James Karr, local coffee industry innovator, dies at 48

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James Karr, via LinkedIn

Chicago-based coffee industry technician and innovator James “Jim” Karr died Saturday afternoon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after an industrial coffee machine fell on him as he was setting it up during an event in Grant Park. The Cook County Medical Examiner has ruled his death an accident.

But that’s little consolation to those who knew and loved him. For many, Mr. Karr’s tragic death at age 48 has brought a sense of deep sadness and loss as they mourn his untimely passing.

Upon hearing the news, his friend and business associate Tony Dreyfuss — co-founder of the local Metropolis Coffee Company — was “absolutely shocked and then destroyed.”

On Facebook, friends expressed their grief and disbelief, praising Mr. Karr for his selflessness, “empathetic ear” and other qualities.

Declared one, “I’m a better person for knowing you.”

Describing Mr. Karr as “meticulous, fastidious” and “very quiet,” Dreyfuss also praised his “beautiful sense of concentration.”

“His approach to the way that he conducted business was very Old World, like a craftsman — like a tailor or a leather worker or a steel worker. And I really liked working with him, because I knew that when he put his stamp on it, it was right and it was good and it was done.”

About a year ago, Dreyfuss said, the two of them began making plans to design and build a new kind of home coffee brewer. They even formed a limited liability company. But both became busy and, consequently, their venture never got off the ground.

“We were going to change the world,” Dreyfuss quipped.

Colin Mahoney, a sales executive at Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, worked with Mr. Karr (who was in charge of brewing technology there) for nearly a decade before Mr. Karr left Intelligentsia in 2012 to start his own concern, SteamVolt.

“He was particularly interested in the connection between the technology and the brewing quality that resulted from it,” Mahoney said. “No one knew coffee equipment as well as he did, but he was really a coffee guy. He had a great palate and understood that connection better than anyone.”

Had Mr. Karr lived to further shepherd SteamVolt, Mahoney added, his designs for and ideas about replicating the quality of small-batch “pour-over” coffee via a more efficient (i.e. less labor intensive) method would have earned him “the ear of just about anyone in the industry.”

“Everyone that met him knew he had the most incisive intelligence of anyone around,” said Mahoney, who noted that Karr was extremely well-read and particularly sharp in the fields of art and history — about which you argued with him “at your own peril.”

“He was also very candid, and I think no matter whether you considered yourself a purist or a novice, when you talked coffee with Jim it didn’t take long to develop a great deal of respect for him and his opinions.”

While those opinions are now silenced and Mr. Karr never fully realized his latest vision for the future of coffee brewing, Mahoney says his friend was in a great place professionally.

“The last time I saw him, a couple of weeks ago, we talked a lot about how happy he was to be working in the coffee industry with the people he’s been able to work with over the years.”

Mr. Karr was, Mahoney added, doing “exactly what he wanted to be doing.”

A memorial for Mr. Karr is scheduled for June 20, but no details have been announced. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Mr. Karr’s name to the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

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