When Mark Berry began losing his eyesight in 2005 at the age of 48, coffee was the last thing on his mind. He had retinoblastoma, a degenerative form of eye cancer that left him with a bleak prognosis. As his vision deteriorated over the following year, a new vision emerged. A park ranger friend of Mark's introduced him to the world of quality coffee, and thus began a new chapter in his life.
Today, Mark Berry is retired from the successful company he started 11 years ago—Blind Dog Coffee. Ian and Yuliya Berry, Mark’s son and daughter-in-law, now run the company’s factory in Gardnerville, Nevada. Blind Dog offers a full complement of gourmet roasts and blends – a product line aimed to carve out their share of a market dominated by java juggernauts like Starbucks and Peet’s. Packaged in its distinct lime green bag, Blind Dog Coffee is on the shelves of nearly every major grocer in Northern Nevada: Raley’s, Scholari’s, Smith’s, Safeway, four Walmarts, three Costco’s, Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, and Holiday Markets.
“My dad laid the foundation for an amazing business,” said Ian, the co-owner and Master Roaster of Blind Dog Coffee. Ian doesn’t care for titles, though. He is involved in nearly all facets of his company’s operation, from day-to-day roasting to the lab science work of perfecting the blends.
Since 2007, the company has seen a steady rise in production.
“We started with a 15 pound roaster, then went to 25 pounds,” Ian said. “Now we’re using a 75 pound roaster.”
And just as the size of the roaster has increased, so too has Blind Dog’s office space. Starting as a small operation in the Palomino Valley area of Reno, they have incrementally expanded, moving to a larger office in Gardnerville, and then buying more and more space in the same building to accommodate their production needs. Blind Dog’s primary sales method is through supermarkets, but the path to get your product in stores is anything but easy.
“It could take six months to four years to get in a store,” he said. “It took four years to sell in Wal-Mart.”
The long wait has to do with the standards that each grocer has in place before allowing a product in their aisles. Blind Dog meets strict production protocol to ensure that the coffee is available to a growing network of consumers wherever they shop.
The Blind Dog Philosophy
Ian spoke of Blind Dog’s three core values: consistency, high quality, and fair price. While it is difficult to achieve all three at the same time, Blind Dog has found a premium blend. They also distinguish themselves from other coffee companies through their community involvement. Blind Dog partnered with Northern Nevada Children’s Cancer Foundation (NNCCF) to supply the organization, and the families they help, with coffee. They also donate the proceeds of sales at NNCCF events to help children in need.
A Little History
Coffee, of all things, is now distinguished between so-called first, second and third “waves.” Third wave coffees are the local “artisan” roasts you’ll see hipsters drinking while they sit on a patio with their labradoodle named “Peter Frampton.” This cup of caffeine comes complete with foam art and a $5 price tag. Its predecessor, “second wave coffee,” is the generation of joe ushered in by the Starbucks and Peet’s of the world. This wave turned coffee into a social event. First wave coffee is the stuff our parents or grandparents drank. Folgers and Maxwell House, before the cans were repurposed for storing loose change when dad or mom said a curse word. These are not discrete categories, however, as the Blind Dog brew, which belongs to the second wave, is just as artisanal as what you’ll find in the gourmet coffeeshops.
Behind the Beans
Ian generously treated me to a tour of his factory, showing me where the beans are stored, roasted, and cooled. Blind Dog’s beans are sourced from Central and South America, Indonesia and Ethiopia. Beans vary significantly based on where they are cultivated and what other plants grow in the region, but a major variable in coffee taste comes from the way it is prepared.
The tour concluded with a stop at the Blind Dog tasting room, a veritable science lab where Ian doubled as chemist. He brewed me a cup of Blind Dog coffee using his Chemex Coffeemaker, a pour-over style popular among coffee purists. It was almost hypnotic watching Ian put such care into a cup of coffee. Hot water swirled through the grinds in carefully measured intervals, allowing the coffee to bubble and brew for just the right amount of time. The end product was a delight.
I am not a coffee aficionado. As a decaf drinker, I could never rightfully claim to be. But on occasion I do appreciate an unadulterated cup of true black coffee, and Blind Dog is my new favorite.
The sky is the limit for the Gardnerville roastery. They plan to launch a new website in the near future and have not ruled out the idea of a storefront where their products can be showcased and enjoyed in a communal setting. “Coffee to me is a community thing,” Ian said.
Mark Berry now spends his days of retirement woodworking. An expertly crafted, varnished table adorns the Blind Dog tasting room. After a sip of the coffee and a sight of the table, I was convinced that the whole Berry family has something of a magic touch.