By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller
Discourse Coffee founder Ryan Castelaz sees himself as a storyteller who uses coffee as the medium to weave his tales.
His passion for storytelling was ignited in childhood when he fell in love with opera. As a young musician, Castelaz studied opera in Florence where he discovered another passion that would change the course of his life: espresso.
Always creative, Castelaz, who relocated to Door County soon after college graduation, was looking for new ways to tell stories when he discovered the American documentary series, Chef’s Table. “I never knew people were expressing themselves through food,” he said.
He was inspired by the ways the featured chefs blended culture and history into the dishes they prepared. He thought, “can I do what those chefs are doing with food in the coffee space?”
He soon discovered he could.
Castelaz opened his first Discourse Coffee location in Sister Bay in 2017 after throwing himself into extensive self-guided culinary studies. He pored over cocktail books, recipe books, and explored flavor profiles to create a truly unique coffee experience for his customers.
“When I started in 2017, lavender in the spring and pumpkin spice in the fall was the extent of it,” he said of specialized coffee trends. In contrast, Castelaz was creating complex drinks designed to challenge the palate of his customers.
He describes the experience of creating these recipes as “exhilarating,” adding that it is “empowering” to see the reaction of coffee drinkers. For him, the beverage is a way to engage in a conversation with the drinker and he often asks “how does this (drink) make you feel?”
The Discourse Coffee founder brought his unique approach to coffee to Milwaukee in 2021.
The company is operating the coffee shop inside the Milwaukee Art Museum where the menu includes hand-crafted beverages inspired by museum exhibitions, as well as a location inside Crossroad Collective. It’s third Milwaukee location is just days away from opening.
“You can get an amazing cup of coffee at 20 different places in Milwaukee,” he said. “But at Discourse, amazing coffee is our baseline offering, not our final goal. We strive to create conversation-worthy coffee, designed from the ground up to bring you deep into the story of each drink.”
The Discourse team has grown from just Castelaz to ten, including partners Sean Liu and Olivia Molter, the Director of Design.
Liu, the Director of Operations, has been a part of the Milwaukee coffee scene since 2012 when he was a part-time barista in college at Alterra, which has since been rebranded as Colectivo. It was then he fell in love with the craft and culture of coffee. He stayed in the industry after his graduation and rose through the ranks at Colectivo before leaving to create curated coffee programs for major corporations. His partnership in Discourse allows him to be back where he is happiest — working directly with coffee.
Opening three locations in under a year is no small feat, and Castelaz is reflective about the company’s tremendous growth.
He believes many coffee shops initially fail because they “prioritize profit at the wrong point.” His plan is to focus on building a strong team and perfecting operations. “Let’s get talented people and give them what they’re worth. That will create sustainable profit in the long-term,” he said.
Soon, Discourse Coffee fans will have the opportunity to enjoy the company’s brews in new ways. The business is working on expanding into the catering space to serve its high-end brews at events, weddings, conferences, and other special occasions. Additionally, Discourse is currently developing a line of canned coffee beverage for distribution. The first drink to be released, Fool’s Gold, which Castelaz described as “essentially a coffee Moscow Mule” debuted at the Indulge Milwaukee tasting event in August and was well received.
Those looking to recreate the Discourse experience in their homes will soon be able to purchase a collection of the company’s recipes. The company has a book slated for publication in 2023 by Rizzoli International Publications, which is known for its art, culture, and culinary publications.
Milwaukee is the headquarters for Discourse Coffee, but Castelaz is already planning for expansion into the Chicago market in 2024. He plans to use the same exploratory launch method he used in Milwaukee to expand into the Windy City, which includes using pop-up locations and creating partnerships with established brands before opening a brick-and-mortar location.
Discourse Coffee’s new location is inside the Direct Supply Innovation & Technology Center at 1020 N. Broadway on the Milwaukee School of Engineering campus. The cozy space is just steps down from the sidewalk and is situated between the Direct Supply main entrance and the Grohmann Museum. The location will begin welcoming MSOE students and Direct Supply employees on Friday, September 16 and invites the public to join them for the soft opening on Sunday, September 18. The location will officially open on Monday, September 26.
To learn more about Discourse Coffee, connect with them here.