Dedicated TO THE BEAN

Roaster Joe Dougherty has been at the forefront of Nashville’s coffee culture for nearly three decades

  • Last spring, I was in a mild state of panic. As somewhat of a coffee connoisseur, and a full-blown coffee addict, I had lost my source for beans and needed to find a new one.
         Now, if you’re serious about coffee, you know the bean’s the thing. For me personally, I like to make my own fresh blend, a mixture of flavored beans — usually some kind of chocolate flavor — and a dark roast.
         As I searched the internet for a new source for beans in East Nashville, I ran across a familiar name, but one I hadn’t seen in more than a decade: Bean Central. Bean Central opened in 1986 and was Nashville’s first coffee house and roaster — or as owner Joe Dougherty puts it, it was the city’s first establishment “dedicated to the bean.”
         A Knoxville native, Dougherty moved to Nashville in 1972 to pursue a career as a songwriter full-time and landed a deal with Famous Music. After four years, however, he decided to move in a different direction. “I got married and had to make a living,” he says with a laugh. “Songwriting can be a great living and cannot be a great living.”
         Dougherty saw an opportunity in housewares, so he and his wife Lisa opened the Cook’s Nook in Green Hills in 1976, and later added locations in Brentwood and Atlanta. From the beginning, the stores, which catered to the gourmet lifestyle, sold high-quality coffee.
         “Originally, we were getting our coffee from a company called First Colony in Virginia,” he says. “Around the same time, we started doing gourmet trade shows in San Francisco, and I discovered some guys who had a company called Graffeo Coffee. They only had three coffees: a light roast, a dark roast and a decaf — take it or leave it.
         “I had to convince them — they didn’t want to wholesale,” he continues. “They were doing a nice trade there. They had restaurant business and walk in, so they didn’t want to ship or anything. But I convinced them to start shipping to me.”
         At that time, it took five business days via UPS for the coffee to reach Nashville from San Francisco, but even so, Dougherty noticed a big difference. “That coffee would come in, and it would be so much fresher than what I was getting from First Colony, it was remarkable,” he recalls. “So, I’m like, ‘Hmm, I’ve seen their roaster, I know what they are doing.’
         “So I contacted the guy who made their roaster — Mike Sivetz, a legendary coffee guy. He was a major figure in coffee in a lot of ways. He developed that kind of roaster, which is called a fluid bed roaster.” A fluid bed roaster uses hot air to levitate and circulate the beans in a way that causes them to behave as if they were floating in a fluid. Since the beans are suspended in hot air, you get a more even roast.
         “So I bought that roaster from him because that is what they [Graffeo] were using and it had a great taste profile — and still does.”
         Dougherty bought the Sivetz roaster at the end of 1985, and opened Bean Central in January of ’86 in a small space at the Park Place shopping center on West End Avenue. Some people told him he was crazy to open a store that “just sold coffee,” but he was already selling a lot of coffee at the three Cook’s Nook locations and at Gadgette’s, a Sharper Image-type store located in the Mall at Green Hills that he owned. Bean Central roasted all the coffee sold at his four stores, but it also had other commercial clients, as well as walk-in customers.
         It wasn’t long before the business had caught the attention of The New York Times. “They did one of those ‘They even wear shoes in Nashville now’ stories, and it mentioned we even have a place that roasts and sells coffee,” he recalls.
         In the mid-’90s, Dougherty sold Gadgette’s and closed his three Cook’s Nook stores to focus on Bean Central. He expanded into an adjacent space at Park Place, and later added a second location on Hillsboro Pike in Green Hills. When he introduced computers to the expanded space at the original location, Bean Central became one of the world’s earliest internet cafés.
         All was going well with the company until the best-known national coffee chain arrived. “Starbucks moved in beside us in two locations,” he says. “They opened up literally across the parking lot — that’s what they do.”
         By the late ‘90s, Dougherty had shuttered Bean Central’s Green Hills location. He kept the West End store going until 2003, at which point he decided to close it and concentrate on their wholesale and mail-order business. That’s when he and his son Andrew, who is Bean Central’s chief roaster, moved the roasting operation to a nondescript building in the 900 block of Gallatin Avenue in East Nashville.
         “It was a major transition,” Dougherty says of the move, “but in a lot of ways, it’s nice to not be in storefront retail because you have to open and close on time every day.”
         Talking with Nashville’s pioneering coffee roaster is like getting a lesson in the history of coffee. “We’re in Coffee 3.0 right now, as it’s called by these young coffee geeks, and they’re into really light-roasted coffee — extremely light,” Dougherty says. “And they believe that’s the Holy Grail.
         “But when we started, the Holy Grail was Peet’s Coffee. [Alfred] Peet was in Berkeley — he came over from the Netherlands, I think— and he was into really, really dark coffee. It was super dark coffee and that was sweeping the country. And it was good.
         “There [also] were a lot of people who thought we shouldn’t roast that dark. The roast a lot of people preferred then was what we call a French Roast.
         “But you can go a lot lighter,” he continues. “The lighter it is, the more of what we call the fruit flavor is still there, but the point is that what is considered best changes over time, so real dark coffee will come back.”
         Bean Central sells more than 100 varieties of coffee, including a wide array of decaffeinated choices. When asked about his most popular coffees, the owner has a ready answer. “Malabar Gold Espresso™ is very popular,” Dougherty says immediately. “We get that from a fellow named Dr. Joseph John, who is a nuclear physicist from India. It was his goal in life to create the perfect Italian espresso, which he maintains is an all-Indian blend.”
         One of the varieties in Dr. John’s blend is the Monsoon bean. “They take their coffee [beans] and put them out in the elements during the monsoon,” Dougherty explains, as he points them out in a bag of Malabar Gold. “You see those yellow, funny looking beans? Those are the Monsoon beans. The Monsoon bean is very soft, so when you use the Malabar Gold blend, you have to grind it one or two steps finer than any other espresso. You have to dial it in right. And when you do, it produces more crema than any other espresso that anybody’s ever seen.”
         “Kenyan and Ethipioan are both highly popular, too,” adds Andrew. “Flavored coffees are also really popular. Amaretto, Highlander Grogg, Jamaican Me Crazy — it’s hard to keep those in stock sometimes.”
         Over the 11 years they’ve been in East Nashville, Bean Central has developed the internet side of their business to the point the majority of their orders come through beancentral. com, with customers stretching from coast to coast. But they still welcome orders from local customers — there’s a one-pound minimum — and ask that anyone interested please call 615-227-5715.
         As for my own coffee crisis last spring, the Doughertys came to the rescue, and I am more than pleased with my new blend. For the flavored coffee, I settled on Bavarian Chocolate, and for the dark roast, I went with a bean called Panama Red.