Coffee Expert Trevor Corlett’s Madcap Coffee is an homage to the art of beautifully roasted coffee—and the people who help make it happen. Something else to celebrate: the Grand Rapids-based coffeeshop is opening a new location in Leland.
Coffee is more than just a brewed drink at specialty roaster Madcap Coffee.

Coffee is a story.

One that begins with coffee growers in remote lands far from its roasting plant and home base in Grand Rapids. Founder and co-CEO Trevor Corlett and his team have cultivated relationships with small farmers around the globe, seeking out the best possible beans and paying fair wages for their selection.

It’s a story you can taste in every cup poured at one of the company’s three cafes in Michigan, whether it’s a blend from Rwanda and Ethiopia or solely from a mountainous region of El Salvador. Not only is the quality of beans detectable, but so is the uniqueness of terroir—the soil, the climate and topography of place. They play a role in the taste and flavor potential of each type of coffee, a profile Madcap helps unlock during the roasting process.

And it’s the story of Corlett and his journey from an undergrad student to roaster, barista specialty coffee educator and business owner. Today, Madcap runs its roastery and two cafes in Grand Rapids, as well as one in Detroit, and one in our own backyard in Northern Michigan—Madcap Coffee arrives in Leelanau County this summer, opening a cafe in Leland in the former Blue Boat Coffee space on Main Street. Madcap also has become the exclusive coffee supplier for Brew, a popular coffeehouse in downtown Traverse City.

“I fell in love with coffee-shop culture while I was in college,” recalls Corlett, a Chicago-area native who attended Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids. “I went from studying computers to having a strong dream of starting my own coffee shop.”

His coffee experience intensified with a startup shop in Indianapolis. Over the next three years, Corlett’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to try various retail concepts of his own (including a drive-through cafe and roastery) before returning to Grand Rapids.

“I’m very much entrepreneurial at heart,” says Corlett, who went on to become a board member of the Specialty Coffee Association and chair of the Barista Guild of America. “All the coffee concepts were slightly different and I tried to build off my mistakes and learn lessons in each instance. I’m pretty stubborn. I wasn’t giving up on my dream of a coffee shop anytime soon.”

Photo by Madcap Coffee

Photo by Madcap Coffee

Photo by Madcap Coffee

He partnered with one of his former employees, Ryan Knapp, and opened Madcap Coffee in the first block of Monroe Center in downtown Grand Rapids in 2008. They operated their roastery in the basement. Knapp focused on roasting and sourcing beans, while Corlett managed retail operations and business development.

With their Grand Rapids storefront, Corlett and Knapp were anxious to share their story of coffee with customers. Hospitality, roasting top-tier coffee and providing a “truly differentiated” customer experience were top of mind when the cafe opened, just before the city’s downtown rejuvenation.

“We were really intense about how we served the product,” Corlett says, noting they poured coffee in nothing larger than 12-ounce cups and frowned upon milk, sugar and other additions. The two were so passionate about the quality of their product that he admits, “we were unapproachable to people initially. We were so excited about sharing our story of coffee and how our coffee was different, how we were working with producers … we didn’t want people killing our coffee with milk.”

But passion, for an entrepreneur, paves the road to excellence.

“A lot of decisions we made came from a lot of experience in the past,” Corlett says. “I had a shop for three and half years leading up to Madcap. I had been doing fair trade–certified coffee. I learned about coffee as an agricultural product and commodity, about how the lives of growers are impacted … I became obsessed with the idea of working directly with producers, paying better prices and rewarding them for their work.”

The journey to success in downtown Grand Rapids began slowly, but Corlett’s unmistakable passion eventually gained traction.

Today, Madcap has a well-earned reputation for producing high-quality coffee. That story of quality commitment, commitment to people (both employees and producers) and a belief in giving back to the community have become an integral part of the Madcap story.

Photo by Madcap Coffee

Photo by Madcap Coffee

Corlett and employees from all parts of the company’s operations now travel the globe to work directly with farmers in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, and Ethiopia. The team spends weeks each year outside the country working with growers, and stays in constant connection with producers through text apps and video calls. They sample and choose the most select batches for the roastery.

“We try to build relationships with people throughout the whole supply system,” Corlett says. “We have people on the ground in these countries, forging new relationships. It’s exciting to send people out to see the whole process. It’s hard to look at the finished product the same way after you’ve walked through the whole process.”

One of Madcap’s long-term relationships has been with the Reinoso family in Colombia. Luis and Yenni Reinoso operate a small farm in the remote valley of Herrera. That longevity has enabled “a close relationship,” with one-on-one communication with the family to discuss quality, understand their challenges—like climate and weather—and allow Madcap to buy deep from their production.

“We like the Reinosos and their coffee so much that we buy most of the coffee produced on the farm, saving the very best for our single-origin and using the rest to form the backbone of our high-quality, one-of-a-kind roaster’s blends,” says Josh Weichhand, CMO and vice president of marketing and growth strategies at Madcap Coffee. “This type of buying relationship ensures that the Reinosos are getting top dollar for their product, empowering them to decide where and how to reinvest in their operation for the future.”

Madcap is not only concerned about growers and quality, but also its employees and the community. The company cultivates a creative and supportive atmosphere, providing a menu of progressive benefits to full-time team members, including paid maternity and paternity leave, and unlimited PTO. Professional development for employees is a top priority and includes barista training, opportunities to shadow and apprentice in coffee operations and to participate in competitions on behalf of Madcap. For example, Madcap has three employees competing at the National Barista Competition at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston in April.

Madcap’s community reach is far, helping organizations in Grand Rapids and Detroit, around the globe and within the specialty coffee industry. Locally, the company runs a Zero Waste program, working to lessen its impact on the environment and donates to park, museum and neighborhood organizations in Grand Rapids. More recently Madcap became a member of the initiative, 1 % for the Planet, committing 1 percent of its annual sales to support nonprofits focused on defending the environment, combating climate change and conserving water.

“As a specialty coffee company operating with both local and global reach, issues like the environment, climate change and water quality are front of mind at Madcap,” Corlett says.

Because coffee is an agricultural product, the future of the specialty coffee industry depends on the abilities of producers around the world to sustainably farm and manage their resources, he notes.

“As a Michigan-based company operating near the Great Lakes, we also recognize the importance of not taking our freshwater resources for granted,” Corlett says. “Up and down our value stream, from the coffee bean to the water we use to brew each cup, Madcap Coffee is committed to doing our part in protecting the environment and the freshwater resources that make our craft possible.”

Photo by Madcap Coffee

Photo by Madcap Coffee

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer and works part-time at a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Photo(s) by Madcap Coffee