Food & Drink

Cal Verga's Homecoming Shows Cleveland the Finer Side of Coffee

coffee cup
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

It wasn't Cal Verga's intention to get into the coffee business, in his hometown of all places. He was comparing PhD programs in San Francisco when he joined a local roastery as a temporary side gig. It turned out to be not so temporary.

But let's step back for a moment.

As big-city markets become saturated with the latest food and drink trends, Cleveland is the perfect spot to capture a previously untapped, yet keenly interested market.

Verga left Cleveland about 15 years ago after dropping out of high school, earning his GED, and joining the Army, where he was quickly recruited to the Honor Guard in Washington, DC. He was there during September 11th -- he was part of the crew that helped clean up the wreckage at the Pentagon.

After a couple of years, Verga left the Army and returned home to Cleveland, attending community college to study fire science while working in construction. In 2005, he was called back to the military and sent to Iraq for a year. Fortunately, his tour was calm and he came back unharmed, but his experiences started the habit of asking himself existential questions about what he was really doing with his life.

Upon returning to the US, Verga landed in California after he was offered a job working for a wealthy family in Orange County. Eventually, those questions about self-fulfillment piqued again, and he decided to go back to school, eventually earning his degree in, appropriately, philosophy from UC Berkeley.

In his last semester, he began investigating PhD programs and took a warehouse job at Sweet Maria’s Green Coffee, a small but fiercely dedicated roastery. Although this was meant to be a way to make money while he figured out his next step, it turned out to be the catalyst to a completely new direction.

"I’ve always liked drinking coffee, but I didn’t really start bringing a lot of awareness to it until I moved to the Bay Area, which is the ultimate in the craft coffee scene," he says. "There’s only a few dozen full-time coffee roasters there, and so to be around the cupping table with people like that meant I was really able to accelerate my learning."

He decided to put the PhD on hold to open his own craft coffee roastery. He'd call it duck-rabbit coffee, named after Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous thought experiment of seeing the same object in two ways.

"There's an energy here that I'd never experienced before."

But where? Verga says all signs pointed back to Cleveland. "There’s definitely an energy here that I’d never experienced before," he says, noting that the timing of his venture just felt right.

And it makes sense, as Cleveland continues to experience an impressive cultural renaissance. Entrepreneurs are flocking to take advantage of the affordability and hospitable reception to new ventures. As big-city markets become saturated with the latest food and drink trends, Cleveland is the perfect spot to capture a previously untapped, yet keenly interested market.

While a handful of artisan coffee roasters have whet Cleveland coffee lovers’ palettes to the finer side of a cup of joe, Cal Verga hopes that duck-rabbit can offer an experience bringing greater awareness to the complex, almost wine-like, qualities that craft coffee has to offer.

"We’re treating coffee as an object of refined taste, in a manner that people are most familiar with treating wine. There are just so many layers of flavor in terms of how a coffee is grown, how it’s processed and what kind of varietal it is, and you can taste all of those qualities in the cup if you’re roasting it and brewing it in the proper way.”

duck-rabbit coffee/Instagram

Verga roasted his first batch of duck-rabbit coffee at Sweet Maria’s, moved back to Cleveland, and began approaching potential wholesalers. While he was cobbling duck-rabbit together, he travelled down to Cafe Brioso in Columbus to roast coffee for his new wholesale partners, including Root Cafe in Lakewood and The Local Coffee & Tea in Oberlin. His beans are still sourced from Sweet Maria’s.

Not long after returning home, Verga pinpointed a storefront in Duck Island, on the west end of Tremont. Although the space would require extensive renovations, Verga says he saw its potential for his vision almost immediately. He has now been using the space as a roastery for several months, while he continued to transform it into a functional coffee shop.

duck-rabbit coffee
Beth Phillips/Thrillist

“I think some people thought I was nuts at first, but I’ve been super stoked and satisfied with the way this place has turned out, especially from where it was,” he says. “The physical progression of this space has kind of matched the progression of the company, so to watch it come together as everything else is working itself out has been awesome. I love the tone of the neighborhood, the history of the building, and I’ve got some really great neighbors.”

Those neighbors include the long-standing Velvet Tango Room as well as newcomers Forest City Brewery and Western Reserve Meadery. Together, they call themselves the CBGC, or Craft Beverage Guild of Cleveland.

"We're treating coffee as an object of refined taste, in a manner that people are most familiar with treating wine."

After well over a year of preparation, duck-rabbit coffee officially opened its doors to the public on Monday, May 9th. The menu, stenciled to the wall, is a simple five-item list of coffee drinks you'd see in any shop, but these are brewed and poured with masterful precision, served in white ceramic mugs or clear tumblers, or to-go cups brandishing the duck-rabbit stamp.

Verga's wish for the future is simple enough: “I just hope for the shop to be a success,” he says. "We’ve got some really awesome coffees that I’ve been anxious to get out to the public, so I’m excited to share the duck-rabbit experience with everyone. I want to provide a good environment for people to enjoy coffee, create some coffee enthusiasts where there weren’t any, and feed the need of those who already were. I’ll be happy and relieved when the day comes that we can say we’ve been able to accomplish just that."

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Beth Phillips is a Cleveland area writer who will drink most anything that boasts wine-like qualities. You can follow her on Twitter @CraveableCLE.