As president and chief operating officer of a 103-year-old coffee company, Nick Becharas has a discerning palate for java.
"I don't drink as much coffee as my father. He probably had about 20 cups a day. I drink probably four or five cups," said Becharas, who heads up Becharas Brothers Coffee Co., in Highland Park. "We 'cup' coffee every morning. It's kind of like wine tasting, and it's a ritual we do every morning to determine what we are going to buy and what we are going to put into our blends."
Using a century-old lazy susan table, Becharas and others use different sampling methods to taste coffee sent to them by coffee brokers from around the world. The beans are roasted, then ground. Sampling includes checking for aroma, a small spoon taste in the back of the mouth, and another sip that ends up in a spittoon.
"It's only from repetition that we know what we are looking for," said Nick, who lives in Bloomfield Hills. "This morning, we had about 10 samples from Brazil. We can tell from that sample, which represents about 40,000 pounds, where it came from and from what region. We do that every morning."
Learning the business from his father, Dean, Nick started learning the coffee business about the time he learned how to walk, from packing and roasting to plant operations and later working as a commodities broker in London. Today, Nick heads up the business side of the company while Dean Jr., is vice president over operations. Their sister, Stephanie, serves as treasurer/secretary and oversees the company's office.
The company, which for 55 years was the largest supplier of coffee to the United States military, was started in 1914 by brothers George and Nicholas Becharas, who moved to the United States from Europe. Nick’s father, Dean, was responsible for heading up plans to build the company's Highland Park plant in 1966, and later took the reigns of the company in the 1970s.
“The plant here was built by the railroad to my father's specifications, because we were bringing so many railcars in," he said. "He did it with no real engineering or mechanical background. He worked with a German mechanical engineer to automate the factory. We have changed the process a little today, but when the railroad built it, everything, including the storage silos that are above the roof line, were built into the foundation of the building."
Once home to more than a dozen coffee roasters and providers, the Becharas family business is the only major coffee company left in the Detroit area. When the military changed its coffee purchasing policy about 1991, Becharas looked for new ways to diversify, moving into the retail and specialty market. It now packages coffee for more than 40 private labels in two dozen states, including Five O'Clock brands and Detroit Bold Coffee.
"My dad kind of instilled that you don't rely on what's bringing in revenue now in order to be here in 10 years. Always be looking for different approaches and avenues," he said.
Today, Becharas said his plan is to continue the legacy that his family started a century ago.
"We believe that if we didn't spend as much time and detail into putting out a great cup of coffee, it would be hard for us to compete with a lot of major brands. Our customers rely on us to do that."
Photo: Jean Lannen