#beacooldad with Tio Fallen

By Elizabeth Lepro

Tio Fallen stands in front of a stained glass window, wearing all white. His two older sons are on either side of him, and he holds his youngest son in his arms.

Tio Fallen remembers his grandfather’s kitchen in Decatur, G.a. 

Fallen’s grandfather, a Pentecostal pastor named Paul Grant, built the house himself. All the cabinets were hand-crafted, mid-century molding lined the papered walls, and the kitchen table was made from a repurposed whiskey barrel. One morning in that kitchen, Grant made coffee – boiled water, a few scoops of grinds, milk and sugar – and passed the cup to his grandson. 

“That was my first memory; him, in that moment, sharing a sip of coffee with me,” he said. Fallen’s grandfather also gave him his first trumpet in the third grade, which would inspire a life-long love of music and jazz. “I could talk all day about my grandfather’s influence in my life… I think that taught me a lot of lessons about perseverance and hard work and being dedicated to something.”

Today, Fallen is a full-time engineer with a wife and three children. In 2019, he and his wife Kenzel opened Three Keys Coffee, a craft roastery based in Houston. The name is based on the valves of the trumpet, and the roastery’s flavors and styles – with monikers like “Brazil Bossa Nova” and “The Quartet” – meld coffee and jazz. Three Keys also curates playlists based on roasts.

Tio sits on a bag of coffee beans with his two sons on either side of him. They are all smiling.

Fallen’s grandfather died not long before Three Keys opened. 

“After he passed away, it kind of gave me a little extra motivation. I thought of the life that he lived, the influence that he had. Not just on my life but on others’ as well,” Fallen said. “It gave me a moment of pause to reflect: what mark am I making? What can I do to incrementally make an impact on the world or have some sort of influence? Coffee can be shared with others, and with the way we approach it, I’m able to sort of be in people’s homes and share in something that is enjoyed.” 

We caught up with new CoolxDad member Fallen to talk about wrestling imaginary werewolves, music, and, of course, coffee.

How do jazz and coffee play off of one another?

Jazz essentially represents my approach to coffee. It’s how I view coffee and metaphorically how I think coffee can be represented. This idea showcases itself through the Jazz + Coffee flavor wheel that my team and I created. Our reinvented coffee flavor wheel stylizes tasting notes in the form of a vinyl album on a turntable, using different jazz artists and music terms instead of traditional coffee industry flavor terms to describe coffee “notes.” 

 A corner of a tin of coffee beans next to a roll of stickers featuring the coffee flavor names.

Such a cool idea. Tell us about how that came to be.

The wheel is derived from music theory’s circle of fifths and is overlaid with sensory expressions that are synonymous with both jazz and coffee.

What are you listening to right now? 

There’s an Apple Music Afro Jazz playlist that I’ve been listening to a lot lately and, as a result, I’m finding out about artists like Bkani Dyer, SPAZA, Sons of Kemet, and Mandisi Dyantyis. 

I’m also a big fan of the contemporary trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and his recent albums ‘Axiom’ and ‘Ancestral Recall.’

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to Miles, Dizzy, Clifford, and Lee Morgan. Honestly I could go on and on.  

In an interview with Daily Coffee News, you said:

“I think there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of welcoming more Black and brown customers into specialty coffee… For example, many people in Black and brown communities enjoy dark roasts, which come with a bit of a stigma in certain specialty circles. The more welcoming we can be to a wider spectrum of what ‘good’ coffee can be, the more we can include those from traditionally underrepresented groups.” 

Can you talk about how you feel you’ve been able to accomplish this so far through Three Keys? 

Looking back on that statement I think I lost sight of the fact that it’s not just Black and brown communities that enjoy dark roast. For the most part, the wider community enjoys it. So what I’ve realized is that for a lot of people, Three Keys is potentially their first experience tasting specialty coffee. With that is an intentionality for offering flavors that are familiar yet elevated. Many specialty and craft coffee roasters completely shy away from offering dark roasts because it burns out the inherent flavors, acidity and sweetness of the bean. Conversely, most mass-produced commercial coffee companies (Starbucks, Folgers, etc) dark-roast their coffee. Our goal is to appeal to the wider audience by curating a diverse coffee program that appeals to many preferences. 

In doing so, we’ve gotten compliments like the time when we received an email from someone who said that our coffee was the first full cup of black coffee that she was able to drink. My favorite compliments come from experiences where our coffee is enjoyed by a parent or grandparent and they’re blown away by its complexity. For years they’ve had a singular perception of coffee and in one sitting we’re able to completely widen that perception from bland, bitter, and astringent to flavorful, sweet, bright, and melodic.

When it comes to the landscape and the lack of representation on the coffee-roasting side, in terms of Black business owners, that was something I wanted to pursue. I wanted to essentially build something that people could look at and say ‘that’s different.’ We have this coffee concept that has resonated with people across all cultures and all walks of life.

Tio, wearing an orange sweatshirt and a ballcap, scoops coffee grounds.

Your grandfather had such a huge influence on your life. How do you try to emulate what he taught you when it comes to being a role model for your own sons? 

Yeah, my grandfather is probably the most influential person in my life. He introduced me to my trumpet, and instilled in me the value of education, hard work, and persistence.  All of those qualities have benefited me immensely in my life endeavors and have shaped the way I father my kids.  

So I emulate that through an outpouring of love and support for my sons. One of the many important things about my relationship with my grandfather was our bond and deep mutual respect and I try to build that with my kids by being consistently present, available, and making thoughtful connections with them. 

Tell us about your sons!  What personalities are starting to develop? Has your oldest tried coffee yet?

I have three sons (my three keys!) named Zane (age 5), Kaio (age 3), and Luca (3 months). 

Zane is the typical oldest child, trying to always be the leader. He has a competitive spirit but also likes to be silly and have a lot of fun. Kaio (or Kai, as we call him) is the quiet, observant one. He is comfortable being a follower to Zane but also doesn’t take any crap and will put his foot down and be the influencer sometimes. And Luca isn’t doing too much at his age but one thing he’s started doing recently is smiling and laughing. If I just look at him, he lights up.

My middle son, Kai’s, favorite beverage is a “coffee soda.” I give him sparkling water with a splash of coffee. One time I poured a bit too much coffee in though and he was up all night! I haven’t made that mistake again. Zane and Kai love to collect coffee beans and Zane even created his own company, the Coffee Caboose. 

Tio sits on a curb with his sons in front of a chain link fence. While his sons have their back to the camera, he turns toward it, smiling slightly, wearing a black ballcap and a brown jacket.

What is the most underrated – but totally necessary – Dad skill?

Dads have quick reflexes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to catch a falling kid, block a toy from hitting someone in the head or jump quickly to avoid spraining an ankle on a Lego. Dads are also very good at wrestling imaginary werewolves and monsters to protect the household and keep the family safe. 

You’ve traveled to a lot of coffee origin locations – Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala. What’s been your favorite travel destination so far?

This is a tough one. Not sure if I have a favorite but maybe most memorable would be Bali, Indonesia. I’d say this trip was memorable because it was the first time I roasted coffee, in a small pan over an open fire pit.   

Tio is just getting involved with CoolxDad, but Three Keys has already partnered with one of our favorite community partners, Mo’ Better Brews. Check out the result of their collab here!

Tio's toddler son sits on the windowsill, smiling and holding his hands out to his father's face.