If there’s a liquid for which Olympia is more known than rain, it’s coffee.

With several roasters, and dozens of cafes, the community is pretty much fueled by caffeine.

Roaster Batdorf & Bronson arrived in the 1980s in the middle of the pack of Northwest coffee companies, some of which are now international names. While others have grown exponentially, even internationally, Larry Challain’s company has stayed constant—an Olympia presence, a craft roaster with carefully selected beans, and a community landmark.

From his childhood, Challain ’73 has vivid coffee memories. The smell of canned commissary coffee was a daily presence in his family kitchen. And the Cuban coffee stands around Key West, where his father was stationed, dazzled the boy. “I remember these humungous steam espresso machines with the eagle on top,” he says.

Years later, after completing a degree in psychology at WSU, Challain was working as a tugboat engineer in the Puget Sound and came across Wet Whisker, which later became Seattle’s Best Coffee. He felt at home with the sounds and smells in the small Seattle business that sold whole bean and drip coffee. Challain and his wife Cherie decided then that they would go into coffee for themselves.

They did their homework. Challain visited with Jerry Baldwin at Starbucks and Jim Stewart, founder of Wet Whisker. And then the Challains started saving. For 11 years. They moved to Olympia for Cherie’s day job and found a space to set up a storefront for Dancing Goats Espresso Company in 1988. The name is a reference to a folk story about the discovery of coffee in which a goatherd noticed his flock would dance after eating the berries from a certain bush.

Larry Challain ’73. Photo Matt Hagen
Larry Challain ’73. Photo Matt Hagen

Challain quickly made friends with Dick Batdorf, the owner of neighboring coffee shop Batdorf & Bronson. Batdorf had retired from Tacoma Community College and took up a second career in coffee. He was also a fine roaster from whom Challain was happy to buy beans. “He would tell these great stories while he was roasting,” says Challain.

But their friendship was too brief. Just two years after Challain opened Dancing Goats, Batdorf died of a heart attack. The Challains bought his company, blended the businesses, and became Batdorf & Bronson. They kept the name Dancing Goats for a few of their storefronts and their flagship coffee blend.

The Challains taught themselves how to roast, but depended on several original employees for advice and taste training. They had a good vision and resisted temptation to cut corners. “That can cost you more in the end,” says Challain. “It takes years to build a good reputation and only a moment to wreck it.”

They focused on roasting the best coffee to highlight the qualities of the bean, whether it’s fruitiness, nuttiness, or flavors of burnt caramel, chocolate, or spice. With a solid supply of local home customers and espresso bars and restaurants in the Northwest and on the East Coast, the company has grown at a steady pace. Today they have six retail outlets in addition to a healthy mail order business.

On the main floor of the roastery, heady smells waft from the large, noisy machine at the front of the room. Two workers are manning the apparatus as it stirs and heats the beans. Just next door is the public tasting room, a bright space designed by Cherie Challain, who also designs the packaging and logos.

The room behind is filled with pallets, burlap bags from Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Indonesia. Though demand for coffee has grown over the past 20 years, it hasn’t become harder to source quality beans. “Those larger roasters, they’re not always into the same coffee we are,” says Challain. While the company has a green buyer who travels to coffee regions all the time, the Challains visit a farm or community of origin every year.

That’s just the kind of basic, nuts and bolts way of doing things that Challain and his team plan to continue. “We’re not maybe your hippest hipster roaster,” says employee Jenya Campbell. “But we’ve done this so long, we know how to do it.”

If there’s a liquid for which Olympia is more known than rain, it’s coffee.

With several roasters, and dozens of cafes, the community is pretty much fueled by caffeine.

Roaster Batdorf & Bronson arrived in the 1980s in the middle of the pack of Northwest coffee companies, some of which are now international names. While others have grown exponentially, even internationally, Larry Challain’s company has stayed constant—an Olympia presence, a craft roaster with carefully selected beans, and a community landmark.

From his childhood, Challain ’73 has vivid coffee memories. The smell of canned commissary coffee was a daily presence in his family kitchen. And the Cuban coffee stands around Key West, where his father was stationed, dazzled the boy. “I remember these humungous steam espresso machines with the eagle on top,” he says.

Years later, after completing a degree in psychology at WSU, Challain was working as a tugboat engineer in the Puget Sound and came across Wet Whisker, which later became Seattle’s Best Coffee. He felt at home with the sounds and smells in the small Seattle business that sold whole bean and drip coffee. Challain and his wife Cherie decided then that they would go into coffee for themselves.

They did their homework. Challain visited with Jerry Baldwin at Starbucks and Jim Stewart, founder of Wet Whisker. And then the Challains started saving. For 11 years. They moved to Olympia for Cherie’s day job and found a space to set up a storefront for Dancing Goats Espresso Company in 1988. The name is a reference to a folk story about the discovery of coffee in which a goatherd noticed his flock would dance after eating the berries from a certain bush.

Challain quickly made friends with Dick Batdorf, the owner of neighboring coffee shop Batdorf & Bronson. Batdorf had retired from Tacoma Community College and took up a second career in coffee. He was also a fine roaster from whom Challain was happy to buy beans. “He would tell these great stories while he was roasting,” says Challain.

But their friendship was too brief. Just two years after Challain opened Dancing Goats, Batdorf died of a heart attack. The Challains bought his company, blended the businesses, and became Batdorf & Bronson. They kept the name Dancing Goats for a few of their storefronts and their flagship coffee blend.

The Challains taught themselves how to roast, but depended on several original employees for advice and taste training. They had a good vision and resisted temptation to cut corners. “That can cost you more in the end,” says Challain. “It takes years to build a good reputation and only a moment to wreck it.”

They focused on roasting the best coffee to highlight the qualities of the bean, whether it’s fruitiness, nuttiness, or flavors of burnt caramel, chocolate, or spice. With a solid supply of local home customers and espresso bars and restaurants in the Northwest and on the East Coast, the company has grown at a steady pace. Today they have six retail outlets in addition to a healthy mail order business.

On the main floor of the roastery, heady smells waft from the large, noisy machine at the front of the room. Two workers are manning the apparatus as it stirs and heats the beans. Just next door is the public tasting room, a bright space designed by Cherie Challain, who also designs the packaging and logos.

The room behind is filled with pallets, burlap bags from Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Indonesia. Though demand for coffee has grown over the past 20 years, it hasn’t become harder to source quality beans. “Those larger roasters, they’re not always into the same coffee we are,” says Challain. While the company has a green buyer who travels to coffee regions all the time, the Challains vis
it a farm or community of origin every year.

That’s just the kind of basic, nuts and bolts way of doing things that Challain and his team plan to continue. “We’re not maybe your hippest hipster roaster,” says employee Jenya Campbell. “But we’ve done this so long, we know how to do it.”