Had it not been for a game of Magic the Gathering, there might not be an Ugly Duck Coffee.
In 2009, Ugly Duck Coffee owner Rory Van Grol was living in Rhode Island. He and a housemate were playing the fantasy trading card game when the housemate decided to brew some coffee. After taking a sip, "I noticed it tasted much better than what I was used to," Van Grol says, "and I wanted to know why."
His housemate explained that the roasting process, water quality, and preparation method impacted the coffee's flavor — something he'd learned while working at the nearby New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Soon after, Van Grol started working at New Harvest, too, and a passion was born.
Today, Van Grol is back in his hometown of Rochester and has made a name for himself on the local coffee scene. In addition to owning and running Ugly Duck Coffee, the pop-up coffee bar, he's helped tend the coffee bar at Joe Bean Roasters since 2011. His work earned him the "Best Barista" title in City Newspaper's 2015 "Best of Rochester" poll. Part of this may be due to his work style: carefully crafted drinks served with a friendly, down to earth attitude.
"I don't want people to be intimidated," Van Grol says. "I can give answers about specialty coffee, I can offer specifics, but what I really want is for people to enjoy it."
Van Grol's Ugly Duck Coffee has a short menu that reflects the seasons: espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes, with mochas in the winter and espresso tonics in the summer. The coffee blends used in the drinks rotate every three to four months, and highlight both national and regional coffee roasters. "People get excited about experiencing roasters and blends they haven't tried before," Van Grol says. Early this winter, Ugly Duck Coffee was serving Gimmie Coffee!'s Leftist Express Blend (Ithaca/NYC), which Van Grol describes as a "traditional-style; chocolatey, malty, and spicy; and versatile, working well with milk beverages" and Dogwood Coffee Roasters' Neon Espresso (Minneapolis/Winnepeg) that he describes as "lighter and brighter; a newer coffee style that's 'in your face.'"
While Ugly Duck Coffee's gear has to be portable, it doesn't sacrifice quality. There's a La Marzocco GS/3 espresso machine, Mazzer Super Jolly burr grinders, and mobile station custom-created by Staach design, all of which help Ugly Duck Coffee hold its own in a local coffee scene that's rich with Third Wave coffee houses. Glen Edith (formerly Pour), Fuego, Joe Bean Roasters, and Ugly Duck Coffee were recently recognized by Sprudge.com, a coffee news and culture site that covers the globe. While you might guess there's competition among these spots, Van Grol says it's not so. His wife, Cris, goes even further: They wouldn't have been able to launch Ugly Duck Coffee, she says, "without the support of the business community."
That support extends beyond coffee houses: Ugly Duck Coffee has appeared at number of places around town, and is on regular rotation at Restaurant Fiorella in the Rochester Public Market (Thursdays), The Playhouse/Swillburger (Friday and Saturdays), and Park Avenue's Scratch Bakeshop (Sundays).
"We create a special vegan donut" for guests to have with their Ugly Duck specialty coffee" says Scratch Bakeshop co-owner and operator Kate Cassel. "It's really turned into a perfect partnership."
When Ugly Duck Coffee is on site at the Playhouse/Swillburger, the burger joint-bar-arcade, there's a special collaboration, too. Van Grol pulls pints of espresso and hands them off to the kitchen, where it's chilled and combined with Eat Me Ice Cream. The result? Espresso milkshakes.
"Rory has his own customers, and Ugly Duck Coffee brings more people in," says Brian Van Ettan, co-owner of The Playhouse/Swillburger. "Some people come in and head over to him directly. If they stay for video games and other things – even better."
Stock up on donuts and espresso milkshakes while you can. By summer, Ugly Duck Coffee will have a new home at a brick-and-mortar shop, occupying the former 1975 gallery space at 89 Charlotte Street, just a stone's throw from Hart's Local Grocers. Van Grol says he aims to keep the quality of his coffee high, expand the menu, and make the atmosphere simple, comfortable, and accessible to all – from singles to those with a brood; from coffee neophytes to experts. Once the shop opens, the pop-up bar will likely be reserved for special events.
Find Laura Rebecca Kenyon on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest @LauraKenyon, and dig through her recipe archive at LauraRebeccasKitchen.com.