Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Standing in the far corner behind the floor-to-ceiling glass wall of a coffee store in North San Antonio is a dusty workhorse of a coffee roaster the owners are proud to show off.
The machine, sidelined in favor of newer technology, is a key chapter in the store’s founding as the first commercial coffee roaster in San Antonio. But it’s not the only vintage machine in the house, and that’s not the only unique feature of the 40-year-old coffee business.
What’s Brewing? is situated not in a highly trafficked shopping center or intersection, but in a former warehouse in a light industrial area at 138 W. Rhapsody Dr. near the airport. There’s no drive-through lane.
In two narrow rooms of the store are the beckoning lights and chimes on at least 34 pinball machines – a collection that includes vintage and new models, from the 1950s-era Big Time to the more recent Star Wars.
But that doesn’t mean the roasters and baristas at What’s Brewing? aren’t serious about their craft. It’s perhaps the only place in town with a cupping laboratory where, every afternoon, the owners participate in a ritual taste-test of coffee beans from around the world.
Founded by Roger Chbeir, the business is owned and operated by his sons Sami and Tony Chbeir, who with sales director Christopher Brown and a team of others source and roast on site thousands of pounds of beans grown in places like Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Tanzania.
The shop sells beans by the pound and coffee beverages ranging from light-roasted single-origin coffees to thoughtfully crafted and darkly roasted blends. Customers come and go throughout the day. There are couches, tables, and chairs for those who stay, though some come for the pinball gallery called “The Goldmine” after the arcade next door to What’s Brewing?’s first store.
When not working, Sami and Tony play their favorite machines, just as they did as kids. They also drink coffee from morning until night, a family tradition.
Driven out by the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s, the elder Chbeir fled Beirut and settled in Wichita Falls to start anew. A year later, a tornado devastated the area and he and his wife fled again, for San Antonio.
“They wanted nothing more to do with wars or tornadoes,” Sami said of his parents.
What Roger did want was the ability to enjoy the intense flavor of coffee he had known back home growing up the grandson of a green coffee trader. In 1979, he opened What’s Brewing? in a small space at the old Central Park Mall, now the Park North retail complex.
Four years later, wanting more control over the quality of the coffee he served, he purchased his first roasting machine and became the first commercial coffee roaster in San Antonio. “He was here with coffee before San Antonio was ready,” Tony said, but that led to the company’s eventual growth and success.
What’s Brewing? operated in the mall next to an arcade store for eight years before moving in 1987 to the Carousel Court shopping center, at Nacogdoches Road and North New Braunfels Avenue. “Alamo Heights was where are our customers were,” Sami said.
The company then began roasting coffee beans for H-E-B when the grocery chain opened its first Marketplace store on Bandera Road in 1991 and later Central Market stores in Austin. “That’s when it really took off,” Tony said. “And we’ve had a close relationship with H-E-B ever since.”
Sami said in those days his dad was working 20 hours a day to meet the demand. “He would fall asleep roasting coffee,” he said.
They moved the roastery to a facility on Rhapsody Drive in 1995 and bought their current space on the same street four years later. At first, there was only a “bean bar.” They didn’t start brewing and serving coffee at the present location until 2016.
Though their father still “pops in, always looking for something to do,” 40-year-old Sami and 41-year-old Tony have run things since 2005 and work together to source and roast about 6,000 pounds of beans a week.
The logistics involved in selecting, purchasing, and importing coffee beans from small farms in foreign lands is the hardest part of the job, Sami said. Green coffee is one of the largest traded commodities in the world by volume, but it can’t be compared to other crops, like corn or wheat, in the way it’s farmed and distributed.
And though the traded price for coffee is dropping, the cost of coffee production is higher than it’s ever been, Sami added, even while demand is up. New diseases are attacking crops, and changes in climate conditions pose challenges. “The coffee market is definitely on shaky ground,” he said, with farmers leaving the trade for jobs that aren’t so labor-intensive.
What’s Brewing? receives up to two dozen pallets of beans every six weeks, roasting the beans with high-volume roasting machines. Sami and Tony have taught themselves how to adjust the machines to control heat and air flow and find ways to produce the higher-quality product that today’s coffee drinkers demand.
“The coffee we’re roasting today, when you combine 20-something years of experience we have with the technology that we can really control … it’s surprising the quality we have been able to get,” Sami said.
While other roasters have computerized their roasting process, the Chbeirs are committed to a more personal approach that takes into account the differences in coffee beans grown in different climates and soils.
“He is the computer that’s roasting the coffee,” Tony said of Sami. “You have to stand here in the heat and watch everything and pay attention. But that’s how he’s learning a lot more about coffee even after being in the industry for 20 years.”
Their expertise is also apparent in the cupping lab, where Sami, Tony, and Assistant Roaster Jake Bowe make purchasing decisions.
Cupping involves using a specified ratio of water to coffee and brewing it at the same time and the same temperature in order to calibrate the experience and discern the differences in taste among different batches of beans. The coffee beans are lightly roasted in order to expose any potential defects.
The cupping process can be observed through glass windows at What’s Brewing? every afternoon around 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., when there are between eight and 16 cupping bowls set out for testing.
“The people that are standing in the room, you’re all becoming calibrated so when you do the discussion at the end of the cupping, you are coming closer to reaching the same decision … on what the flavors are,” Tony said. Coffees are scored for aroma, uniformity, and more. “It’s pretty ritualistic.”
Sami said their customers have come to appreciate the natural sweetness of coffee that is expertly selected and carefully roasted by the What’s Brewing? team. “They come in and still say the same thing: ‘It’s like I’ve never had to put sugar and cream in coffee since I met your dad.’ And that’s because coffee is naturally a sweet product. I mean it grows in cherries in the trees.”
Other customers come in straight from the airport, directed there by apps like Pinball Map. “Sometimes that place will be full of people – like you’ll see bags and luggage and guys in business suits in the pinball room when they first land and when they’re leaving. Because it’s a hobby,” Sami said. The Goldmine is home to two local pinball leagues and hosts tournaments there once a month.
Recent renovations to the What’s Brewing? store are meant to create an atmosphere that mimics a brewpub, where customers can see their beans being roasted, Tony said. But the brothers also enjoy talking with people about the coffee, the way their dad did.
“My dad’s a philosopher, too, and he’ll have a deep conversation with a cowboy off the street or like a [college] dean. He’s always ready to have a meaningful conversation with people,” Tony said.
“I mean, I think that’s part of it. People get caffeinated, they want to talk, you know. It’s a fun business to be in.”