Read about my experience drinking some of the best damn iced coffee I’ve ever had, and meeting the real-life Walter White in Oakland before touring Stick’s studio.
You’re sitting in Collie Buddz’s studio watching him create a song that millions of people around the world will soon listen to. He has a focused stare; his head nods to the beautiful beats pumping out of the speakers; and then he reaches over and grabs a can that says “Black Medicine Iced Coffee”.
I saw this scene in a Facebook video about a week before I went to Oakland last month to see Stick’s studio. I had never heard of Black Medicine, but seeing that Collie was drinking it while working in his studio (next door to Stick’s), and that they were a part of Stick Figure Sour’s release party, I figured they must be some pretty rad people.
Right before I left for my trip I hit them up, and next thing I knew I had a meeting with Chris Bukowinski, director of operations. I freaking love iced coffee, so the fact that I was going to tour a locally crafted company that supports music I love was a pretty exciting prospect for me.
As soon as I walked in I was greeted with gorgeous art, woodwork, and a heavy zen vibe. The warehouse seemed to stretch on forever past the spacious lobby, but it had an extremely friendly and relaxed feel to it. Brewers walked by and smiled at me, there were tables full of cups where they were tasting to ensure the quality was consistent, and loud hip-hop music bumped in the background.
Chris found me waiting in there, and greeted me with a warm smile and handshake.
“Great to meet you man – want a coffee?”
I didn’t want to seem too desperate to try their brew, but I had been up since 4 that morning to catch my flight, and the thought of a strong, cold, iced coffee in a can sounded like the greatest thing in the world to me.
The (Former) Real-Life Walter White
It didn’t take long for their bold brew to kick in, and before I knew it I was witnessing a full-on coffee operation. The look and feel of the place reminded me of craft breweries. Lots of cool people who are passionate about what they make, running around to ensure every can is filled with the best coffee possible.
Part of the way through the tour I was introduced to another extremely kind gentleman named Chris Cooper. He was warm, friendly, and humble; I was later shocked to hear that he was not only the founder of Black Medicine, but also somewhat of a legend in the Silicon Valley area. This is where I began learning that Black Medicine’s story is like something out of a movie.
Back in another lifetime when he was really young, Chris Cooper had been a real-life Walter White, and used his exceptional chemistry skills to brew meth. (For the three of you who don’t know who Walter White is, he’s the main character from the show Breaking Bad – a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook.)
After some trouble with the law because of his early business ventures, and the desire to do more meaningful things, he taught himself to code. He got onto the internet and websites early, and founded a company that ended up selling for about 80 million dollars. Since then he’s been really into supporting his community, and opened a local coffee shop that would prove to change the direction of his life once again.
When they began brewing their own iced coffee and selling it in shop, it was immediately apparent that their customers in Oakland were crazy about the stuff. It really started taking off locally, so he got some people together and decided to start getting serious about brewing.
The Love of the Craft
It was amazing sitting in the office and taking this all in. I spent the rest of my time at Black Medicine learning about the intricacies of coffee brewing, and how much care goes into doing it the right way.
For example, the tasting table that I mentioned earlier had little cups of coffee from about 10 different batches they were working on. I watched the tasters go from cup to cup, swishing it around in their mouths and taking notes.
“Can you really tell the difference between them”, I asked. “I feel like I’d never be able to.”
“Oh yeah”, they replied. “Most of us have been coffee fanatics for 10 or more years, so once you get used to consciously tasting it over a period of time that long, you notice all the subtleties. It’s sort of like music, or any other creative endeavor; the more you practice, expose yourself to it, and learn, the more you’re able to really hone your craft and make it something unique and special.”
Another cool thing I learned was that it’s not “cold-brewed coffee” like most of the big brands are promoting right now. At Black Medicine they brew their coffee hot (which brings out a different and stronger flavor), and then serve it cold.
Do It for the Love
The feeling I got talking to Chris Bukowinski, and all the other people at Black Medicine, was that they love what they do. You can hear it in someone’s voice when they’re passionate about their profession, and they look at their brewing as a serious mix of art and chemistry.
We chatted for awhile about the cool collaborations they’re doing with other local companies like Ineffable Music, and how proud he is to spend his life doing something he really loves and cares about.
“You know… I’ve worked for lots of coffee companies… some of the biggest out there. And I always enjoyed the product, but it’s never been like this. At Black Medicine we are the coffee – it’s the passionate people in here creating their art that makes this special. It’s not some corporate mass-produced nonsense – it’s truly the result of a lot of hard-working artists who love making coffee.”
As I find more and more in life, everything seems to hint that the best stuff happens when you’re doing something you love and are passionate about. The way these people spoke about coffee is the same way that bands like Rebelution and Stick Figure talk about music.
It truly lights them up inside, and when you have that internal fire and the right outlet, it’s possible to create magic.
Thank you so much to everyone at Black Medicine, specifically Chris Bukowinski, for the amazing tour and wonderful hospitality. Here’s to doing what you love, and loving what you do!
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