Hit Koreatown specialty coffee shop BrewWell just celebrated their first year of pulling shots from inside their light-filled space off 8th Street. Helmed by sisters Grace and Elizabeth Rhee, the artsy-chic shop has done well by going against the grain; BrewWell is attached to a large Korean grocery store and isn't visible from the street, it rotates through different coffee roasters for many of its beans and caters to a hearty mix of artists, coffee snobs and Korean grandmothers. The Rhee sisters sat down to talk about their quality control, getting into the specialty coffee game and hiring people with absolutely no experience — on purpose.—Farley Elliott
What were you doing before BrewWell? Elizabeth: Both of us had finished college, and were pursuing completely different things. Grace was pursuing music, I was all over the place. I wanted to go into fashion, maybe psych, art therapy. And then we saw this opportunity with BrewWell, and we decided to run with it.
So why coffee, then? Was it just a personal passion? Grace: To be honest, I wasn't a very big coffee drinker before I got introduced to specialty coffee. But when we got plugged into this whole community and the craft of making coffee, I saw how creative that can be, too. It's very hands on. And I just fell in love.
Elizabeth: I feel like coffee is one of those common threads among everyone. Well, not everyone. But most people can't go through a day without drinking coffee. And we saw that as a great opportunity to bring people together.
Grace: We just really wanted to provide a different atmosphere to Koreatown. We wanted to bring quality coffee that wasn't around at the time. And we're really big about relationships and community, so a coffee shop made sense.
Elizabeth: I have a big passion for hospitality. And when we got introduced to specialty coffee, it felt like a natural fit. But we wanted to set up a different kind of coffee shop, with the sort of service you don't usually see in Koreatown.
Do you get a lot of those regular customers you're looking for? Elizabeth: It's Interesting. Because we're located next to a Korean grocery store, we thought that it would be that older generation of Koreans. But it's oddly been a completely different demographic.
Grace: We get a lot of students.
Elizabeth: A lot of freelancers. People just looking for a space where they can get things done. It's funny, we'll look into our space some days and the place will be half full of old Korean grandmas, mixed in with the younger non-Koreans.
You said you didn't have a ton of coffee knowledge before starting BrewWell. Did you try to pull in people who had maybe more up front knowledge about coffee than you? Elizabeth: Most people had no coffee experience. We really started this process together. It's been a journey, starting at ground zero to where we are now.
Grace: It was just people that wanted to be involved. That's really important to us. For us, we love creating a culture of family. Sometimes we'll be behind the bar, laughing at each other or making fun of each other. Hopefully our customers see that, and it makes them feel comfortable.
What's it like to work together on such a big, day-to-day project like this? Elizabeth: It was a lot of stepping on each others' toes when we first started.
Grace: Our personalities are completely different, too. We come from polar opposite ends, so we kind of started off all over the place. But I feel like now we kind of divide up the roles. We've come a long way. We still fight, pretty much every day [laughs].
Elizabeth: Well, we've learned to communicate, without getting heated.
Grace: And I know that I wouldn't be able to do this alone. And she says that too.
Where do you get your beans from? Grace: We were moving around for a while. Right now our main roaster is Heart, out of Portland. We love them.
Elizabeth: We're actually in the process of looking for another roaster to add in to our coffee program.
Grace: Even with our roasters, we love building relationships. We've worked with Heart for almost a year now, and they've really been great about reaching out to us too. I think that's important. But at the same time, we want to keep bringing in other kinds of roasts and coffee profiles to our program.
With rotating beans, how do you measure what makes a good cup of coffee? Is this good coffee for BrewWell, because you're making the drinks you want to make, or is this a good cup of coffee anywhere? Grace: That's a tough one. I feel like we're constantly growing in our knowledge of coffee. We're always educating ourselves. We've gone to Portland, we're always talking to people in the community, getting advice. But I would say we've tried to implement a system where we're dialing everything in periodically throughout the day. That's not to say I know what the best espresso tastes like, but I know what I like to drink, and so I want to serve that. Making sure we're tasting every time someone comes on for their shift, or every few hours. We're always checking. It definitely requires a lot of palate training.
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