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Quest for the best coffee leads to long-running Elmwood business

John Eager displays the green coffee beans he uses to make his organic coffee at Highland Hollow Coffee and Tea Co. in Elmwood. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
John Eager stands next to his 1910 Royal #5 Coffee Roaster at Highland Hollow Coffee and Tea Co. in Elmwood. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

In the early 1990's, Elmwood resident John Eager's desire for finding the "best cup of coffee" led him to begin roasting his own coffee in a steel pan in his home oven. He eventually moved up to buying a 1910 Royal #5 Coffee Roaster from the East Coast, and had to give away coffee to friends because he could only drink so much of what he made.

Eager now is in his 17th year of operating Highland Hollow Coffee and Tea Company on Main Street in Elmwood. He taught himself how to make his wide variety of organic coffees.

"People started to say they'd buy (my coffee) from me," Eager said. "I went to see what I'd have to do to legally sell coffee, and I'd have to have a building that's like a restaurant, so I ended up (on Main Street)."

Eager still worked full time when the store opened in 2001, while his quest for a good cup of coffee "ended up being a hobby gone awry," he joked.

"I never planned on it being a business," he said. "At one point it had a restaurant, yarn shop and antiques; all of that stuff faded out and it went back to the thing that started it, which was the coffee."

Eager's roaster is very rare, and he said he only knows of one other person in Minnesota who has one like it. It doesn't have any timers or special bells and whistles, and can operate with one lever.

"I went from a pan to a piece of equipment and nobody showed me, so it was hit or miss," Eager said. "At the start there were a lot of misses ... but now I have people tell me it's the best coffee around."

Highland Hollow Coffee and Tea Co. sells 13 different kinds of coffee, which are all organic and fair trade organic. Sumatra is the most popular kind, but there are coffees from Rwanda, Timor and many island nations from across the world. They also carry teas from a company in the Twin Cities called Tea Source, who they've been working with since 2001. It is all loose leaf tea, which Eager said is more of the "real deal" compared to the powder that is found commonly in stores.

"I'm the only organic coffee roaster in Pierce County," Eager said. "Looking around, you don't find one in Pepin, Dunn or St. Croix County either. You can go to the (Twin Cities) and find them, but I'm out here in the middle of Elmwood because I live here."

Eager has a strong customer base for his product, with some that put in orders every week and some that just happen upon his shop by chance. The shop is currently only open one day a week, which changed about 10 years ago.

"I always roast on Wednesday; there are times I'm done by 4 or 5 p.m., but I might be here until 9 or 10 at night," Eager said. "It depends on the orders."

His customer base includes coffee shops, restaurants, health foods stores and grocery stores. Sailer's in town also carries his products, which allows people to purchase it beyond the one day a week he's open.

"I had a job that gave me a paycheck when I started, but I never envisioned it going to this," Eager said. "People have said 'you could do this five days a week,' but then it would be a job. I do it because I enjoy it, and I've got a great bunch of customers that come and sit down to visit."

Eager buys his green coffee beans from importers before he roasts, packages and either ships or delivers them to customers and businesses.

"I can modify my roasting schedule if someone comes in, but by Wednesday morning it's usually set," Eager said. "People email me on Monday or Tuesday for pick up or ship out."

Highland Hollow's roaster could roast almost 25 pounds at a time, but Eager likes to do only about 5 or 7 pounds each time to have better control for quality coffee. He also logs every roast he does for United States Department of Agriculture and fair trade inspections. It is difficult to get a specific type of coffee if it's not on the roasting schedule if someone walks in, because Eager's store is unique in the fact that his coffee isn't sold by the cup.

"Whatever is on the shelf is good, because I don't like having a lot of coffee on the shelf," Eager said. "My goal is when I leave, nothing is left on the shelf ... I sometimes can run out of product in a day."

He also made it clear that he doesn't do blends, because he said that each flavor is unique in its own way and may taste better to others.

Eager has shipped to Oregon, Dubai and even Russia for friends or locals who have moved on but still want that "best cup of coffee." Eager will continue his passion for unique organic coffees, one roast at a time.

To purchase coffee directly from Highland Hollow Coffee and Tea Co., send an email to highlandhollow@svtel.net or call 715-639-2052.

Zach Dwyer

Zach Dwyer is a senior journalism student at UW-River Falls. He is an intern reporter for RiverTown Multimedia during the summer of 2018 covering features and sports. He was previously a news intern in the summer of 2017 for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. 

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