One-Day Apprentice: Caleb Nicholes ’00

By Drew Shonka

Caleb Nicholes ’00 has always loved food. For starters, he grew up in a large family that equated love with good food. At Carleton, the classical studies major worked in restaurants, baked at Dacie Moses House in his spare time, and roasted coffee beans at home in a Whirley Pop Popcorn Popper—a drum-shaped aluminum pot with a crank on the lid. Although Nicholes had planned on a career in academia, eventually his sense of adventure combined with his refined palate to set him on a different career path.

In 2005 he moved to Viroqua, Wisconsin, where he met T. J. Semanchin, who shared his passion and drive—and who had years of experience in the coffee roasting business. The pair opened a roastery—Kickapoo Coffee—the same year. Since then, they’ve collected four Good Food awards and were recognized by Roast Magazine as the 2010 Roaster of the Year.

Although they’re based in a small town, Nicholes and Semanchin travel the world seeking out the best coffees and the unique microclimates that support them. It reminds Nicholes of the treasure hunts he loved as a kid. “Just over the hill, there could be a new variety of bean with a one-of-a-kind flavor profile,” he says.

It’s a quest of sorts: to discover that as-yet-untasted coffee bean, fermented just so, waiting to be roasted with all the expertise Nicholes possesses, eventually to become a perfect cup of coffee.


9:05 a.m.

Kickapoo Coffee

Coffee first. As they arrive at work, Kickapoo Coffee employees help themselves. Here, Nicholes pours an organic brew from Fondo Paez, a community-based coffee cooperative in Colombia.


9:32 a.m.

Caleb Nicholes ’00

In addition to supporting small-scale, family-run coffee growers globally, Nicholes lives sustainably in Viroqua. Kickapoo Coffee is 100 percent solar powered.


10:15 a.m.

Kickapoo Coffee

Nicholes meets with Kickapoo client Luke Zahm, owner of the Driftless Café in downtown Viroqua.


12:15 p.m.

Kickapoo Coffee

Brewing formulas are scribbled in grease pencil on the windows of Kickapoo’s cupping room (the laboratory of the roastery). Employees often gather here at lunchtime to share a meal and tell stories.


12:56 p.m.

Kickapoo Coffee

The best machines in small-batch coffee production are often the oldest ones. Here, a sample of Aramo beans from Ethiopia is tipped from a Jabez Burns roaster, made in New York in 1912.


1:45 p.m.

Kickapoo Coffee

Nicholes and Semanchin travel the world to negotiate higher prices for the beans they buy from farmers. Nicholes helps farmers see the value in their product and the potential for sustainable growth. “Many farmers deplete their soil and move on when the ground won’t produce a crop anymore,” he says. “We help farmers invest in their soil in order to grow the best-tasting beans.”


2:30 p.m.

Kickapoo Coffee

Kickapoo Coffee started small in 2005 and grew slowly. Initially, Nicholes and Semanchin were satisfied sourcing globally and selling regionally. Today the roastery operates a café in Milwaukee and sells its products in stores and cafés nationwide.


3:22 p.m.

Kickapoo Coffee

Several times a week, Nicholes and Kickapoo staff members test coffee varieties and batches. Roasters, marketers, office staff, and delivery drivers all are experts, having developed their own refined palates.

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