Matt Hengeveld believes a great cup of coffee is like a great steak.
“When you have a really good cut of meat you don’t want to serve it well done because all you’re tasting is the char, not the meat,” he said. “If you roast coffee too dark, all you’re tasting is the burned parts, not the integral flavors of the coffee.”
Lit Coffee Roastery and Bakeshop, which opened March 3 at 26 E. Third St. and is co-owned by Hengeveld and his friends Dan Taylor and Melanie Lino, operates with this idea at the core of its production.
Hengeveld started roasting his own coffee as a hobby when he couldn’t find what he was looking for in a Lehigh Valley cup of joe. He felt chain shops didn’t put enough care into preserving the integrity of a coffee bean’s natural flavors, so he learned how to do it himself. He began spending time at The Wise Bean on the North Side where he was first initiated into the world of roasting coffee.
He experimented with coffees from different areas of the world and enjoyed being in control of deciding which coffees he wanted to roast. His first roaster was a whirley-pop, a stovetop roaster also used to make popcorn. As he refined his skills, his machines became more advanced.
With every temperature fluctuation of his small, two kilogram roaster he learned to distinguish between light, medium and dark roasts, acknowledging the natural flavors of different beans.
“Everyone who handled it before you had an idea of what this coffee is supposed to be like,” he said. “And to over roast it is to say, ‘None of that mattered.'”
His hobby became a business when Taylor, who had been roasting coffee at Square One Coffee in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, called him spontaneously to ask if he’d want to start a coffee-roasting business. He had no idea Hengeveld was already roasting, he just knew he could count on his old friend who “was always one to have weird ideas and just do something.”
Within three months, their first company, Monocacy Coffee Co., was born.
The duo began selling its product on the side at small events and eventually sold to Moravian’s seminary and Jumbar’s on the North Side. They regularly sold at the Rodale organic farmers market in Allentown where they met the owner of Made by Lino, Melanie Lino, a spunky Dominican baker who specialized in French macarons of any flavor, from cookie butter to creme brulee.
The duo soon became a trio in the summer of 2015. They went out to eat together and sold their products at the same local farmers markets.
One day after sitting around complaining about their real jobs, Lino joked they should just quit and open a coffee shop. Ever the opportunist, Hengeveld needed no more than a confirmation from Taylor to start the business. They began meeting every Sunday at Wegmans, and their small weekly stands quickly turned into a full-blown business.
They looked at a number of spaces to open the shop, but nothing fit their vision until they walked into the East Third Street location, formerly Tallarico’s Chocolates.
“We were searching for places and we stumbled upon this one,” Lino said. “We all came in and it just felt right.”
There was a nook to the left of the door that would invite natural light through the front window. The open space in the middle would allow for people to hang out or get work done. An area in the middle of the room called for a bar to be installed, and the walls yearned for artwork.
A spacious kitchen in the back would allow Hengeveld to transition from a two-kilogram roaster to a 10-kilogram drum roaster — a large machine filled with spinning burners that rotate the beans until they reach an even roast.
They could envision it all when they walked through the doors. Monocacy Coffee Co. and Made by Lino would finally have a permanent home in the Lehigh Valley.
Once they had the space, they planned to open in November 2016. However, difficulties obtaining permits delayed the opening. It took them nearly double the time they anticipated — roughly eight months — to prepare the new space. They had to choose the perfect paint colors.
Hengeveld and Taylor saw the shop as a chance to bring their ethically sourced and crafted coffee to more of the Lehigh Valley community, a community they believe doesn’t have enough opportunity to appreciate “good coffee.”
“Everything’s made in-house, that’s what sets us apart,” Lino said. “Your coffee is getting roasted here, your baked goods are being baked here. It’s coming from the back to the front, not from a warehouse somewhere.”
Hengeveld described achieving the perfect roast as a science. Getting the perfect high drop temperature. Fluctuating exhaust rates. Evenly roasting the entire surface area of a bean. Each factor contributes to the roast and ultimately the way it tastes.
Both men agreed their top priority is to maintain the integrity of the bean’s natural flavors.
“Our main philosophy is just to not ruin what the growers did and not step on it too much,” Taylor said.
With Hengeveld and Taylor as scientist and philosopher, they consider Lino the artist.
She began baking just two years ago at a time when she found herself interested in health and fitness. She used organic, ethically sourced eggs from a local farmer and prefers to cook with wheat flour. Hengeveld and Taylor treat coffee like chemistry, but Lino prefers to “mix a bunch of random things together and hope for the best.”
Her baking, she said, is all about recognizing “perfect imperfections” because the baking industry is obsessed with the perfect cake or cookie. She said these expectations aren’t real, so it’s important for her to remind people her goods are baked by a human being.
“I’ll be in the back and be like, ‘Hm, I have this and I have that, let me make a cookie out of it and see what happens,’” she said.
Her sense of organized chaos and ability to bake with uncommon ingredients are what drew Taylor and Hengeveld to work with her. Lino’s well-executed risks in the kitchen, paired with her rare-to-the-area French macarons, made her the perfect partner.
“She spices things up,” Taylor said.
Similarly, Lino said Taylor and Hengeveld are “an interesting pair to say the least.” Their energy and spontaneity, paired with their taste in music and sense of humor, drew her to them. They were similar people with a common goal: to produce quality goods people could enjoy.
Aside from bringing their homemade goods to Bethlehem, the trio is hoping the coffee shop becomes a hub for local students, artists and residents. The walls are lined with work from area artists, and local musicians’ songs play over the speakers. The tables were designed and built by a local craftsman and the bar by a local carpenter.
The shop’s eight coffees come from all areas of the world from Africa to South America to Asia, but everything else is homegrown and handmade in the Lehigh Valley.
The goal is to support the area in the way the area supported them when they were just selling at farmers markets and small events. They opened their doors Friday to welcome anybody in the community who wanted to get work done, read a book or have somewhere to escape.
“This is a very Lehigh Valley-esque feel and that’s pretty cool because this can be a community hub people can identify with,” Lino said.
Finishing her sentence, Taylor added, “When you think of Bethlehem or the Lehigh Valley in general, this can be a place that you can be proud of because it’s part of where you live. We’d like to represent the Bethlehem area as a good coffee shop and baked good spot.”