Inside Look: Horizon Line Coffee, Des Moines

When California-based friends and colleagues Brad Penna and Nam Ho decided to give up careers in higher education to pursue a shared passion for specialty coffee, they immediately immersed themselves in SoCal café culture, learning the ins and outs of roasting and brewing at places like Arcade Coffee Roasters in Riverside. They set their sights on opening their own café, but with modest funding, they knew they’d need to find a city that would allow them to stretch their money as far as possible while also embracing their love of coffee. After researching cities around the country, Des Moines turned out to be the perfect fit, and last summer they debuted Horizon Line Coffee.

“Our biggest fear was that people would think these Californians were coming here to show them how to drink,” Penna says. With Horizon Line, they wanted to focus on hospitality, education and community-building. “Coffee is something with a story to tell, so I think we’ve done a good job of connecting with people so far,” Penna adds.

Penna and Ho built the new café from the shell of an existing book-binding facility. Most of the construction was bootstrapped, with friends (and friends of friends) even helping scrape epoxy off the concrete floors. The sun-drenched café is serene in its simplicity, with a mix of white brick, mahogany wood, concrete and black details. The coffee lineup sources primarily from Crop to Cup, La Bodega and Genuine Origin, and their espresso service has proved to be especially popular. “We move substantially more espresso than I anticipated—just single shots,” Penna says.

Coffee is something with a story to tell, so I think we’ve done a good job of connecting people so far.

The menu also features flights of coffee—one with a single origin of coffee brewed three different ways—and alcohol-free mixed coffee drinks. Served on-site only in an Old Fashioned glass over a single cube, two such drinks debuted on the menu: The Traveler is a spice-fueled mix of espresso, coke, vanilla and bitters, and the Vegan combines espresso, almond milk, cinnamon and ginger beer. “It’s been about playing around with flavors and finding what’s enjoyable and delicious,” Penna says. “We’re looking to create an experience for people. Take some time out of your day to sit down with someone or enjoy something for yourself.” 

Penna and Ho hope to eventually expand into wholesale so they can serve local bars and restaurants, but they want their growth to be slow and steady—they’re in no rush, and they want to make sure the focus is always on quality. “We just want to do what we’re doing well,” says Penna.