Rocket Fuel: CB’s First Ascent coffee takes flight to space station

Drinking delicious coffee in the most difficult places…

[  By Dawne Belloise  ]

If you’re a NASA nerd or SpaceX fan, you’ve witnessed the excitement of a launch, whether standing on the shore at Cape Canaveral while the massive engines shake the earth and sky around you or from your favorite streaming launch app. This past Wednesday, October 5, the countdown was especially exhilarating as one of Crested Butte’s own, First Ascent coffee, was hurled into space enroute to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Falcon 9 with the SpaceX Crew-5. Amongst their payload of supplies to the ISS will be First Ascent’s freeze-dried instant coffee Dawn Patrol, personally requested by one of the astronauts herself.

Although for privacy reasons, NASA would not name the astronaut, the only American woman on board is commander Nicole Aunapu Mann, who discovered the excellent brew through another associate in the NASA space corps who was wilderness camping with it after reading the review about First Ascent coffee in Outside Magazine. Apparently, in the NASA food labs, the brew was passed around and determined to be astronomically better tasting than any of the other instant brews. 

Commander Mann is actually the second astronaut to request the CB brew, although the first to actually have it on board with her. 

CB local Mark Drucker, along with his wife Ali Drucker and partner Sam Higby are the owners of First Ascent, and Mark tells, “The first thing that happened was about a year ago when I was contacted directly by a real live astronaut who was born and raised in Colorado. He had used our instant coffee while backpacking and really wanted to take it to the space station with him,” he said and explains that NASA allows astronauts to procure some of their own food. “But we never heard back from him again. We think his mission might have gotten canceled, but we’re not totally sure what happened.” 

Then somewhat recently, Mark received word from NASA asking if First Ascent could provide coffee. “Our coffee was being requested by an entirely different astronaut, a female. Of course, we said yes! They had tried a bunch of instants and they thought the others were terrible. They loved ours and the astronaut asked the food labs to contact us and get it on her behalf.” NASA ordered 250 servings, specifically for that astronaut. “There are other astronauts who, I’m sure, are going to try it and think, ‘I need to get that too,’” Mark smiles.

According to Higby, the company now has had multiple inquiries from NASA people. 

NASA ordered First Ascent’s darkest brew, Dawn Patrol, in the standard bulk pouch, which makes a gallon of coffee.  But in order to have it work in zero gravity, NASA food lab will repackage it in their own special space-friendly pouches which have nozzles so the astronauts can then fill them with hot water and drink directly from that pouch. As Mark points out, “They can’t have water and coffee powder floating around.” 

The Crew-5 is the fifth crewed rotation mission of the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS and consists of commander Nicole Aunapu Mann (NASA), pilot Josh Cassada (NASA) and mission specialists Koichi Wakata (JAXA) and Anna Kikina (Roscosmos).

Processing instant coffee is a complex process, Mark says, and the concept for adding instant coffee to First Ascent’s line came about during one of the couple’s backpacking trips into the Maroon Bells Wilderness in 2017. “We had a café on Elk Avenue and we were coffee nerds and had to have good coffee while backpacking, so we brought a French press, ground coffee, the whole coffee system,” Mark laughs. “We were on the Four Pass Loop and all that coffee equipment weighed quite a bit and with an already heavy pack. At one point, we were complaining about how heavy our packs were but knew instant coffee tasted horrible. So, that’s where the idea was born, we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could make an instant coffee that actually tastes good? The concept was born in the wilderness.”

They started the instant coffee powder by creating a prototype on a small scale and discovered, “It was instantly delicious. We roast all of our coffee, we then brew it to freeze dry it, making sure that it’s brewed like a good cup would be, then that brewed coffee goes into a freeze drier where all the moisture is removed.” The result, Mark says, is the instant coffee powder. “We had a great product, but the biggest problem was how to scale our production to make enough. Bigger equipment was the solution, specifically, money to buy that equipment. We now have a large, commercial grade freeze drier.” 

First Ascent’s coffee is inspired by what’s called third wave coffee, Mark explains. “It’s also referred to as specialty coffee with a focus on single origin. We focus on buying coffee from specific farms and countries and on the unique flavors that are specific from that farm.” 

There is definitely a connection between space and wilderness in the sense of not only isolation, solitude and awe-inspiring beauty, but as Mark notes, they’re both challenging places to exist in. “The idea is that you can have delicious coffee in the most difficult places. It’s all relevant, a challenging place might also be someone’s van in a campground and this is a natural progression of yet another place that has challenges associated with having access to great coffee.” 

Although First Ascent has brought new meaning to the reference of rocket fuel caffeination, and there might be new blends with space age names in the future, (maybe Martian Red, Moon Madness, or Jumping Jupiter?), Mark and Ali probably aren’t quite ready to personally serve up their now out-of-this-world brew anywhere else in our solar system yet so you can still get your cuppa Joe right here on the third planet, in this small universe at the end of the road at 8,885 feet.

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