At 8,900 feet, First Ascent Coffee in Crested Butte is closer than most coffee businesses to the heavens. Now its handcrafted instant coffee is in space, where it will keep astronauts on the latest NASA mission caffeinated.
Sam Higby, a co-owner of First Ascent Coffee Roasters, watched a livestream of Wednesday morning’s launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The crew of two NASA astronauts and one from Japan and one from Russia will spend six months on the International Space Station.
“That felt pretty cool for us, just one more small part of Colorado going to space,” said Higby, referring to the state’s robust aerospace industry.
The coffee company’s adventure began about a year ago when Higby opened an email inquiry about buying a large amount of instant coffee. “I noticed the email address included at NASA.gov,” he said.
In a follow-up, a NASA astronaut headed to space said he was working with the Space Food Systems Laboratory on menus. The astronaut didn’t like the coffee samples at the food lab and requested First Ascent’s instant coffee after trying some a colleague had given him.
Then, Higby didn’t hear anything for months. “In August, we got an email from a procurement officer at NASA.”
The astronaut Higby talked to was going on a different mission, but another crew member requested First Ascent. “They ordered 250 servings and we shipped it to Houston, where I’m guessing it was repackaged and just went up into space.”
The coffee is put into pouches. The astronaut adds water and drinks it from a straw. First Ascent, which also sells beans and ground coffee, has seen its sales rise since news of its cosmos-ready coffee has spread, Higby said.
The crew includes the commander, Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman to go to space. The NASA astronaut is a member of the Wailacki tribe of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.
First Ascent has been growing since it started selling to wholesalers in 2019. Mark and Allison Drucker, who used to own a theater in Crested Butte, opened a cafe in town in 2014. The Druckers operated a coffee roastery and shared space with a bakery. They began experimenting with making instant coffee.
“Mark and Allison were on a backpacking trip and lamenting the weight of their packs,” Higby said.
The coffee connoisseurs had packed a French press and fresh beans to make coffee because they didn’t like instant coffee. The Druckers bought home freeze dryers and now have a commercial version.
After producing some sample batches, First Ascent began selling instant coffee. The Druckers closed the cafe in 2018 and moved into a manufacturing space. Higby became a partner and owner of the company.
“I got really excited as a climber and a coffee nerd that I could have a delicious cup of coffee anywhere,” said Higby, who previously worked in the outdoor recreation industry.
First Ascent shops around the world for coffee, roasts the beans, brews the coffee, freeze dries and packages the coffee. Higby said the company doesn’t know of any other coffee-makers that do the whole process in-house.
“The business model is typically somebody roasts it and somebody else makes it into instant coffee,” Higby said.
The company said on its website that it works with importers to buy coffee from growers that follow fair labor and environmentally sustainable practices. First Ascent sells its products online and in some stores, including REI’s flagship location in Denver.
Could First Ascent coffee be the 21st century Tang? “That’s what we would love to be,” Higby said.
Tang was made by General Foods Corp. and was used by NASA for astronauts in its Mercury program in the early 1960s. The orange drink is available on the International Space Station, according to NASA.
“I think we’ve all imagined going into space at some point in our lives, at least I know I did,” Higby said. “I’m not a scientist or engineer working at Lockheed Martin. But in my own way, something I touched, something we all touched, is up there now.”
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