The Dish: Borealis Coffee Brews Up Coffee Culture

Alaska-native Brian Dwiggins roasts beans inside a friendly neighborhood cafe in Riverside.

Brian Dwiggins moves behind the coffee counter. He is tall, dons a gray beanie and a salt-and-pepper beard, and a tattoo snakes its way down his right arm. Dwiggins is the owner of Borealis Coffee in Riverside, one of the newest additions to Rhode Island’s burgeoning coffee scene.

His journey to roasting, grinding, selling and brewing coffee in Rhode Island begins far north, where the aurora borealis dances across the sky and where a surprising community of coffee aficionados prospers.

"I grew up in Alaska, which has a really strong coffee culture," he says, sitting at one of the wooden tables in his cafe, which opened its doors in November. White noise bubbles in the air; two women catch up over lattes, two strangers strike up a conversation and cars rumble by outside the former tanning-salon-turned-coffee house.

"We have a very local, loyal, community-based culture. I grew up drinking locally roasted coffee and with a coffee culture that took a lot of clues from the Northwest coffee scene," he says. "It wasn’t until I left Alaska to go to college in Colorado when I realized how good the coffee actually was back home."

After college, Dwiggins and his now-wife moved to Rhode Island, where the hoards of coffee drinkers weren’t lounging at artisan cafes, but rather waiting in line at the source of New England’s lifeblood: Dunkin' Donuts.

"Here, the coffee chain culture is so ingrained…the Dunkin' Donuts, the Starbucks, the drive-through culture…so I was really missing that good, local coffee spot," he says.

But as he got settled in Rhode Island working as a freelance set-lighting technician, things started to change. New Harvest and a plethora of other craft coffee joints opened their doors, exposing the public’s palate to coffees that aren’t made extra-extra.

"It has gotten a lot better since we’ve moved out here and now there’s a bunch of really great coffee shops in Providence. But, because I don’t live in Providence, I started home roasting as a hobby to keep my mind busy when I wasn’t working on a movie set," he says. "I was roasting four-ounce batches. It was just a hobby."

A hobby that wound up consuming his life. Dwiggins found himself becoming the ultimate coffee dude, bringing his home-roasted beans to the set, grinding them with a hand-grinder and making himself cups of French press or pour-over coffee. It piqued people’s interests, seeing Dwiggins hand-grinding his beans on the sidewalk.

"They started asking me, why don’t you start selling to the movies, the coffee sucks! So in 2010, when work was slow, I started selling really casually. Then two of my film-industry friends, a.k.a. Team Crafty, told me they would buy my coffee if I could give them a wholesale price comparable to what they were buying."

It didn’t sound like such a bad idea so, in 2014, he took a course in coffee roasting in Vermont, bought himself a roaster and leased a roasting facility in Pawtucket, and "that was how Borealis started."

"The first year I was roasting, 70 percent of my coffee sales were to the film industry," he says. Some films that were powered by Dwiggins’s brews included Black Mass and The Finest Hours, making a name for the Alaskan-bred, Rhode Island-based roaster.

After a year of roasting, continuing to work on set lighting and selling at farmers markets on Saturdays, Dwiggins decided to go all-in on his venture and open up a brick-and-mortar coffee shop.

In early 2015, he sought out the historic building in East Providence where Borealis is located today. It’s a quaint space, right off the East Bay Bike Path and with the architecture of an old train station.

Inside, the color scheme is a muted green and white, with warm wood accents and lights.

A man pins up a poster on a corkboard while people sip coffee and chat. This is just what Dwiggins envisioned, the thing (besides his flavorful coffees) that would distinguish Borealis from other places.

"I grew up with '90s coffee culture where cafes were places for people to hang out, a place where people could get together and engage as opposed to a place to plug-in," he says, "and I think we’re doing that."

He looks to his left, at two men sitting in comfy chairs. He points his thumb in their direction.

"Right now, Allen, the guy with the orange mug who is one of my regulars, he’s chatting up a guy I’ve never seen before; they're engaging."

Customers sip their coffees, of which there are nine varieties, each with its own unusual flavor profile. There are no syrup-laden concoctions at Borealis, but rather, Dwiggins attempts to educate people that the coffee itself can have mind-blowing flavor. His favorite right now is his Honduras roast, which has subtle flavors of candied pineapple and coconut, a coffee that smells as if you inhaled the scent of a bag of tropical trail mix, in a good way.

"People have been really pleased; they come in and say 'what do you mean you don’t have flavored coffees?' Well, we don’t have flavored coffees, but you should try this one because it has tasting notes of candied pineapple and coconut."

"There was one woman who wanted blueberry coffee and we don’t have that, so I gave her our Ethiopian blend and she was like 'Oh, this is really good, I can taste the blueberry,' " he says with a smile. "And I was like, 'Yes! That’s a win.' " 250 Bullocks Point Ave., Riverside, borealiscoffee.com

On Feb. 4, Rebelle Artisan Bagels will make a special appearance selling bagels at Borealis Coffee, started at 10 a.m. .

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