If you want to experience the most gonzo, balls-to-the-wall, experimental coffeehouse in the Upper Midwest, you are obligated to leave the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area and go for a drive into Wisconsin, to the village of Sister Bay on the Door County peninsula. Buried behind the town’s Piggly Wiggly supermarket in a hive-like collection of small shops is the front door of Discourse Coffee, a one-man shop with a seating capacity of somewhere just slightly north of a dozen people.
Owner Ryan Castelaz wears both his ambition and his heart on his sleeve. His shop is eclectic, its decor landing somewhere between “tasteful record store” and “high-end antique shop.” His website talks about “Fourth Wave coffee” and touts a beverage-based omakase experience, alluding to the Japanese tradition of “trust the chef” that typically describes fish, rice, and seaweed, not espressos, lattes, and tea. Beyond Discourse Coffee, Castelaz is also part of the team running the restaurant Heist in Sturgeon Bay.
When we walked into the shop, we weren’t sure if the man and the beverages could live up to their wildly enthusiastic hype. But when we left, we were happily stunned. The beverages at Discourse are nothing like “coffee” as we know it; instead they lean on the transformative, experimental ethic that drives molecular gastronomy to create textures and flavors that are significant departures from the ordinary.
The Growler: Talk us through the three ‘waves’ of coffee and how you’re representing a so-called ‘Fourth Wave’—it’s a big statement.
Ryan Castelaz: It’s the biggest claim we make, but I never make a claim I don’t feel I can justify. First Wave coffee is defined by total convenience and availability—Maxwell House, Folger’s, things in cans. Second Wave coffee, convenient but done for you—Starbucks is the model.
Third Wave—Trish Rothgeb was the person to really coin that and really, to me, Third Wave is focused on transparency and quality. What’s your relationship with the farmer? What’s your relationship with the coffee, the varietal, the barista, the roaster—what are all those relationships?
As a Third Wave barista my goal is to source really amazing coffee from people who sourced really amazing coffee and then be transparent and to not mess it up. That’s the application of science to make incredible coffee incredibly consistently.
Right. How are you building on that? How is Discourse Coffee ‘Fourth Wave’?
Fourth Wave, then, is the assumption of quality as a baseline. We’ve been in the Third Wave movement for 20 years and we’ve gotten really good at it. Nothing we do here is decrying Third Wave—we use Third Wave as our guiding principles. Fourth Wave is simply saying, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten really good at quality coffee and now we can start to switch some of our focus to something else.’ And to me that something else is experience. Experientially driven service.
To me, when I look at the industry, I see more and more people buying machines for cheap from Breville. I see more and more people buying pour-over filters from the hardware store. How do we, as a coffee shop, stay relevant?
One way is by creating communities where people aren’t coming for the coffee, they’re coming for the community. And two is providing an experience, something they could not think of at home. That’s what we see Fourth Wave as: using quality as a baseline but then putting our minds and creative energy to make something customers could not create at home.
People treat this like a cocktail bar: ‘What are you making today? What do you like?’ Chefs come in here and taste things and get new ideas, and vice versa.
Give me an example of something you’re doing here that people would find challenging at home—let’s dive into these little sphere-shaped drinks you call Crenn, which you named for [chef] Dominque Crenn. It’s a drink inside of an edible sphere, which is wild.
We struggled for a while to figure it out and eventually we got decent at making these guys. This is spring cucumber, burnt lemon, and matcha that we blended, froze in a spherical ice mold, and then dipped into cocoa butter. And then we let it temper back down to room temperature, and I’m topping it with some cherry wood–smoked honey and a little black lava salt. And the idea behind these is that they pop. You’re going to take this in one little bite.
Wow. That just exploded! And it’s salty, it’s smoky, it’s sweet—there are so many layers to it.
What I love about these is that textural differentiation allows us to experience all the flavors together. The pop gives you that brightness, it gives that earthiness, it gives you that richness—but the honey gives you the smoke and the sweetness and the salt provides the salinity to pop all those flavors.
This is a matcha soda, but it’s reimagined into something that’s more experiential, that provides the customer with something they haven’t had before. Depending upon the variant it’s between $4 and $6.
How does it work for you to be producing experimental coffee beverages here in Door County, Wisconsin?
There’s this thing we refer to here as The Door County Condition, which is this weird way the county has of really digging its fingers into you. If you spend enough time up here, there is a magic and an energy here that is enveloping, and it becomes hard to leave.
What’s kept me here is the community and this magic feeling. More than ever there’s this undercurrent of artisans who are truly excited to be in Door County to produce a product that is meaningful and not just milk a five-month tourist season. To be a part of that movement, to be a part of what restaurants like Trixie’s or Wickman are doing, or producers like Cold Climate [Farms] or Hatch Distilling.
I can be out my door and in 20 minutes hike to a farm. And that is so cool and really informs a lot of what we do here.
Tell us about this next drink, which really seems to lean on a yogurt base.
Over the winter I got really into fermentation and I started reading the Noma guide to fermentation and trying to learn about the world and science of fermentation. One of the recipes in that book was for this lacto-mango honey. I made some up and it was awesome. It’s basically honey that you water down with a salt brine, about half-and-half, and then mangoes cut up with skins on, and some chili peppers.
Over the course of about a week, the lactic acid on the mango skins starts to eat the sugars in the honey and the salt stabilizes the solution and you get this tart, salty, fruity honey at the end. So we put this in some house-made yogurt and we’re using for a Turkish specialty called ayran that’s very similar to a lassi—it’s a flavor and a texture not a lot of people are used to.
The texture is really weird so we wanted to do something with the flavors that was more approachable and accessible. So we’re doing pineapple, chamomile, a little black lava salt—as is the tradition for ayrans—and then a little bit of honey, and some earl gray soda. And this has been really fun to share with people.
What’s the story behind the Piratelyfe? It really caught my eye on your website.
The Piratelyfe is house-made banana caramel that we make without butter or cream, Jamaican #2 bitters from Bittercube, and then nutmeg, and fresh hickory smoke and a little rum essence. The caramel is super fun—we sous vide bananas with brown sugar and cinnamon to create a caramel-like texture without butter or cream. It’s the same Maillard [reaction] sweetness—you don’t need the browned butter. It’s made with oat milk, so it’s a totally vegan latte.
One of the things you tout on your website is your omakase program. I’m used to that word as a “chef’s choice” option at a Japanese restaurant—tell me how you interpret that as a coffee-themed multicourse experience?
We did a dinner called Vice, which was an exploration of four of the seven deadly sins expressed through coffee and tea. The first one we did was Wrath. For Wrath we served [the beverage] in hollowed out pineapples in boxes that were putting off a ghost pepper fog. So you got this spicy aroma and spiky pineapple but there was no spice in the drink. The aroma of spice made you taste spice in the drink. Your first couple sips were super spicy and then it mellowed out into this sweet, acidic, beautifully punch almost. Bringing them [the drinks] out there, it was a wild sensory experience. We clarified the cold brew, which to me gives us the flavor of bubblegum, so that was a super fun ester-y note.
The second course was Lust. It was red wine gelato we made in collaboration with a creamery and we served it with an aphrodisiac lipstick popsicle. So it was an aphrodisiac tea that we made, froze into lipstick molds, and put into lipstick cases.
The next one we did was Gluttony and it was my ultimate hot chocolate: three different types of milk layered with three different types of chocolate; the densities separated and you got three different flavors of chocolate. We used Tanzanian from Dandelion, we used our dark chocolate sea salt, and then we used Mayan mocha. So you got fruit, you got chocolate, and then you got spice, all rendered in different densities in the glass with shaved chocolate on top. And there was Luxardo chocolate whipped cream.
The last one we did was the simplest but also maybe the most fun, and that was Sloth. We did slow-dripped caramel “dabs,” and we actually served them on little dab tools. We got a smoking gun and smoked it at the table. And there was slow drip that we infused with caramel and hit with hop essence to give it a bitter, piney similar aroma to the actual substance, which is how I and most of our staff had experienced Sloth. It was a way to totally disarm the diner.
Tell us about the second dinner—you had a close call in the making of it, yes?
The second dinner we did was ‘Growing Up.’ It was Infancy, Childhood, Adulthood, and Elderly, all represented through different drinks. I almost died dialing in the elderly one—Retirement, we called it—but I learned from my mistake. I was infusing [a beverage] with a cigar, and I didn’t think about the infusibility of tobacco—nicotine—I took like half a sip of this drink and was in the bathroom like: ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna die!’ Nicotine out the wazoo. I just had to dump it and start over.