Published on May 6th, 2013 | by Ashley Shafer0
Dark Horse For the Win
My exploration for the best iced coffee in town brought me to San Diego’s newest coffee contender and roaster, Dark Horse Coffee in Normal Heights. My first thoughts: that horse-man logo is kind of creepy. But funky. Ok, I think I like it. Imagine my delight when the cold brew iced coffee was everything I needed it to be and more! It was so smooth and strong, made sweet by a homemade vanilla bean-infused sweetener. Within a week I was a regular and had introduced a handful of my comrades to the jewel. Delightful conversation with the friendly staff inspired me to write my first Q & A.
Thirty-year-old Daniel Charlson has a vagabond spirit. He grew up in Hawaii (lucky, right?) where he was surrounded by coffee fields. This sparked his interest in the craft. But he’s also lived in Nashville, Seattle and Santa Barbara, and has visited 48 of the 50 states (excluding Alaska and Maine). He’s a creative soul who has a background in construction, but also spent time in music marketing. He traveled all over the nation with huge musical groups like The Jonas Brothers, Green Day and Keith Urban, setting up their marketing operations at each tour stop. He’s also a musician himself (guitarist, songwriter). An inherent desire to start his own business and create something of his very own led to the inception of Dark Horse Coffee. Daniel “spills the beans”
ME: When growing up in Kauai, did you ever think you wanted to be a business owner?
DANIEL: I actually did. I’ve always been kind of a creative person – whether it was art or music, or something like that. It just made sense for me to eventually do something that I controlled the product and the output. I’ve always wanted to do something where I get to insert myself, and my personality into what I’m doing.
ME: What was the most challenging part of starting your own business?DANIEL: I knew there was a lot to it and that if I didn’t just go for it, then it might not happen – so I just went for it and expected that everything would fall into place. And I learned a lot fast! That was the most stressful part. It’s a lot of information and especially converting something that used to be an African craft store to…
ME (being rude and interrupting, tsk tsk): It was an African craft store?
DANIEL: Ya, and before that it was a Rasta store. And before that it was a guns and ammo store. So, converting that into food service was difficult. I have a background in construction, so that stuff was easy. Working with the city, drawing up my own plans and all the red tape though was very new to me. If I would have researched it and found out how hard it was, maybe I wouldn’t have tried it, but I was already in it so I had to keep going. And that’s how I thrive. Luckily, it worked out.
ME: You created a lot of the design elements in the shop – is there one piece that you are most proud of?
DANIEL: I really like how the counters turned out. Everything in the shop kind of unfolded organically. I started by doing the wood on the walls. I got a bunch of old fence wood, and then I ran out of that so I had to buy new fence wood and make it look like it was old fence wood. I’m really lucky that it turned out pretty cool, because it could have been a disaster!
ME: Why did you choose San Diego?
DANIEL: I was kind of in a rut in Seattle. You know how it is, before your “next move” everything’s kind of slow motion? I just really wanted out of there. The last three months I was there it was gloomy and raining every day. So I was just ready to go somewhere. I knew I wanted to start a coffee roasting business and my brother and I had some friends in San Diego.
ME: How does San Diego compare?
DANIEL: San Diego is cool because it’s a little bit of all the cities I have lived in. You’ve got your beer culture* like the northwest, then the coffee culture is coming up down here, too.
*Author’s note: A few days after our interview, I was enticed by Facebook to try the limited-time Automatic Nitro Coffee Stout at neighboring Blind Lady Alehouse, made with none other than Dark Horse coffee! I’m not sure what excited me more – the deliciously smooth taste, or the fact that two of my favorite Normal Heights’ establishments were teaming up. Gotta love that comradery!
ME: Once you decided to move here, how did you come across the Adams Ave. location? Did you have any idea what a cool area it was?
DANIEL: I wish I could take credit for this stuff and say that I did market research. Literally, I was in Hawaii after a long day and went on Craigslist and found this place. I called the lady and told her I would take it no matter what.
OK, coffee talk…
ME: Explain in your words the difference between espresso and coffee [for people who don’t know] and why you don’t have espresso.
DANIEL: The choice to leave out espresso from the menu wasn’t an easy choice. I just go back to wanting to insert myself and my personality into what I am doing. The whole espresso machine thing and the hot milk – that just isn’t my style. Nothing against it, some people do it really well and it’s amazing, but I was ready to do something a little different. Not having an espresso machine has really allowed the shop to focus on what it’s good at, which is serving fresh roasted coffee. It’s brewed right, it’s roasted right, and everything has got to be quality all along the way.
ME: Tell us about the roasting process.
DANIEL: We do everything small batch right now. I kind of like the idea of having small batch because I am always struggling to keep up with the demand, which enables me to always have fresh coffee. Sometimes I am passing out bags of coffee that are still hot. I like that, I think it is part of the charm. It kind of keeps me honest. Not having a drip machine means I can’t brew a bunch of coffee and have it sit there for hours.
ME: Explain the difference between French press and pour over.
DANIEL: They’re just two really great ways of making coffee where the machine doesn’t do the work for you. You basically just have hot water and coffee grounds. The main difference is the filter: a pour over has a paper filter and a French press has a metal filter. A paper filter filters out a lot of the oil and grounds. With a metal filter, a lot of the oils get through the plunger and even some of the grounds, so you have a more sooty texture at the bottom.ME: Which one do you prefer?
DANIEL: I go back and forth. I have pour overs a lot but then I’ll be on a French press kick for a while. They’re a completely different taste and not one is better than the other, in my opinion.
ME: Do people come in and ask for stuff not on your menu?
DANIEL: Ya, for sure. A latte would be the most common. Those are probably my least favorite moments because I don’t want to disappoint anybody and I want them to like my shop. I just tell them what we have and they can decide if they want to try it. One of our main goals is to approach this whole business with the standpoint that anyone can have their coffee the way they want it. We’re not here to tell you that our way is better. We do serve coffee a certain way, so if you don’t want it, that’s okay.
ME: Have people asked for a frappuccino?
DANIEL: No! No one’s asked for a frappuccino, yet.
ME: How often do your flavors change?
DANIEL: In the future, I will probably have four or five flavors to choose from. Right now I have six or seven. It’s basically whatever I have roasted.
ME: I love your iced coffee…so much! Can you talk about the cold brew process?
DANIEL: Cold brew is probably my favorite way of making coffee. Once I found cold brew (and I found it late in life) I would choose my coffee shops based on if they had cold brew or not. I spent a while developing a way to do cold brew that I thought was really good, and I’m really happy with how we do it. [In cold brew] you don’t use hot water to extract the coffee from the grounds, you use time and it just steeps at room temperature water*. Based on your recipe, you can choose how long it steeps.
*Author’s note: this gets rid of the acidity of the coffee and creates an incredibly smooth cup of coffee!
ME: Did you come up with the idea to do a vanilla bean-infused sweetener?
DANIEL: No, I mean that’s something that has been done. It was never a question in my mind though if I would do it or not. I’ve always wanted to do specialty syrups. I am working on three different ones that will rotate in the future. We just did a brown sugar lavender [flavor]. I like having something special for the people who like to sweeten their coffee.
ME: Any other coffee shops in San Diego that you really like?
DANIEL: I like Caffé Calabria and I really respect what the guys over at Coffee and Tea Collective are doing – they’re killin’ it. I think it’s really good.
ME: Anything else you want to talk about that I missed?
DANIEL: I am thankful for anyone who wants to come hang out at my shop. I’d be happy to just be a small footnote in the coffee culture here.