Ryan Castelaz is a storyteller.
His medium, however, isn’t a pen and paper, a computer or a stage (well, sometimes it’s a stage).
But usually, it’s coffee.
And not just your standard lattes or macchiatos. They’re carefully crafted works of art.
These concoctions have a similar look and presentation to craft cocktails, with similar wait times and prices.
One type of drink Castelaz does is a “Crenn,” which he described as a “spherified” liquid. His inspiration for this came from renowned chef Dominique Crenn.
To create his latest version of it, called “Two Trees,” he freezes matcha and lime cordial in a spherical ice mold. Then, the frozen spheres are dipped into melted cocoa butter. They temper back down to room temperature, and are topped off with a fermented kiwi purée and a touch of CBD oil, he said.
The sphere is placed atop a nest in a glass egg server with cedar leaf vapor filling the dish.
And all of this isn’t just for show; it’s also about the taste.
“What you have is a cold liquid inside of a soft sphere,” he said. “As soon as that sphere hits your tongue, it explodes … It’s a really wild, super fun textural experience.”
Castelaz started selling creations like these in 2017 in Sister Bay, when he opened Discourse: a Liquid Workshop.
Now, he’s bidding Door County adieu and bringing his unique beverages to Milwaukee with the help of his business partner, Olivia Molter, an experienced barista. Discourse will begin putting on recurring pop-ups at Two Trees MKE later this summer.
“Since the beginning, we’ve really just been trying to create coffee for conversation,” Castelaz said. “We want to make things that challenge the paradigm of what the coffee experience can, should and will be.”
Castelaz, who grew up in New Berlin, got into the idea of “artistic” and “creative” drinks while watching the show “Chef’s Table” years ago.
“To see chefs who were telling stories just like musicians told stories in their songs was really crazy to me and mind-blowing and inspirational and exciting,” said Castelaz, who’s a musician himself.
From hating coffee to becoming ‘obsessed’
Surprisingly, Castelaz spent most of his life hating coffee.
“My mom was a Folgers drinker, so that was my interpretation of what coffee was,” he said.
But a college practicum made him realize the necessity of the caffeinated drink. When he studied abroad in Italy, he became “obsessed with espresso and espresso culture.” When he returned to his dorm, he got his own espresso machine.
“I loved it,” he said. “I loved the practice of it. I loved the ritual of it.”
When he moved to Door County after studying psychology and opera at Iowa’s Luther College, he bought a semi-professional espresso machine.
Before opening his own coffee shop in the summer of 2017, Castelaz only had five months of professional barista experience — at Milwaukee’s Valentine Coffee in 2015.
At first, a “good day” for Discourse was $100 to $200, he said. But after being featured on “Wisconsin Foodie,” the shop experienced an uptick that hasn’t stopped.
A twist of fate
Molter met Castelaz when she was on a family trip to Door County a couple of years ago and stopped into Discourse.
“I swung in to grab to-go drinks — just a real quick in-and-out thing — and I ended up sitting there for an hour and a half just talking,” Molter said. “We hit it off right away.”
Molter started working as a barista in her hometown of Appleton when she was a teenager. After moving to Milwaukee for college, she worked at Likewise Coffee (formerly Kickapoo and Wonderstate), then Interval.
Earlier this year, when Molter went to check out a pop-up Castelaz was doing solo at Milwaukee’s Dandy, she was met with a line out the door.
When she made it to the front a half hour later, Castelaz was “panicking, spilling, shaking.”
“I was like, ‘Do you need help? I can go back there and help you,’ ” Molter said.
“We worked really well together that day and I was like, ‘I’m not going to do this alone again,’ ” Castelaz said.
Two sides to the menu
While Castelaz’s passion is telling stories and creating experiences through coffee, Molter — a graphic designer and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student — is focused on making sure the drinks taste good.
Discourse’s menu will be split into two parts: “art” and “craft.”
Molter will run the “craft” program, which primarily features “typical coffee shop fare with a twist” and Discourse staples.
One drink that will be under this section is the “Channel Orange”: a classic latte with whole or oat milk, oaked and smoked vanilla, orange Oleo-Saccharum, and Bittercube Bolivar bitters. It’s topped with candied orange powder.
“This is one that I really love,” Molter said. “It’s nice because it’s exciting, and sounds very cool and eloquent, but it just tastes so good that it’s an incredibly accessible drink.”
Castelaz — who also works full-time as an associate flavor scientist in Beloit — will focus on the menu’s “art” beverages. He said he starts with an idea or story, then decodes it through flavor and presentation.
“They will be definitely some of the wildest coffee drinks a lot of people will have ever dived into,” he said.
The “art” menu will follow a theme, which Castelaz is considering rotating about four to five times a year.
The first theme will pay homage to the history of the Two Trees’ space with drinks representing its lives, including its time as a law office, a boilermakers union, a daycare and its current state.
The “Boilermaker’s Union” will feature Hojicha Tea — which is similar to matcha, but toasted — chanterelle simple syrup, Rishi Butterfly Pea Flower powder and acid-adjusted nitro raspberry fennel soda.
“You’ll have a drink that’s kind of a progression of colors, from this deep blue to more of a violet to more of a pink,” Castelaz said. It will be served with a shot of fruity espresso.
A new member of the Discourse family, Adil Amin — a Theoretical Physics Ph.D.-level candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — will work on creating novel ingredients for the shop, such as the kiwi purée found in the “Two Trees Crenn.”
Most “art” drinks will be served with accompaniments — such as a set of crackers — to “amplify” the experience.
If there are leftovers, Castelaz said the team is figuring out ways to use them at least one additional time. For example, spent milk will be turned into yogurt, and coffee will be turned into compost, kombucha or miso.
If someone orders from the “craft” section, they can expect standard coffee shop wait times, with drinks between $5 and $7. If someone chooses an “art” drink, they should expect it to take the same amount of time as a cocktail, with prices between about $9 and $12.
Why Discourse is moving and where
Discourse will pop up at Two Trees MKE, 5625 West Wells St., every first and third weekend of the month. The liquid workshop is aiming to have its opening there July 23-25.
On the weekends it’s running, it will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
“Right now, there is an enormous amount of uncertainty in this industry and for me still in how what we’re doing is going to be received,” Castelaz said. “What Olivia and I are about to do doesn’t exist. There isn’t a way to go out and do market research about how well a crazy, esoteric, slow bar, coffee concept is going to work.”
But moving Discourse to Milwaukee is something Castelaz has been thinking about for “a long time.”
While a lot of its Door County employees were “amazing,” oftentimes, they were also seasonal, he said.
“If you can’t retain those people year after year, it becomes very, very difficult to build something,” he said. “You kind of feel like you’re a hamster running around a wheel, and every year, you’re at the same place you started.”
Castelaz’s day job is also closer to the Milwaukee area; he grew up nearby; and his girlfriend, who lives in Romania, is planning to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“To be able to bring back everything I’ve learned the past five years to the Milwaukee area is an unbelievably exciting thing,” he said. “I think the scene here in the city is and has been evolving at such an exciting pace and I’m honored to work with Olivia to be a part of that.”
Looking ahead, the Discourse team plans to launch an “Omakase” ticketed series, which will be an intimate five-course tasting of coffee and tea-based beverages. They also are going to do collaborations with local drink makers and chefs, and are looking for more to work with.
The long-term goal for the liquid workshop is to move into its own brick-and-mortar once again.
“I think Milwaukee is just that perfect size of city that will understand where we’re coming from, but also probably still feel a little challenged by it,” Castelaz said.
The team will host a final weekend over at its Door County workshop, Courtyard Level, 10580 Country Walk Drive, Unit 14, Sister Bay, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 2-3 and 8 a.m. to noon July 4.