Her answer surprised me.

“Actually no,” she said. When Patrick, her husband, veteran Marine, school founder, Hillsdale College employee, and business owner, was on active duty, he would mix instant coffee into his Nalgene bottle if he had to. “Sometimes you just need the caffeine.”

I actually followed up on this by checking out Ad Astra’s website and blog, and sure enough, there’s a story there from Patrick that recalls how to make coffee on active duty: “Shake the instant coffee into your mouth and chew it,” he writes, “relishing the slightly salty taste from the seawater that covers everything.”

The specialty coffee at Ad Astra, which has its storefront open now on Saturdays during usual farmers market hours, is most definitely a different experience than instant coffee in a salt-water tinged Nalgene bottle. The store is in the old Blossom Shop just next to the Dawn Theatre and is currently host to those who want to come shop coffee, drink coffee, or just hang out. The Whalens also plan on hosting coffee-brewing classes in their roastery to teach various methods of brewing coffee, coffee-brewing ratios, grinding, etc. “The idea is to teach others how to maximize the flavor in their coffee cup,” Kristi said.

Flavor is what Ad Astra is all about—and how the whole idea all began.  

“It was ten years ago in Ann Arbor,” Kristi recalled about the moment she and Patrick’s minds were blown away by the flavor profile of some specialty coffee they came across in Ann Arbor. “We loved it so much that we couldn’t go back. We started spending all of our money to make nice coffee at home.”

When they lived in St. Louis, a friend taught them how to roast their own coffee beans using an old popcorn popper, and the small family’s trend continued. Eventually, they moved to Kansas and bought a bigger roaster, which they ran out of their basement, and started selling their coffee to a local coffee shop.

“People loved it,” Kristi said. “It just took off.”

Specialty coffee is a title given to only 20 percent of the coffee crop in the world. It’s literally the best quality coffee you can get. Where most of the coffee we drink is comprised of beans blended together from different farms and regions—and then roasted to death—single-origin coffee comes, like it sounds, from one region, or even one farm.

“Different regions produce different flavors,” Kristi said, likening coffee farms to wine vineyards. “We want to highlight the integrity of the coffee bean that comes from one place in the world and bring out the flavors it has to offer. We roast according to what’s best for each particular kind of bean.”

At this point in our conversation, Kristi found out I was drinking Ad Astra’s Ethiopian brew and told me about how the bean in that part of the world has a sweet, blueberry flavor profile. “The next time you take a drink, think of blueberries,” she said. I did, and she was right. “You’ll always taste the blueberry now.” That’s why the Ethiopian is her favorite.

The amount of flavor in a cup of coffee has to do with, not just the quality of the coffee bean and where it’s from, but how the bean is roasted. Ad Astra doesn’t typically roast its beans very dark. According to Kristi, a dark roast most often means someone is trying to hide a poor-quality bean.

In a time when farm-to-table is all the rage, Ad Astra’s beans fit right in. Most of the company’s five coffees originate from a single-family farm in a different part of the world. They get hooked up with these farms through a cooperative that connects roasters to farmers, and one of the company’s goals is to find ethically produced coffee that is priced to return a just wage to the farmers producing it.

After their successful first-run at the Hillsdale Farmers Market, Kristi and Patrick have seen a steady group of customers on Saturdays and hope that number will continue to grow. They have also been happy to host local pasta enthusiast and business entrepreneur Gianna Green, whose Mangia! booth has found a cozy Saturday home in Ad Astra, as well as Lisa Whalen’s quality used-booked business.

“I plan on welcoming more vendors into the space,” Kristi said. “To me, that’s a mutually beneficial situation and also just more fun.”

The Whalens are very excited to be able to bring their business to Hillsdale and invest in the town where Patrick grew up and where Kristi lived for four years. “Also, my grandfather grew up here, so I am very attached to this town,” she said. “We love the idea of bringing coffee to our community. That’s what we want to do: make good coffee available to those around us, where we live.” 

Read more from December’s Newsletter:

Dunn in a Million: Hillsdale’s Founding Father Ransom Dunn

Tom Burke Scholarship Recipient: Hank Bohl

Meghan Barnes is the managing editor of the Student Stories Blog and has worked in publishing since graduating with her MA in Journalism from University of Oklahoma in 2003. She lives in Hillsdale with her three daughters, three pets, and husband, Dr. Collin Barnes.

Published in November 2020