SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Raven's Brew, A Ketchikan Success Story
By Marie L. Monyak


December 13, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - On a hill north of town sits a nondescript blue building with no signage whatsoever.  From the instant I turned the doorknob to enter the Raven's Brew building, I was pleasantly engulfed in the aroma of fresh roasted coffee.  I was in a coffee drinker's paradise, transported to a coffee mecca.  Whatever it was, my olfactory senses were alive like never before.

I was greeted by Nate Root, the manager of the Raven's Brew roastery in Ketchikan.  Root asked what my favorite blend was and proceeded to grind and brew a hot steamy cup of my choice, Deadman's Reach.  While my coffee was brewing, Root shared the story of how he came to Ketchikan almost five years ago.  Following a girlfriend here from New Hampshire, Root began at Raven's Brew as a shipping clerk, moved up to production supervisor and finally, manager of the roastery, the position he still holds today.

jpg Raven's Brew crew

Crew at the Ketchikan-based Raven's Brew roastery
From left to right:  Patty Langman, Nate Root, David Williams
Photo by Marie L. Monyak

After being allowed a few minutes to savor the delightful flavor of a truly fresh cup of java, our tour began. My search to discover the story behind the national success of this Ketchikan-based business started with the sacks of beans where my education about coffee would be both in-depth and enlightening.
The coffee "fruit" is known as a cherry until it is hulled, revealing the bean itself.  The coffee beans are various shades of green or grey before roasting.  Only two years ago Raven's Brew began offering organic coffee in it's line up and it's popularity is growing.  Root is proud to announce that they are the only roastery in Alaska that is certified organic by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.  The organic coffees are known as Dharma Beans, getting their name from the Jack Kerouac story, The Dharma Bums. These precious beans are cultivated in a chemical-free fashion in harmony with the environment.  
From the beans we moved over to the roaster where I was introduced to David Williams, the Master Roaster.  "Roasting is the most important step," said Root, "you can have the best beans, but it won't matter if you ruin them in the roaster."  Raven's Brew utilizes a hot air convection roaster which forces air up under the beans causing them to levitate.  This is the preferred means of roasting to produce the finest flavor.
jpg Raven's Brew co-owner Michael Beech

Raven's Brew co-owner Michael Beech
Photo courtesy Raven's Brew

Once roasted, the beans move to Patty Langman who is in charge of packing, labeling and shipping.  Wearing a Raven's Brew T-shirt, Langman is busy affixing labels and filling bags that will be shipped later in the day.   
Suddenly the tour was over.  I earned a quizzical look from Root when I asked, "But where is the rest; the white coated factory workers, the conveyor belts, shelves full of inventory, bellowing smoke stacks?"  Suddenly, the point Root had been trying to make was driven home; Ravens Brew roasts to order.  They never begin roasting until a merchant or customer places an order.  The beans that Williams was roasting were going directly into the bags that Langman was preparing for shipment.  The small counter, not much larger than a dining room table, with the finished product, is the "factory".  I had the proof I had been looking for.  Raven's Brew delivers exactly what it promises, a quality product that is truly a labor of love.   
Root and I moved to the office to discuss the business end of Raven's Brew.  "We try not to draw attention to ourselves (the roastery) as we are not open for retail sales."  Root explained, when I asked why there were no signs outside the building.  Root went on to say, "We are here to help our customers by supplying product and advertising, not competing with them."  "We are also very active in the community, donating to local charities and fund raisers.  We just want the community to know we are here, that we are a Ketchikan business."
Raven's Brew was created in Ketchikan in 1991 by a group of local friends.  Today, the business is co-owned by Michael Beech, his wife Leslie Morgan and Howard Holman.  Many old time Ketchikanians will recognize these names as they hail from our fair city.  Currently Beech lives in Washington state, as he travels constantly throughout the tropical belts in search of coffee beans, be it Mexico or South America, wherever Beech can find the premium beans that can wear the Raven's Brew label.  
Beech isn't just the buyer he is the creative force behind Raven's Brew.  Root said it best, "Michael is the stick that stirs our cup."  
Artist Ray Troll explained, "Everything you see, the labels, logos, catalog or web site are a collaborative effort of many people."  "Beech is the creative genius that plants the seed, then conversation and brainstorming follows." Troll said, "It's like the credits at the end of a movie, there's a producer, director, artist, and so on."

jpg Ray Troll

Artist Ray Troll and the Deadman's Reach design...
Visit Ray Troll's
Photo by Marie L. Monyak

Well known characters like local artist Ray Troll, artist and Beech's wife Leslie Morgan, graphic artist and Ketchikan ex-pate Karen Lybrand and Alaskan mystery writer John Straley have all had a hand in developing the art, graphics and stories that surround Ketchikan's best loved coffee.
Troll and Lybrand have been involved since the beginning, developing the artwork for the Raven's Brew label.  Troll came up with the catchphrase, "The Last Legal High," and today, Lybrand has the seasonal Santa Caws label and Alaska Moka Bar label to her credit, along with much of the lettering on the bags.  Lybrand has had her work featured in publications like the New Yorker, the Boston Globe and New York Times yet she candidly admits, "When I need to have fun, I return to doing freelance work with Ray (Troll)."
Troll proved to have a wealth of information when he related how Beech had always wanted to use the name Deadman's Reach from his days working on the ferries in Southeast.
(Deadman's Reach is located North of Sitka in the Peril Straights.)   Beech finally had his opportunity after he founded Raven's Brew.  He gave the name, Deadman's Reach, and the catchphrase, "Served in bed, Raises the dead" to Troll to develop the artwork.  Lybrand worked with Troll on the label but it wasn't complete until Troll decided to involve mystery writer, John Straley in the mix.  Straley wrote a short mystery novelette based on the name and it is now featured on the Raven's Brew web site.
Another of Troll's creations was naming their full bodied, sweet roasted coffee blend, Skookum.  It was apparent that my education for the day wasn't going to end with art and coffee, I was about to get a history lesson as Troll explained that Chinook Jargon was a language that was used in the early days of trading along the coast.  He went on to say "The Tlingits, Haidas and Tshimsians are great businessmen but they needed the ability to communicate with the French, Russian and English fur traders that were coming here. A hybrid language, or slang, that became known as Chinook Jargon, was developed and used up and down the Northwest Coast for many years."
The Skookum blend shows our local native heritage not only in name, but in the artwork of Troll as well.  The catchphrase for Skookum is "Halo Wawa, Muckamuck Kaupy" which roughly translates to, "Shut Up and Drink the Coffee."
Beech makes an effort to describe Troll saying, "Ray has a caffeinated consciousness along with an edgy art style which is the perfect vehicle for our coffee and the way we want to present it."  He elaborates a bit more, "Coffee is about art, inspiration, motivation, energy, mystery and drive."  Troll is unabashed as he describes himself as having a fertile mind that doesn't have an off switch.  His determination lies in crafting an image so that it will have an impact.  What Troll most enjoys about working on a Raven's Brew project is the collaboration and the interchange of ideas with the others members involved. 

jpg Raven's Brew co-owner Leslie Morgan

Raven's Brew co-owner and
artist Leslie Morgan

There have been more names, labels and logos.  The inimitable Troll relates how, during a barbecue he was hosting, he wanted to invent a righteous name and came up with Resurrection because it's an invigorating name.  At the other end of the spectrum was the name Three Peckered Billy Goat.  There was some trepidation about the name, so they sat on it for three or four years not wanting to "cross the line" as Troll puts it.   Eventually it was released as a welcome addition to the line.  Wicked Wolf with it's catchphrase "Grannie's Gone but the Coffee's On" and Bruin Blend with "Grin And Bear It" were the brainchild of a very imaginative Beech.
Not to be forgotten is Beech's wife, Leslie Morgan a self proclaimed shy person and an artist in her own right, with numerous gallery showings to her credit.   She prefers to stay in the shadows, producing the Raven's Brew catalog that would rival any art gallery publication.  It is in her electronic studio that Morgan works her magic, combining all the elements of their products, displaying and describing them in a way that is truly unique to Raven's Brew.  If that isn't enough, she maintains the web site that is used by thirsty coffee drinkers all over the country and Canada to order their favorite libation and, as Morgan calls them, "objects of deep desire."  What else could that be, except the world famous Raven's Brew T-shirts, aprons, commuter mugs, posters and hats.

I was told that the work which is accomplished by these amazingly creative people is a labor of love, and there is no doubt.  The end result of their efforts can only come from the synergy of an off-beat, slightly crazy bunch, that have never had to worry about thinking outside the box, as that is where they live daily.   
Beech said he wants the good people of Ketchikan to know, "The name Ketchikan is on every bag of Raven's Brew that is shipped all over the United States.  While people are reading the bag, Ketchikan is on their lips."  In a very humble manner Beech added, "No matter what we've done internally, Raven's Brew success is due not just to the people, the Raven's Brew crew, but Ketchikan coffee drinkers and the merchants in Ketchikan who have supported us.  With their embrace of this company and all their support, Raven's Brew is their baby, they brought it up by its bootstraps."  "They, the people of Ketchikan, created the basis for its success, statewide and nationwide, and we just love them for that."


On the Web:

Raven's Brew

Deadman's Reach Murder Mystery© by John Straley



 Marie Monyak is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
This freelance story was commissioned by SitNews.
Contact Marie at

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