Why Ralph Backstrom Gave Up Snowboarding For Coffee

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You won’t find elite snowboarder Ralph Backstrom on a mountain these days. Instead, he’s focused on a new gig: running his own small-batch coffee roaster.

Pro snowboarder Ralph Backstrom has not strapped into his snowboard since April 3, 2017, when he took a dramatic, high-speed tumble down Verbier, Switzerland’s infamous Bec de Rosses slope. It was the final competition run of the season in that year’s Freeride World Tour and although Ralph didn’t know it at the time, that run would mark a major transition point in his life.

That same year, due a variety of reasons, Ralph—the 2013 Freeride World Tour champion and a two-time winner of the Verbier competition—lost his three highest-paying sponsors, The North Face, GoPro and Smith. “Once my sponsors were no longer paying the bills, I had to figure out what would,” Ralph said. So he figured it was time to switch gears, put his snowboard away for a bit while he focused on his next career move. In summer 2018, Ralph and ski racer Travis Ganong did something you might not expect from professional athletes: They opened Pacific Crest Coffee, a storefront coffee bar and small-batch roaster in Truckee, California.

Ralph’s interest in coffee began years ago when his brother, Arne Backstrom, a pro freeskier, got into roasting his own coffee beans. As a Christmas present in 2009, Arne gifted Ralph a pound of green coffee beans—the unroasted seeds of coffee cherries—which they roasted at home in a pot on the stove. “It didn’t taste very good,” Ralph said. “I didn’t roast again for a while after that, but Arne kept at it.”

Less than a year later, in June 2010, Arne died in a fall while skiing a high-altitude peak in Peru. He was 29. The loss devastated his close-knit family. Arne, Ralph and their sister, Ingrid Backstrom, also a pro skier, came from a ski-loving family from Washington. As kids, the three Backstroms learned to ski at young ages and grew up to dedicate their lives to winter sports, with all three pursuing pro-level skiing and snowboarding as careers.

Former pro snowboarder Ralph Backstrom makes coffee.

Ralph Backstrom makes a pour-over coffee at his new shop in Truckee, California.

A love of coffee was another common thread in their family. “Arne always wanted to break things down to the most basic level,” said Ingrid. “Whatever he was into he wanted to figure it out, do it himself and understand it, and that included coffee. That inspired Ralph. I know that Arne’s attention to detail, his ‘anything worth doing is worth doing well’ mentality certainly has informed Ralph’s coffee business at every level.”

Ralph eventually acquired Arne’s stovetop coffee roaster and while grieving the loss of his brother, he found himself tinkering with home roasting. “It was definitely a way for me to remember and feel close to Arne,” Ralph said.

By 2016, Ralph, still in the midst of his flourishing pro snowboard career, was making his own nitro cold brew coffee, which he first sold to a food truck at the base of Squaw Valley ski area in California, then to a number of Tahoe-area restaurants and markets. But still, the coffee habit was more of a side gig. “It’s hard to make money snowboarding and it’s also hard to have enough time to launch a business while you’re snowboarding,” Ralph said. “I kept thinking I could do both.”

Ganong, a U.S. Ski Team member who’s known Ralph for years, is now an investor and partner in Pacific Crest Coffee. “I always knew Ralph was really into coffee, but back then it was more of a hobby,” Ganong said. “I remember talking to him about how as athletes, we should use the sponsorship dollars currently coming in—that weren’t going to be coming in forever—and put those dollars to use to control our own destinies.”

Ganong began stopping by Ralph’s house in Squaw Valley to drink his cold brew coffee. “I had never tasted coffee so delicious. For me, that was the moment when I knew I wanted to go in on this venture with him,” Ganong said.

After he lost his main sponsors, Ralph needed to look forward to his next career, one that would support him in a more sustainable way than snowboarding ever had. So he decided to go full-time into the coffee business. Inside the Truckee headquarters of Pacific Crest Coffee, you’ll find Ralph making Americanos or pour-over coffees or roasting beans every day of the week. He can’t afford to skip a day, he said. Ganong is still focused on his ski racing career and traveling for the World Cup, but he hopes to eventually be more involved in the day-to-day operations in Tahoe.

Ralph hasn't snowboarded in over a year because he's been doing this seven days a week.

Ralph is still learning how to run his own business. He recently hired a barista to help operate the espresso machine. And although promoting himself was always his least favorite part of being a pro snowboarder, he’s using the marketing skills he acquired as an athlete to help bolster his new gig. Mainly, he’s just happy to finally be making coffee full-time. “I’ve been thinking of opening a coffee business for years and years, so it feels good to finally be here,” he said.

One thing he hasn’t had time for yet? Snowboarding. The winter season is fully underway in Tahoe now and yet Ralph hasn’t been on the mountain a single day this season and he didn’t snowboard at all last year. He said he’s excited to get back to snowboarding at some point, but he can’t afford to step away from the business during this important early phase.

“He put his heart and soul into snowboarding for so long and I think he was just ready to put all that energy into something else,” said Ingrid, who calls Ralph’s coffee among the best she’s ever tasted. “I absolutely know he will find joy in snowboarding again once he feels free to do it on his own terms and not have his career and livelihood depending on it. … Snowboarding will always be there waiting for him when he is ready again.”

In addition to the cafe, Pacific Crest Coffee recently launched a new subscription service, where you can sign up to receive beans delivered to your doorstep on a weekly or monthly basis.

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