The midwest’s snow flurries dance across the glass panes, making for a welcome contrast when one enters into the warm, productive, and engaging environment of The Abbey Coffee Company. The smell of roasting Ethiopian coffee beans, and suspended, exposed light bulbs are the first thing to greet me as I walk into this intriguing, transformed warehouse.
I approach the center of the room where of all mixing, steaming, grinding and pouring is happening, to find Chris Marse, owner and creator of The Abbey, weighing out freshly roasted beans. Despite his clear devotion to and love for what he is doing, he greets me with an effortless hospitality and promises to wrap up in a few minutes.
I survey the space and notice his own, hand crafted wooden tables, the Brick Red Coffee roaster and industrial-sized scale gracing the main floor. The Abbey is primed for production, and in more ways than one. As I embrace the opportunity to hear from Chris, I begin to understand how The Abbey cultivates more than just a high-quality product.
There is more to The Abbey than what meets the eye. To understand the life flowing from it, Chris explains, I must experience the “inner workings” of the place.
“There’s so much creativity in the way the space is built and the way that people are interacting within the company— a space for play, debate, excitement, and culture.”
So as I pass through the countless shelves of books, the dusty back woodworking room, a retro video game room, and conference rooms built for creative collaboration, I collect the story behind this Indiana coffee shop.
How did you get your start in coffee?
Really, I stumbled into it. I worked at a coffee shop for three and a half years in college but actually didn’t even drink coffee at that point. After graduation I had several odd jobs but eventually landed back in a different coffee shop. We had to go to Muncie to train and that was when I tasted espresso straight for the first time ever. I realized how intense it was and started to see how I had misunderstood it for a long time and it peaked my curiosity. I started to realize its complexities and vast differences. I’ve always had strong opinions about food— strong likes and dislikes, but I started to realize how a lot of my pickiness and hyper focus had to do with my developing palette. I could discern things in food that others didn’t even notice. Getting into coffee developed and trained my tongue, so training my senses in coffee and being nit-picky was a big help in that job.
Can you tell me about the beans you use?
For all of our Ethiopian coffee beans, I go and visit the actual producers. One of these I actually met when we were going to Ethiopia to adopt our son. Seeing it firsthand just shows you how much work and intense passion goes into it. It’s crazy because we will never work as hard as these producers because their life depends on it.
How did The Abbey Coffee Company get started?
I met this hyper-entrepreneurial guy, Daryn Campbell, and we talked about wanting to create a faith-based business, but not resting on that for the selling point. Instead resting on the quality and developed image. I really admired monastic life because part of their life is spent in prayer and devotion and then the other part is consumed with craft—one specific craft, be it printing press, woodwork, animal raising, they spend time honing their skill. Faith is a really informing commitment to our work and The Abbey grows out of that.
So I actually began roasting before a café even came into play. I started roasting out of my home. It was really small and fragile for a long time, but we were able to develop ideas of what we wanted to be and hone our roasting skills continually.
It’s a bottomless pit, I’m still learning new things about coffee all the time and it’s been almost ten years since I started to hone this skill.
How did you develop the aesthetic of The Abbey?
It kind of morphed and it was a community of ideas because I’m naturally creative but I’m not with visual art, architecture and all those things. Its not my skill set so getting connected with the designers at Tree of Life, getting connected with friends who are like-minded who have different skill sets. We essentially kind of came into this empty shell of drywall and said, “What do we have going for us?” So we had this space we wanted to feel natural and industrial at the same time. We had concrete floor and these huge ceilings and we’re like, how do we make this feel warm and inviting while still maintaining some of its natural character, so we did that by using natural lighting—the way it comes in the front we thought using color or shade in the ceiling, the walls, keeping kind of that cool industrial feel at the same time, lots of wood. We wanted to make it feel like somebody’s walking into a place where things are being produced; where there’s a process going on, that there’s raw product literally hanging out in here. Like we’re welcoming them into a factory where we’re processing coffee and then using open counter space to give people a chance to see the process and ask questions.
Tell me a little bit about the classes you offer here.
Well, I think that within any craft, there is always a risk of alienation—that you’ll get so into something that there’s danger of arrogance, like, “I’ve developed all this knowledge and I have this skill set and people are misusing their equipment.” They don’t know, you didn’t know at some point, but for some reason people feel that they should know better. And it is disruptive to serving people, which is first and foremost why we’re here. So the best way to do this is to give away this information because it was free to me in the first place. We don’t want to alienate people, we don’t want them to feel like what we’re doing is separate from what they can accomplish or “be into.”
I want people to be fascinated the same way I am so I want our employees to be able to answer what they now know as a silly questions because they know all these things and I want employees to be able to be patient and explain the process. I want to pique people’s interest and then I want to actually give them information that fills in gaps like, “What are you doing? Why are you using scales? Why is there this hot water tower and digital numbers and all sorts of stuff going on here?” So to pull the veil back and say, here are tangible steps to improve what you’re doing at home, here’s why we do this. We think it’s quality and you can experience that. We’re not holding back the keys on this whole process, we want you to feel you’re connected to it.
How do you see that playing in the overall feeling of The Abbey?
Well we want people to not just be bought into a product, but a feeling or an atmosphere. People want to be connected which is the most important thing. I think we dream that this is a place where people fall in love and debate and think about new ideas and get excited about coffee, but maybe it has nothing to do with that. We want them to get excited about people, or God, or feel like they can imagine.
We wanted to build a space that felt it did not meet the general expectations of this area and what people would be okay with. We wanted to do something that made people feel differently when they walked in. Something that felt inviting and inspiring in some way.
How would you describe The Abbey’s mission?
I think in what we’re doing with our product is trying to honor all the immense work that went into it to make it what it is. To preserve its inherent quality and ever increasingly communicate the story of that as best as we can so people will feel a personal connection to that product. So people will feel that their investment in the product is doing good for the people who have produced it. We want the experience here to promote some of those concepts of creativity and hope and feeling connected in community to people through this experience.
The Abbey Coffee Co.
1500 South Western Avenue, Marion, IN 46953