By Emily Tate, Managing Editor
He takes his coffee straight, preferably a light or medium roast — and, please, don’t spoil it with cream or sugar.
Robert Thurston has a unique relationship with coffee. It would be hard to understand him without an inherent appreciation for a good cup of joe.
“I’m pretty crazy about coffee,” he said, his voice nearly drowned out by the loud hum of a coffee roaster in the back of his shop.
Thurston, 65, is a founder and managing partner of Oxford Coffee Company, a local roastery and coffee bar tucked away on Locust Street, between LaRosa’s and Oxford Spirits.
Oxford Coffee Co. officially opened in 2012, but Thurston’s passion for the beverage developed much earlier.
“Everyone in the specialty coffee industry remembers their first really, really good cup of coffee,” he said. “Everybody.”
For Thurston, that moment came in the late ‘70s.
“It was a wake-up call,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, my god, this is a different type of beverage. I’ve been drinking swill.’”
Thurston vividly remembers his mother making her coffee in a steel drip pot. She bought Maxwell House coffee, the beans already ground up.
“When she opened that fresh can of Maxwell House, there would be one puff of wonderful scent — just, ‘Oh, my god’ — and then it was gone,” he said. “The coffee was terrible, I know it was terrible to this day.”
After his first cup, Thurston continued to seek out the “good stuff,” like coffea Arabica, but he didn’t look beyond that for almost 30 years. Instead, he focused on what he knew best: modern Russian history.
A Washington, D.C. native, Thurston graduated high school outside of Cleveland and attended Northwestern University for his undergraduate schooling. During that time, the Vietnam War was raging, and Thurston was troubled with questions about the war, the domino theory and communism — all of which could be traced back to the Soviet Union.
So, he took up the Russian language to complement his history degree, then went on to earn a doctorate in modern Russian history from the University of Michigan.
He spent several years in Russia, even met his wife in Moscow during one of the trips.
But 25 years ago, the Thurston family decided to settle down in Oxford, where they raised their two children and taught at Miami University — Thurston as a history professor, and his wife, Margaret Ziolkowski, as professor and chair of the Russian, German, Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures department.
Raised by a connoisseur, his daughter, Lara, grew up drinking quality coffee.
“[Good coffee] has always been consistent,” she said. “My dad used to roast in a really small machine on the front porch of our house.”
But in 2002, Thurston had a new idea. He realized he could incorporate coffee in the classroom by teaching a history course about the evolution and impact of the industry.
Thurston sees coffee as much more than a drink. It is connected to many critically important elements of life — climate change, ecotourism, social justice for farmers, global trade and globalization.
Miami allowed him to teach the class, and by 2004, the university was funding Thurston’s travel to coffee farms across the globe. He spent a summer in Ethiopia and Kenya and the following fall in Nicaragua.
Those trips only cultivated Thurston’s interest, he said.
“It really hooked me,” he said. “It was great to see the whole process from the ground up.”
In total, Thurston has visited origin coffee farms in nine different countries. However, now that he’s retired, he intends to visit many others.
“My wife and I have, of course, plans to conquer the world of coffee,” he said.
In the meantime, though, Thurston will continue to bring the world of coffee directly to Oxford.
Unlike markets in Los Angeles or New York, which can afford to sell highly specialized coffee, the same would be difficult to sustain in a small market like Oxford, he said.
“Here, I think it’s better for us to bring in a variety of coffees from around the world,” Thurston said. “It’s a little more fun to experience with more coffees.”
Ethiopian Sidamo, Costa Rican Tarrazu, Brazilian Daterra, Sumatran Mandheling, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe — these are the beans, the beverages, Thurston lives for.
As for the future of the Oxford Coffee Co., well, he’s already given that some thought.
“They’ll have to take me out feet first.”