Not your average neighborhood coffee shop

Vajra Rich makes 'cowboy coffee' at Boxcar
photo by Blair Madole

Vajra Rich looks like a mad scientist, complete with messy hair, a glint in his eyes and beakers and circular heaters that look like they belong in a chemistry lab. He doesn’t work with obscure chemicals or create monsters though. He makes coffee.

Boulder isn’t exactly lacking options for a shot of caffeine in the morning — in a four-block stretch of Pearl Street, there is The Laughing Goat, The Cup, Atlas and Boxcar Coffee Roasters. However, while Boxcar has a normal menu offering traditional items like Americanos and cappuccinos, it is taking the concept of a neighborhood coffee shop to a whole new level.

Boxcar Coffee Roasters is owned by Vajra and Cara Rich, a husband-and-wife duo. The shop features exposed brick walls, bold metallic signs and a marble-topped coffee bar where patrons can sit and watch the brewing process. The real twists to the shop are the beakers and heaters used to brew the coffee and the funky-looking espresso machine jerry-rigged by Vajra using a Synesso, a “totally awesome” espresso maker, according to Vajra, and a La Marzocco espresso machine from 1983. Oh, and there is the elephant-sized coffee roaster in the back of the store.

Boxcar roasts its own coffee three to four times a week in the back of the shop. The bean options vary by season and include popular varieties from Sumatra and Guatemala and house blends such as Empire and Stella Espresso. Bags of the beans with flavor descriptions are available at the shop, or patrons can order a cup to be individually brewed using an intriguing technique Vajra calls “cowboy coffee.”

“I was inspired by making coffee while camping at 8,000 feet,” Vajra says. “Up there, water boils at a much lower temperature, so it is harder to get really hot water, which you need to get a quality cup of coffee. I got pretty good at making cowboy coffee, which we do over a campfire, and I got some really good results. It eventually dawned on me that this would be the best way to make coffee down here.”

In the high-tech version of cowboy coffee, each cup of coffee is brewed separately. The beans, which are ground once an order is placed, are put into a large, specially made glass beaker, and a measured amount of hot water is poured over them. Next, the beaker is placed in a circular heater that fits snugly around the glass, which enables the coffee to be evenly heated as it rises to a boil. After a few seconds of a light boil, Vajra removes the beaker, takes a whiff to make sure the coffee is done, and adds a few ice cubes to stop the brewing process. The coffee, which is pretty dang strong, is then split between a mug and a small pourer and served on a wooden plank.

The process makes about two cups of coffee, and it can be split between two people. As one patron remarked, “I’m going to split it with my friend because I would like to be able to sleep in the next 48 hours.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Vajra says. “Coffee is a constant problem, because it is not easy to brew a decent cup. It takes a lot of knowledge and experimentation, and up here there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. I wanted to know why a cup of coffee tastes so good, and figuring that out and how to brew a great cup is why I got into coffee in the first place.”

Vajra stays up all night, buzzed from tasting cups of espresso and toying around with new ways to make a cup of coffee, while Cara works on the hospitality and management aspects of Boxcar. Cara is the cool and collected counterpoint to Vajra’s nuttiness and eccentricity, and is responsible for the trendy vibe of the shop. Also, the ladies can thank Cara for the vests and collared shirts the male baristas wear.

“We wanted to combine a playfulness and old-world imagery in Boxcar,” Cara says. “We are serving specialty coffee, and we take it pretty seriously, so we wanted to relate that in our presentation. We could have done t-shirts or collared shirts, but we wanted something with style, so we went with the vests.”

From the décor to the service, Cara has made an effort to portray their passion for coffee and concern for quality.

She and Vajra make a good team and have worked together to achieve their vision of what coffee should be, she says.

“This has been the craziest thing I have ever done, I think,” Cara says. “[Starting Boxcar] is definitely the closest thing we have had to a life-changing event, other than the birth of our daughter. There have been all-nighters, and working seven days a week, but I think it is a good tradeoff, because the work and time you put in to a place shows.”