Outdoorsman Sam Higby makes flavorful coffee routines accessible for any adventure
“More than 850 flavor and aromatic compounds exist in coffee. Only 200 are in wine,” said Sam Higby, 39, co-owner of First Ascent Coffee Roasters (FA). Higby stops to arrange a blind cupping for me with their handcrafted instant coffee in the workshop in Crested Butte, Colorado. The space around us holds a packaging machine, freeze dryer, and top-secret frankensteined brew system with Higby’s coal-toned, lanky Bernedoodle puppy springing around the open floor.
The cozy factory is full of bean aroma, per Higby’s elation. He and his business partners, co-founders Allison and Mark Drucker, are on a mission to deliver the best single-pour, packaged coffee on the market. And according to a recent SNEWS poll, they do: FA won by a landslide with 46% of votes among competitors.
Sam Higby first discovered his coffee ritual at age 26, while working as an Outward Bound mountaineering and climbing instructor throughout the Colorado Rockies. He and colleagues established French press lunch breaks while clients ate. They’d meander down trail, cafe in hand: a mental reset. And for big climbs, his mornings start with a pour pre-daybreak.
“I have nerves before an objective,” Higby said recalling his most memorable cup: an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe freshly roasted on a Clover coffee maker at Salt Lake City’s Jack Mormon Coffee in 2008. “The ceremony of hot water, steam, aroma and a warm cup in your hands, even before you even drink it, helps put the day in motion.”
After holding several top-notch outdoor industry jobs, Higby wasn’t content with his career path. In 2013, he decided to follow another passion. Higby cold-emailed Boxcar, a nationally renowned coffee shop in Boulder, his then-hometown, to seek a job sans credentials.
“As a customer, my drinks were consistent,” Higby said. “Every barista wanted to make each beverage better. I appreciated and wanted to be a part of that energy.”
As a dishwasher, he studied their artistry and was promoted to shift lead. Little did Higby know, a Boxcar barista title would help secure a life-changing position as the FA barista manager, which he sought, in 2017.
“One of my first days at the cafe, Mark handed me a cup of coffee to do a blind tasting. It was a really nice flavor—and was his instant blend. I said, ‘This’ll put your kid through college.’”
Higby joined as a business partner when they closed the cafe-front to focus on instant brew, a year later. Today, Mark is still the primary roaster and Allison covers marketing while Higby manages production and events.
The Long Run
Recently, FA received a $250,000 business grant, from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, to invest in a commercial freeze dryer that’ll increase weekly production by eight-fold. The goal? To grow their outdoor retailer partnerships from a handful to 50 nationwide, in 2020. And in the long run, to fuel their local community byway of more jobs—and countless caffeinated ski runs.
As Higby said, “Whether you sit at a coffee shop or in a tent, drinking coffee is an important part of our outdoor community and lives, which I find solace in.”
MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning travel and adventure writer for close to 60 publications. She lives in the Elk Mountains, where she plays outside — and enjoys coffee from a French press — year-round. She hopes to understand how to make a cup of coffee as perfectly as Sam one day.