Q&A with the fine folks of Slingshot Coffee

For most of her youth, Jenny Bonchak couldn’t understand why people would gather around this terrible beverage called coffee. Specifically at the tiny diner where she waitressed during high school. She’d watch the same old men belly up to the counter every single day for endless cups of the burnt, bitter liquid.

“That was their camaraderie, their community. They came together over coffee,” Jenny says. “It was really intriguing—why would you gather around this terrible thing? But it brought so much joy to those people.”

That sense of curiosity around coffee and its superpower to bring people together only grew as she went to college and met her to-be husband, Jonathan, who harbored the same intrigue. The obsession would quickly turn into a passion, appreciation, and all-out love for coffee (which, it turns out, is not so terrible when it’s sourced, roasted and brewed the right way).

Jenny started Slingshot in 2012 and soon after hired her husband to join her. An award-winning barista team, they strive to make Slingshot a company dedicated to building on a foundation of quality, knowledge, and innovation. They meticulously source organic, directly traded coffees that they brew into mighty delicious cold brew and coffee sodas— as well as single-origin coffee cherries for their Cascara Teas — and sell Slingshot’s lineup of products on grocery shelves throughout the country (including all our Jeni’s scoop shops outside of LA).

We caught up with Jenny to talk Slingshot’s origin, cold brew, and the special blend Slingshot created just for us to star in our newest flavor, Cold Brew with Coconut Cream.

You started Slingshot in a 150-square-foot production kitchen—with no A/C to save you from the North Carolina heat, I might add. What does Slingshot look like today?  

Six months ago we moved into a 13,000 square foot bottling facility. So it’s much bigger! And we just launched our pioneering cascara teas and coffee sodas in the Southeast, and launched our cascara teas on the West Coast—so we’re expanding!

I managed to work in that 150-square-foot space for a little more than two years, making tens of thousands of bottles of Slingshot. Wow was it hot in there in the summertime. That time forced me to think even more deeply about brewing—the science behind what we were doing that made Slingshot so different and how to scale those techniques better. There is no other cold brew company out there that has our kind of coffee experience — both in the Specialty Coffee industry and in award-winning brewing. One of the other things that always set us apart from other cold brew brands out there is that we have a female entrepreneur who is leading the company. In fact, we’re the only nationally recognized and sold cold brew coffee company in the U.S. that is owned, run and founded by a national award-winning female barista.

You spent your childhood on your family’s 300-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Pennsylvania (the largest strawberry farm in the state to be specific). How did your roots impact the way you view coffee?

It gives me a lot of appreciation for the agronomy that comes with coffee. And an even better understanding for why supply chain is so influential and important. For quality … but also from a political perspective. Political climates in coffee growing countries can be challenging, and it’s just one reason why it’s important to drink better coffee and to know where your coffee comes from — just like it’s good to know where your eggs come from or where your carrots come from. Supply chains domestically and internationally impact so many lives and can be a powerful force for good when nurtured and prioritized the right way. We believe in as much transparency in our supply chain as possible. We also strive to be as directly involved in our supply chain as possible. Our Cascara Teas, for example, are built with a 100% female-led supply chain from farmer to bottle.

Is that why the words organic and Direct Trade are keywords in all of your messaging?

These two points are certainly value pillars of ours. We want to be sourcing the absolute best that we can source. We want to do what we can to support our entire ecosystem and look to build relationships with partners whose values align with ours and who want to achieve the same things. But as a small, growing company we can’t always do everything we dream of doing in that ecosystem so we also look to partner with people and organizations where we can help by contributing to a larger goal together.

How did you decide to strike out on your own?

I’ve been working in the Specialty Coffee industry in some form for more than 12 years. When I moved from PA to NC with my husband in 2005, I took a job at an ad agency. Jonathan went to work for small local roaster in Raleigh, and his job was about 75% travel. So if I ever wanted to see him, I had to go somewhere with him! So I ended up using my vacation days to go on work trips with him. And I certainly didn’t want to be bored while he was working, so I thought, Well, I know a lot about coffee and I know what I’m doing. Why don’t we just work together on the DL and not really tell anybody? So he would drop me off at the grocery store and I would do coffee brewing demos while he did something else. It was fun!

For me, seeing the operation of the farm when I was really young, as well as having two parents who are pretty entrepreneurial in their own right, I think that bug was inherent in me. My whole life I’d been setting up little businesses — from selling friendship bracelets and bookmarks I’d made at a little table at the farm, to a roadside sweet corn stand my brother and I set up in our front yard in the summer.

I didn’t go to business school and really just used common sense and general life experience to start Slingshot. To fund the company’s start, I sold my Subaru Outback for $6,000, bought another Subaru for $1,000 from a friend so I had a car to delivery Slingshot and used the remaining $5,000 to buy supplies and have operating cash. Done! When I think back on it, it wasn’t hard to jump into starting Slingshot. It was much harder in the years leading up to starting Slingshot to truly accept that my path was just going to look different than most, but that that difference could be really exciting.

How did cold brew become your main focus?

This itch to do something more in coffee, it kept nagging at me. I’m an iced coffee drinker year-round and in my years exploring coffee, I’d never had a better iced coffee than what I was making myself at home — in the form of cold brew. It was either hot coffee stuck in a fridge to cool down or drinks on a grocery store shelf that were a mix of terrible coffee and questionable ingredients. So in 2010, I decided I wanted to start a company where I could make the best cold brew anyone has ever had — black. And at the time, nobody was really talking about cold brew. So I spent the next two years brewing as many coffees as I could to nail flavor, body, acidity, etc. I really wanted to pursue the idea of single origin, too.

So I took these experiments, my experience, and my coffee brewing skills and built a company around them. I wanted to offer a better alternative to what was on the shelf.

How did you choose what coffee to highlight with Slingshot?

Knowing that everything under the sun has seasonality to it, coffee is no different. And there are lots of amazing coffees out there! When I launched Slingshot, I wanted to hone in on that seasonality so the coffee I was using evolved throughout the year. Essentially, I was trying to follow the coffee harvest around the world. But there were a lot of obstacles to that and in the end, I couldn’t find consistency and therefore craft a cold brew that was just extraordinary. I had to step back and ask myself what the goal of Slingshot was. Brew the best cold brew in the world? Provide consistency to the person who drinks it? Educate people about Specialty Coffee? Be a part of a supply chain that was reliable?

Ultimately, I realized I could answer all of those questions using an Ethiopian coffee, which was my favorite origin. I could educate the consumer about specialty coffee by putting that info on the bottle and I could craft a consistent flavor profile like nobody else that still held true to our values in sourcing the best coffee that was grown well, roasted well and with us, brewed well.

What are some of the characteristics that make an exceptional cold brew (a.k.a. Slingshot cold brew)?

Seven years into it, no other company can achieve the flavor profile we do — light, bright, juicy and fruity — all of the things that need to come together to craft a perfectly brewed cold coffee. A lot of cold brews out there are very one note—heavy, dark, chocolatey. But I know that coffee is at its best when it’s balanced. You need acidity, flavor and body to come together in the right way to make exceptional cold brew.  

And in the end, that’s what we do. We always want to make a person sit up after taking a sip of Slingshot and go, Whoa! I’ve never had coffee that like this before. How do they do it? And that’s how we will always craft Slingshot.

You created a special blend just for us to use in our Cold Brew with Coconut Cream. Can you tell us a little about what’s in it?

We never in our history have brewed a blend until now. Knowing how the coffee would be used, we started by doing what we do best — push the boundaries of where we can take cold brew. Just like Jeni’s was pushing those boundaries with non-dairy ice creams. It was such an exhilarating process for me, not to mention an opportunity to offer my expertise in coffee and cold brew to the experts in ice cream. We conducted tons of brewing experiments with different coffees, extraction approaches, concentration levels and origins. When we brewed this specific blend of Africa, South and Central America coffees, we had a feeling this was the one.  

How do you feel about your cold brew being turned into a sorbet?

When I was working out of that 150 square foot at the beginning of Slingshot’s story, I sent a care package of Slingshot to Jeni. Even then, I knew we made the best cold brew out there, but that if we can make something so spectacular that we could partner with Jeni’s, I’d not only be so personally giddy, but I’d know we’re on the right track. I’m so proud and grateful for this partnership. Cold Brew with Coconut Cream is truly the best of the best and I can’t wait for people everywhere to taste it!