Tony "Tonx" Konecny is the Co-Founder of Yes Plz (our collaborator on the upcoming Dad Beans Batch #001) and a longtime coffee professional whose accidental career has run the gamut from barista to roaster to founding of the hit subscription coffee roasting service Tonx Coffee. We caught up with him for a little conversation after a long day of getting roasted.
DG: Coffee and weed. The ol’ “wake, bake and brew.” Some people call it a hippie speedball. We think it’s a pretty groovy combination. When did you first start pairing the two?
TK: When I first became a daily coffee drinker was also the era when I was a total pothead. So my day usually started with that combo. This was the early 90s in New York. The coffee wasn’t so good yet and the weed came from an illegal delivery service. My typical pairing was a big 16-ounce cup of dark roasted hazelnut-flavored stale bodega coffee drowned in cream and sugar. And then a bong rip! It wasn’t until visiting Amsterdam in the early 2000s that I had the chance to really get into that more civilized cafe culture thing. Being able to select a strain, roll a spliff and enjoy it at an outdoor cafe along with a decent cup of coffee.
DG: It feels like both coffee and cannabis have come a long way since then. What similarities do you see in the two industries today?
TK: The whole world of cannabis has become much more sophisticated since it went legal. Now, you can walk into a dispensary and see a level of transparency, care and consideration that I didn’t get from the delivery guys back in the 90s. Similar to what happened in the 3rd wave coffee movement over the last decade, you can now get educated on the plant, how it’s grown and processed and all the other factors that go into it. At the same time, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy it. Some people just want to trust that the quality is going to be there and it’s going to do what it’s supposed to do. That’s cool too.
DG: Do you think the coffee world has become too precious over the last few years?
TK: Yeah, for sure. I think the pendulum swung really far in a direction where we wanted to be almost like what sommeliers are to wine, being able to list out every nuanced flavor characteristic to get these elaborate descriptions. I think it presents a sometimes-problematic model of connoisseurship that makes people feel like they have to be a coffee snob to be a coffee lover. In my mind, coffee’s not really an acquired taste. If you kind of like coffee then you'll really like good coffee—and you'll love great coffee—and it's not something that you need a particularly educated palate to appreciate. Whether it’s a joint or a cup of coffee, I think there's something to be said for just kind of focusing on the core hedonism of the experience. Good coffee and good grass taste good and are pleasurable to consume. It shouldn't feel like a homework assignment. Your job after you brew your morning coffee is not to come up with five or six flavor descriptors of what you're drinking. You just want to enjoy it.
DG: As you know, we started Dad Grass because today’s weed was getting us too damn high. How does caffeine potency factor into the coffee you make?
TK: We’ve been playing with decaf quite a bit the last few months, just exploring what's out there to try to find the best decaf coffees for our handful of customers that are sensitive to caffeine. The decaf can taste just like the real thing and it’s great for people that want to scratch the itch but have certain health concerns or want to have another cup at 9pm. On the whole though, coffee is different from cannabis in that most beans and blends have similar caffeine levels. Nobody’s measuring the caffeine in the same way they measure THC down to the microgram.
DG: What were you going for when you put together this blend for us?
TK: I think it was actually a few different vectors that all kind of converged in the same place. We started by thinking about it in terms of cannabis culture, specifically the history of cannabis in the United States and the countries, which are also coffee countries, where we were getting most of our weed back in the 70s. That’s why we really focused on the Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala beans. Also, you told us you wanted something that was smooth and mellow, which is a trademark of these sweet and chewy Latin American coffees. Fortunately, this is the time of the year where we get exceptional beans from those countries, so everything lined up nicely.
DG: There’s something really familiar about this coffee, it kind of reminds us of an incredibly good version of the coffee our parents drank when we were growing up.
TK: Yeah, it definitely makes me feel nostalgic. I grew up in a household where my mom made Maxwell House in an old percolator every morning before the sun came up. The coffee wasn't actually good but the way the smell filled the house is permanently lodged in my sense memory. If you were to brew up a cup of that right now, you would probably take two sips and dump it in the sink. But there's something about the quintessential, platonic ideal of that diner mug of coffee that just feels like this comforting, perfect deliciousness. Like apple pie or a glazed donut. That classic all-American thing. We’re shooting for the modern, updated version of that.
DG: There’s a lot of talented and experienced roasters out there these days. What makes you guys different?
TK: We have our own kind of peculiar and particular way of roasting where we take a lot more notes than most of our colleagues during the roast process. There's a lot more dialogue. We go through an enormous number of coffee samples before making our selections. Also, because we are a subscription service, we really just focus on one thing at a time. We’re not trying to fill a shelf with all these different kinds of origins and blends at different tiers for different customers. Each week, we’re just trying to create one unique product without compromising or cutting corners. This gives us a lot of freedom to explore and experiment and kind of iterate. With every batch, we learn something new. We can call an audible on a roast and swap out a component if it's not behaving the way that we want it to. We get to improvise and sometimes that leads to us putting out something better than we could have conceived of the week before we went into that roast. We get to dig deeper and deeper on just that one thing, so we don't get bored and things just seem to get better and better.
DG: You guys are clearly coffee nerds, in the best way, but you do a great job of making your coffee accessible. We try to do the same with Dad Grass, always with the idea that smoking joints shouldn’t be complicated, even though there’s a lot of complexity behind the scenes.
TK: I think one of the keys to our approach is not to dumb it down but at the same time to empower people to know that, at the end of the day, this is really a ‘just add water’ process. You're taking water, you're taking ground coffee, there's time, there's filtration. If you can make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese you can make a perfect cup of coffee. You don't need to spend six months chasing your tail. You don't need to get a job as a barista and learn the craft. You don't need to develop a whole new vernacular language to talk about coffee brewing. You really just need the ability to heat water and the ability to grind coffee. And if you've got that then the honest truth is that starting with great beans is 90% of the battle.
DG: Tell us about your ideal weekend morning, which I assume begins with a cup of coffee.
Sometimes I think one of the biggest indulgences are my subscriptions to the Sunday New York Times and the Sunday LA Times. So I get up in the morning, make my morning coffee and then I pull out the papers and dig through the sections. That’s the sort of ideal vibe.
More About Tonx
Tony fell into coffee first as a barista and then head roaster at Seattle’s seminal Victrola Coffee. In 2006 he went on to bend the coffeebar genre as part of Intelligentsia’s Los Angeles project. One of the pioneers in what has come to be known as coffee’s “Third Wave” movement, Tony has written about the coffee industry, consulted extensively, and served as coffee curator for Slow Food Nation and the Good Food Awards. In 2011, frustrated with how the leading roasting companies were focused more on their retail beverage programs and pre-existing distribution channels than in giving honest footholds for would-be coffee connoisseurs, he co-founded Tonx Coffee. It pioneered a direct to consumer subscription service, sourcing great coffees from around the world and empowering coffee lovers to make coffee at home that could rival the best cafes. In 2014 Tonx Coffee was acquired by Blue Bottle Coffee becoming the Blue Bottle at Home service. Tony’s itch for finding new on ramps for getting people into coffee remained, leading him deeper into a still-unfinished book project and the widely-acclaimed $1 coffee project in partnership with Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s restaurant project LocoL. His latest venture YES PLZ, co-founded with Tonx Coffee and LocoL alum Sumi Ali aims to make great coffee more accessible, fun, and of-the-moment.