There’s a sticker on the industrial freeze-drying machine at the First Ascent coffee roaster in Crested Butte. It’s from a group promoting the diversity of Colorado’s startup businesses, describing the state’s agriculture to rocket science business breadth with the words “Farm to Spaceship.”
“I guess I never thought of it so literally,” said Mark Drucker, who co-founded First Ascent coffee in 2014 with his wife, Alison, and this week sent 250 servings of his small-farm harvested, instant Dawn Patrol coffee on a NASA rocket heading to the International Space Station.
Several years ago, during a particularly grueling push up the last leg of the Four Pass Loop near Aspen, Mark and Ali were wondering how they shave weight from their overnight packs. The overburdened owners of a specialty coffee roastery blasphemously wondered if they should abandon the French press used for their morning Joe.
“One of us said ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had instant coffee right now instead of all this brewing equipment,’” Mark said. “What if we could make an instant coffee that actually tastes good?”
They started experimenting with freeze drying and found they could indeed make a delicious freeze-dried brew. They small-batch roasted their carefully selected green coffee beans from small farms in Ethiopia and brewed coffee as if they were serving it in their coffee shop in a rehabbed miner’s cabin on downtown Crested Butte’s Elk Avenue.
Then they routed the coffee through a freeze drier that removes the water. It was so good they closed their coffee shop — which they shared with a bakery — in 2018 and began focusing full-time on roasting beans and making freeze-dried coffee.
The biggest challenge wasn’t taking good coffee and turning it into a powder that could quickly return to quality joe with a bit of hot water. There’s cultural baggage that comes with instant coffee. Meaning it has, for decades, sucked.
“We still definitely fight the negative connotations with conventional instant and the best way to convince people is to get everyone to try it,” said Mark, who sets up at all sorts of events offering free samples of his single-serve instant brew. “Once people taste it, they are just instantly blown away. They all say ‘I can’t believe this is instant.’”
Wait. Isn’t that the line with the hidden-camera commercial from decades ago where an instant coffee maker replaced what was obviously a really lousy brewed coffee with a really lousy instant coffee and no one noticed the switch from bad to bad?
“Yes. It is a bit cliche, but that is the way it happens,” Mark said. “Every time we tell them ‘You are drinking instant coffee,’ they are like ‘No way.’”
Today’s coffee drinkers know good coffee. And First Ascent is all about quality coffee. Mark and co-owner, Sam Higby, carefully select fresh coffee beans from small farms in faraway lands. That’s what makes the real difference between First Ascent and the traditional instant coffees, Mark said. They roast, freeze-dry and package in small batches at their factory just south of downtown Crested Butte. They sell their instant coffee in REI and other mountain shops. Outdoor magazines have showered them in accolades, cheering the ability to sip rich Joe while adhering to the light-is-right ethos of backcountry travel.
Earlier this year Mark got an email from procurement at NASA. An astronaut headed to the International Space Station recently returned from a backpacking trip where she drank First Ascent and requested that NASA stock her space-bound larder with Dawn Patrol instant coffee.
NASA never shared the name of the astronaut, only her gender and launch date. Nicole Aunapu Mann, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps and commander of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission aboard NASA’s SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, is a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, making her the first indigenous woman from NASA to go to space. She’s the only American female on the mission headed to the International Space Station, so it’s likely she’s the one who requested First Ascent — a fitting name for her groundbreaking mission to space.
Astronauts, from what Mark gathers, are able to piece together meal plans for their monthslong missions to the station. He sent NASA 250 servings — all packaged in First Ascent 16-serving and individual packets per NASA regulations to ensure they haven’t been tampered with — that will be repackaged into special pouches with a nozzle for adding hot water and drinking. NASA told Mark they won’t do any marketing for First Ascent — no mentioning the coffee or anything like that — but Mark is free to promote his galactic brew anyway he wants.
That worked wonders for the powdered drink Tang, which apparently masked the chemical taste of spaceship water for space pioneer John Glenn on his first spin around the globe in 1962. The suddenly “Space Age” orange-flavored drink became an American staple after that, despite its arguable quality. First Ascent has the quality part down. Could it be the next Tang?
“That would be fantastic,” Mark said. “Our ambitions are to continue to grow this company.”
But never so big that he and Ali and their son might be tempted to leave Crested Butte. Like many innovators in Colorado mountain communities, the goal was never really about getting rich as much as finding a way to stay in their lovely town. The goal for First Ascent is to remain in Gunnison County, Mark said.
“Community is really important to us. We want to provide year-round jobs that are not tied to the tourism industry and can help people stay in this valley,” said Mark, who, with Ali, spent 15 years owning and operating Crested Butte’s Majestic Theater, which they were forced to close in 2020 during the pandemic.
Mark and his crew — there are four employees of First Ascent — will be watching the blast off at 10 a.m. Wednesday. For him, there’s a full-circle vibe to their coffee ending up in space.
“The idea came from us thinking how much we wanted great coffee in a difficult place, deep in the wilderness,” he said. “This is a continuation of that. It feels so good to help someone drink delicious coffee in a pretty special place that is hard to get to.”