Bob Foster remembers the first time he tried coffee.
He was 11 years old, and at his family’s hunting camp – about 16 miles downriver from his home in Noorvik, a remote community of less than 700 people near Kotzebue. Foster’s initial sip was harsh.
“[It was] some percolated Hills Bros, it tastes like motor oil to me today,” Foster said. “But that’s where the love of coffee started.”
Now, 30 years later, Foster has launched his own coffee roasting business. And it’s successful. It’s called Kobuk River Kuupiaq. Kuupiaq is the Iñupiaq word for coffee. Foster supplies quality roasted beans to the 10 communities in the Northwest Arctic region, and even around the country. In fact, he might be the only Alaska coffee roaster above the Arctic Circle.
But his business had humble beginnings.
In 2014, Foster was in a snowmachine accident that severely injured his back. He now walks using a cane. After a series of surgeries, Foster lost his job and started living at Noorvik’s Pentecostal Church as a caretaker. Debt added up. Foster said he prayed for a solution to some of his financial troubles. Then COVID hit.
He said some COVID relief money helped out, but he knew he needed another source of income.
According to Foster, God sent him an answer. He was introduced to a Christian college student visiting Noorvik for the summer. The college student told Foster about his dream of beginning a coffee roasting business and supplying coffee to the church community.
Foster was inspired.
He began researching coffee beans and watching YouTube videos on how to roast coffee. He said he spent the last of his COVID relief money on a small coffee roasting machine and green coffee beans from Amazon. Soon he was roasting the beans in the church kitchen. Or more accurately, he said, burning the beans.
“They were all turning into French Roast because I was learning by visual,” he said.
Foster also had to sort out the economic realities of launching a coffee business in remote Alaska. For one, it costs $80 per order to have the green beans delivered to Noorvik. Then, he had to pay to ship the roasted beans back out.
But Foster was creative.
He established a relationship with his bean supplier — based in Massachusetts — who waived his shipping costs. And Bering Air, the regional air service, agreed to deliver Foster’s beans wherever the airline flies free of charge, in exchange for coffee beans.
Foster said his business has grown so fast, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. He still roasts his beans using a small machine that can only handle one pound of beans at a time. Occasionally he gets larger orders from the Red Dog Mine that take several days to fill. He said it’s tough with some of his injuries and working his feet for 12 hours at a time.
“It’s tiring, you know, I do it by myself,” Foster said. “It took a lot of hunting and fishing away from me.”
The importance of hunting to Foster is apparent even in the names of his coffee beans. He calls one of his coffee blends “Springtime Specklebelly,” named after one of the geese he enjoys hunting in spring.
Foster makes a variety of coffee blends, and even packages his own K-cups for Keurig machines.
Kotzebue resident Jade Hill said she prefers the freshness of Foster’s coffee, which often is roasted and delivered by bush plane the same day. Hill has been a loyal customer since Foster started his business.
“It’s been really fun to watch him grow and to try new flavors.” Hill said. “Then to go from beans to grounds to K cups and [all] the different products he offers.”
Foster said he hopes to expand his business in the future, and wants to purchase a larger roaster.
He eventually wants to build a home of his own and hopes his coffee business can help fund that endeavor. Foster’s coffee is available for purchase on his Facebook page, Kobuk River Kuupiaq.