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A Great Coffee Shop with a Hint of Germany in Carefree

The small-but-sterling Carefree Coffee Roastery.
The small-but-sterling Carefree Coffee Roastery. Chris Malloy
Greater Phoenix is awash in new-age coffee. With so many big names putting out a solid product these days, some of the little guys fly under the radar. And some of the little guys are more talented than the bigger coffee shops. Like the small-but-sterling Carefree Coffee Roastery.

At this tiny roastery in Carefree, regulars trickle in for blueberry-yogurt cake and iced latte. They sit outside on a wraparound patio with a mural sliver and cornhole set, reading the paper, typing on laptops, taking in a mountain view. Owner Lars Hesse greets many by name.

Tattooed and mustached, a former chef from Hanover, Germany, Hesse serves a range of coffee and espresso-based beverages within 20 feet of where he roasts the beans.

click to enlarge Hesse prepares grinds for espresso not far from his drum roaster. - CHRIS MALLOY
Hesse prepares grinds for espresso not far from his drum roaster.
Chris Malloy
Using a purple drum roaster, Hesse roasts one or two batches per week. Each is about 50 pounds. Whereas roasting on a large scale can be “too fast” or “too inconsistent,” Hesse’s more intimate rig allows him to realize his optimal roast, which he’ll use for his drinks until his next batch is ready.

All of his batches are medium roast. “Dark roast to me is burnt coffee, especially when you see the beans oily,” he says. “We want them a medium level. We have a nice acidic standard but not too high. We have all these flavors coming through, all these taste notes.”

Hesse targets a roasting time of 14 minutes, give or take a few. After “abruptly quitting” a career as a chef that included a Michelin-starred restaurant and Troon North in Scottsdale, he started to get into coffee following an exceptional bag that his mom brought him from Hanover. He started brewing at arts festivals, markets. In time, he learned the art of coffee roasting from Patrick O’Malley of Infusion Coffee + Tea.

click to enlarge A just-pulled medium-roast espresso, smooth as butter. - CHRIS MALLOY
A just-pulled medium-roast espresso, smooth as butter.
Chris Malloy
Today, he takes a chef’s approach to applying heat to coffee beans, a process that at once deepens and extracts latent flavors. “Some beans depending on density and size roast differently than others,” Hesse says. “We kind of want to slow roast them to that medium point above the first crack, but you want it to sit just underneath that second crack. That gives us the flavor.”

When talking roasting philosophy, Hesse often compares coffee beans to wine — in flavor range, yes, but also in where that flavor begins: the farm. “Growing patterns, weather patterns, what grounds, what varieties they come from, all that makes the difference on flavor profile,” he says. “Just like wine, you can’t have too much rain that year or not enough; that influences the farmer.”

With these ideas about variability in mind, Hesse shuffles sourcing and blending from year to year. The goal is to begin with the best possible product roasted to his precise specifications, the starting point for great coffee made with great character.

click to enlarge Mandorlata, baked by Hesse's mom, Uta Schmidt - CHRIS MALLOY
Mandorlata, baked by Hesse's mom, Uta Schmidt
Chris Malloy
Carefree Coffee’s regulars line up for both. Hesse flits behind the counter, moving in and out of conversation streams as he pours ice for 24-hour, slow-drip Japanese cold brew, whisks matcha for latte. Glass jars filled with baked goods line the counter, all prepared by Uta Schmidt, Hesse’s mom. She bakes biscotti and a coffee-cake remix on mandorlata (an Italian Easter bread), blueberry crumble and German-style apple streusel.

Hesse considers Carefree Coffee a European-style shop. He hews to the espresso-based classics like café au lait and Americano, though he does make a few newer favorites, like a flat white. And a cold cappuccino made with an experimental cold foam.

The German influence creeps in on the food side. Hesse offers a small selection of breakfast and lunch items beyond baked goods, a selection that will grow in the coming weeks. A boiled egg sandwich or pumpernickel with Gouda and Jarlsberg throws it back to the old country.

Not so the coffee. “For me, Germany was always pretty boring on coffee,” Hesse says. “Coffee in Germany is usually drip coffee. The tradition is 4 o'clock coffee and cake.”

This German’s shop with multicolor chalkboard listings and matcha mayo on sandwiches is anything but boring. “Coffee should take you on a happy journey,” he says. “I love the flavor of coffee and what it does to you.”

Carefree Coffee Roastery.
7171 East Cave Creek Road, Carefree; 480-595-5050.
Monday to Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy