The following story originally ran in the winter 2024 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.

James Kroll ’12 believes “perfection is basically impossible” — but he also believes he once brewed the perfect cup of coffee that converted at least three people from non-coffee drinkers into black coffee drinkers. He brewed it “just by happenstance” with a French press while living in Yates First South as a first-year international relations major.

Kroll is now the owner of Column 15, a coffee shop in James-York Plaza on Merrimac Trail in Williamsburg with the slogan “The science of good coffee.” As you walk into the industrial space decorated eclectically with rugs, string lights and thrifted furniture pieces, the sounds of coffee beans being freshly ground and vibrant indie music flowing from the speakers meet your ears. Waves of students wash in and out of the lively café, drinking their coffee, hanging out with their friends and catching up on their classwork.

The science comes in as “a process of refinement and improvement and quality control,” Kroll explains. Making consistently great cups of coffee takes effort because “no coffee from any two regions is going to be exactly alike.”

There are many variables that could make a coffee taste different every time — from the growing temperature and the amount of rainfall the plants absorbed to the exact ratio of ground coffee to water when brewed. This is why Kroll and his team refine their roasts and techniques every season to make sure the customer experience is consistent year-round.

While Kroll “was always fascinated with coffee,” he grew up thinking he hated the beverage. He now chalks that up to not having quality coffee until he was 16 years old when he “tried fresh ground, fresh roasted, French-press coffee.” Now he hopes his coffee will inspire others to love it like he does.

Kroll founded the company in 2018 with another alumnus, Victoria Goldsby ’17, who has since left the company.

To ensure consistency in its coffee, Column 15 refines its roasts and techniques each season, as growing conditions change. At left, Kroll holds one of the company’s signature cold brews. (Photos by Alfred Herczeg)

“Starting Column 15 was both rewarding and challenging,” Kroll says. “I’ve always wanted to build something from the ground up; it was really just a question of what it would be.” After graduation, he worked at a Williamsburg gym and a car dealership. Reflecting on the amount of time he put into his jobs, Kroll asked himself, “Why not start something from scratch that you’re passionate about?”

Kroll’s original idea for Column 15 was for the company to be a roaster and wholesale distributor of coffee with a “third-wave” coffee shop as a location to taste the products. Being a third-wave coffee shop is important to the team because it means that all of their beans are specialty grade (the highest level), single origin, fair trade and organically sourced, and they pass along that education to their customers. The team chose Williamsburg as their location because they knew the area well and it fit their needs — a college and tourist town with a one-hour drive in each direction to a large city for wholesale distribution.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many of the wholesale clients backed out, but customers kept the business going. Column 15’s popularity increased with the opening of a temporary coffee bar in early 2020, then its current café in May 2021, augmented by regular appearances at farmers markets.

“When we started, I was working 80 hours a week, which was essential,” he says. As a business owner, he prides himself on his process around tackling new challenges. If a question comes up and he doesn’t know the answer, his process begins: research, learn, streamline and train.

What sets Column 15 apart from other coffee shops in the area is the cold brew.

Through Column 15’s single-origin, fair trade and organically sourced coffee, Kroll hopes to inspire others to love a good cup as much as he does. (Photo by Alfred Herczeg)

“Every coffee shop is going to have its focus,” Kroll says. “For us, what we focus on is the cold brew. We have the luxury of being able to design coffee from the ground up for the cold brew process itself. Think of a mixing switchboard in a recording studio. If you’re a brewer, you have one section of the board. If you’re a roaster, you have this other section of the board, and we have the whole thing. So, it was months of product development before we were happy with our first cold brew that we did, which was our Obsidian — still most popular by far.”

In addition to the cold brew, Column 15 offers coffee flights. Customers can choose to have the flight base be a latte or the nitro cream cold brew. These five-glass flights also have seasonal versions. For example, customers can try coffee that tastes like different cookies.

During summer 2023, Aramark became the food service provider on William & Mary’s campus. Prior to arriving, company officials scoped out the area to find local vendors and shops that they could highlight on campus. Aramark installed a scaled-down version of Column 15 in Swem Library, where students can grab a cup of coffee on their way to class.

Column 15 also takes part in the senior class gift mug deals, in which seniors receive a mug in exchange for a donation to William & Mary and can use the mug to take advantage of deals with business partners in the area.

As an alumnus, Kroll was excited to collaborate with William & Mary to create the W&M Collection of coffees, which was released in January. During 2023, the Column 15 team developed two new roasts and held a taste test in the Swem location, where current students would decide which one would be produced. After weeks of testing, the voting was tied. It was important to Kroll and the Column 15 team that the students choose, and they decided both would be produced. “Wren Twilight” is a Sumatra dark roast with notes of molasses and almond over a dark chocolate base, while “Griffin Green” is a mellow, medium-light roast with subtle notes of jasmine over a light, chocolate undertone made from Honduras beans. The W&M Collection will be available at Column 15’s cafés and online at, with plans to expand into other area stores.

In spring 2024, construction will begin to expand the shop to create a space where roasting, experimentation and development can take place to produce one to two new coffees per year. This growth also will lead to the ability to produce more coffee and expand distribution, letting more people discover and enjoy the scientific and creative Column 15 coffee.