Food & Drink

Penn State grad builds Backyard Beans from the grounds up

Penn State graduate Matthew Adams is the owner of Backyard Beans.
Penn State graduate Matthew Adams is the owner of Backyard Beans. Photo provided

Americans love coffee. According to Gallup, about two-thirds of the country’s adults drink it daily and at a clip of more than two cups a day. The National Coffee Association reports the U.S. spends $40 billion annually on the beverage.

Matthew Adams was no exception. He had been a habitué of coffee shops and worked at one while studying finance at Penn State. The experience opened his eyes to the many disciplines that went into each brew, he said, though at that point, he hadn’t yet thought about opening up his own coffee business.

“There are two sides of the coffee world,” he said. “There’s the service side, like baristas and working at a coffee shop, and then there’s the roasting side. They’re complementary but completely different in terms of the skill set and knowledge, so I was able to understand the importance of coffee preparation but also learn that you’ve got to have good coffee to start with.”

After he graduated in 2010, he took a job with professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers as a technology consultant. Three years later, he began roasting in his backyard, experimenting with beans and a Weber grill. The part-time hobby soon grew into a full-time labor of love.

Adams, 28, quit his job last May to focus on Backyard Beans full time. In the three years since its founding, the Landsdale company has outgrown Adams’ backyard and the weekend farmers markets, conducting wholesale operations across the East Coast and parts of the Midwest. Adams’ coffee can be found in a number of retailers, such as Whole Foods and Darrenkamps.

In July, the company launched a nitrogen-infused cold brew coffee can, a rarity in the Philadelphia market.

Like many product launches, seeing it to fruition came with the attendant bleary eyes. But they may be from a different kind of new beginning: Adams’ daughter Hailey was born in May.

Fortunately for him, he knows where to get a good cup of coffee.

“It’s gratifying to see it all come together,” he said. “Not going to lie, it’s nerve-wracking and stressful at times. But you’ve got to take a risk.”

Q: What gave you the idea to start a coffee company?

A: I was a hobbyist home roaster and I saw the need at a local farmers market here in Lansdale, so I scaled up my production ability and applied and became a vendor and that’s where the birth of the business came from. We still do the farmers market every week.

Q: How does your current job compare and contrast with your former one?

A: There’s the relationship aspect: You build your client base based on the relationships you have and I find the same is true for building an account base for our wholesale accounts. But coffee roasting and running a small business is a bit more hands-on than consulting. I don’t spend my days behind a computer anymore, that’s for sure.

Q: Describe your typical day.

A: It depends. I have a team of three people who work in the shop to make sure everything gets roasted and delivered. My project has been launching the nitro cold brew cans. We rent space in a separate facility that’s fully licensed for beverage manufacturing, so I’m generally there brewing the cold brew, canning, on the phone with new accounts, visiting new accounts and trying to make sure this launch is successful.

Q: What are nitro cans?

A: It’s basically cold brew coffee that will pour like a Guinness. That is the easiest way to explain it. It’s infused with nitrogen and cascades up and forms a velvety head on the top.

Q: How many employees do you have? Is it just manufacturing at this point or are there plans for a brick-and-mortar store?

A: We have five employees: two full-time employees and then three part-time. Right now it’s just manufacturing, but we are opening a brick-and-mortar store this fall in downtown Lansdale.

Q: You speak about making coffee almost like it’s an art form. How do you see it?

A: It’s a combination of both art and science. Everyone has their own style and the importance of trying to understand which style works best for you as a roaster.

Q: Problem-solving seems to be an end in itself for you. What do you enjoy about that process?

A: That’s what I enjoy about small businesses is the critical thinking and how to make decisions that are not emotionally based, but based on facts and numbers that are going to impact, hopefully in a positive way, your bottom line. But it’s also when to know when to quit because there have been several times when we’ve had to make the decision to just stop doing stuff. Even if it’s just like you have a coffee that’s not selling well and you have inventory, and it’s like, “well, let’s just eat the inventory cost and move on.”

Q: You mentioned you started running the business full time last May. At a little more than a year in, what advice would you give you from a year ago?

A: That’s an easy one. It’s something I still struggle with, but learning to separate work from your personal life. And it is being able to, when something goes south, being able to not let that impact your day, week, whatever it is. I have a couple of accounts, they’re friends of mine, but I view them as entrepreneur-owners. That’s the biggest thing I observe and look up to in them: The walls could be burning, there could be a fire drill going on, but they’re still calm and they’re just like, “nope, you know what, there’s nothing I can really do about it. We can fix it, but I’m not going to sit and fret about it.” And when it’s your livelihood and it’s your passion and you have product out there and something is wrong with it, it’s easy to take it personally. The struggle is being able to separate that and say, “here’s how I’m going to respond and mistakes happen and I’m not going to beat myself up about it.”

You can spend days analyzing everything that could have happened, what went wrong, or you can just let it go and move on. And the latter is what I’ve seen successful people doing, but it’s a struggle to get there.

Q: Both of your brothers are chemical engineers and your dad is an engineer. Why aren’t you a chemical engineer right now?

A: Because I couldn’t understand the periodic table in high school (laughs). I just didn’t care to memorize it. Science didn’t interest me as much as business did.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy