How 3 Specialty Coffee Roasters Got Their Start


[Photo: Liz Clayton]

We all know there's something beyond getting coffee to taste a particular way than just how it's grown, or how we brew it. The way a roaster approaches the practice of roasting—their own unique combination of graphs and data points, training and experimentation, computers and science, feel, smell, and intuition—has everything to do with what you taste in the cup. We took some time with three influential roasters in the specialty coffee industry to talk a little bit about how they got into roasting to begin with, and where they've taken it now.

Andrew Barnett (Linea Cafe, San Francisco)


[Andrew Barnett roasting for Linea Cafe Photo: Ant Walach]

When was the first time you realized coffee roasting was a job? Probably walking into Espresso Vivace. I was a client of theirs in 1994, and they had this little 12 kilo Probat behind the espresso bar at their Capitol Hill location. I was going to open a coffee bar and I wanted to carry Vivace and I thought "wouldn't that be awesome someday to roast coffee." I trained as a dinner chef, so I liked to do that sort of thing, and coffee was an extension of cooking, cooking coffee beans instead of another food item.

And it smelled great, and looked like a lot of fun.

How long have you been roasting? I purchased a Diedrich IR12 in 1999 and that machine went online in 2000. I had two different people who were showing me how to roast, one was Willem Boot and one was Jen St. Hilaire. She had another gig in the Bay Area, so she was helping out with showing me how to roast coffee.

At that time I owned a little espresso bar in Santa Rosa, called Centro Espresso, and in the very beginning we were roasting coffee. We had a separate warehouse where the Diedrich was, and we had a sample roaster and an espresso machine, and stored our beans. We roasted, in the beginning, a couple of times a week. Slowly people asked to carry our coffee. But I thought it was fun! To me it was just another form of cooking. I can't think of anything else that smells better than freshly roasted coffee. Maybe popcorn, freshly baked apple pie? Being in a chocolate factory? But seeing this development take place over 10 to 16 minutes, that was just so satisfying.

In the beginning I was kind of nervous, this machine, only a 12 kilo roaster but it seemed big, scary to fire up. Was this coffee going to taste as good as what we were currently serving? We did some experiments and people really dug it, and it was lots of fun.

I had no idea about evaluating coffee and how to go about doing that, and I got really great advice from Willem Boot about how to evaluate green coffee, and that we needed to buy a sample roaster. Then in 2001 I tried a Cup of Excellence (CoE) coffee from Brazil. We cupped it and made it as espresso and it was great, it was so much better than this commodity garbage we were buying. That was an 'a-ha!' moment. It made me want to dig deeper, learn more about the Cup of Excellence program. As a roaster, I needed to know my ingredients.

Do you have a particular roasting style--either at the machine itself or in what results in the cup? People at the beginning said the roasts were too light! It took awhile for the industry to catch on, but that allowed me this opportunity to do a lot of experimentation in the roastery, get CoE lots in, sample roast 30 or 40 batches, cup them, have a lot of reps on the roaster, and do a lot of work on the espresso machine, where I could geek out. Had maybe the company been more successful early on we might have just been cranking out a lot of coffee!

A lot of the most satisfying moments for me are when we would invite people to cup our coffee, or at farmer's markets when people would ask us "where is the sugar?" and we'd suggest they taste it first, that we were trying to express the natural sweetness of the coffee, and they'd say "this is the sweetest coffee I've ever had". With Ecco coffee, we tried to express the natural sweetness that was in the bean. We also wanted our coffees to taste clean and balanced. I think that you're trying to create something that you enjoy drinking. You don't know whether other people are going to like it—you hope that. But for me I'm trying to create a cup of coffee I'd really enjoy.

What's the biggest challenge in contemporary coffee roasting for the growing specialty industry? There may be greater competition than ever for what I call the "rare, unique microlot" coffees—I think the price point for the unique lots, more people outside of the US with healthier economies with greater resources are purchasing these coffees? There's more competition. But at the same time, the farms, and more farmers are interested in doing a great job. And there are other factors just on the production level. Global warming is changing things, coffee rust disease. One of the biggest problems when I started roasting was the coffee prices, and a lot of farmers were abandoning farms in terms of it wasn't worth it, coffee prices were so low.

Steve Kirbach (Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland)


A Probat roaster in Stumptown's Portland roastery. [Photo: Steve Kirbach]

When was the first time you realized coffee roasting was a job? I first realized it was a job when Duane [Sorenson] first opened Stumptown. I used to stop by on my way to work in the morning, the coffee was fresh roasted, and they were serving French press, it was an eye opener for me.

How long have you been roasting? I started at Stumptown in 2001 but didn't start roasting for Stumptown until 2005, I had apprenticed earlier with the company but stepped back down to stay as a barista and just played around with home roasting.

Do you have a particular roasting style? I would say my roasting style is about integration. Even with a lighter roast I want the "treble and bass" of the coffee to be in concert. I have no idea how others describe my style, I would guess more intuition-driven than data driven.

What's the biggest challenge in contemporary coffee roasting for the growing specialty industry? I think there are many challenges. Everything is cyclical. There are a lot of conversations now about single origin espresso, and anti blend. That seemed to happening 11 years ago as well. I think that the coffee community tends to always demonize something, be it a processing method or a roast level instead of embracing it all and instead figuring out where each unique thing fits best.

I think that we help educate people, but a cafe is at its best expression when it's tied to its community and what that community wants and less about marketing what's hip or new. You have to have a balance.

Right now the general market is low, but coffee itself is fighting this huge roya issue. I wonder if coffee starts to climb in price significantly what the breaking point is for the consumer. How do you help educate so they realize the challenges these farms are experiencing and also that there should never be a dollar cup of coffee, its just crazy and not sustainable.

Trish Rothgeb (Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, San Francisco)


Trish Rothgeb, back in the day.

Who was the first person you met who roasted coffee? The guy who owned the roaster/retailer where I first learned how to roast was the first roaster person I met. He was not a roaster by trade. He was a guy who made a bunch of money in tech back in the 70s and 80s (Silicon Valley) and started a bunch of small businesses that he thought would be fun. One was a tanning salon and one was a retailer/roaster cafe.

How long have you been roasting? I've been roasting since 1990.

Do you have a particular roasting style? I am not so much of a gear-head when it comes to equipment. Most of my roasting hours have been on small-batch Probat drum roasters. I was also one of the first roasters to use the Loring Smart Roast, which as some know, is a type of hot air roaster. We used the beta model at Taylor Maid Farms about 10 years ago.

So I'm not really a hardware person: I'm more software. I am someone who has always tasted my own roasts without prejudice. I can make an espresso blend up on the spot or know exactly how to roast a new coffee without any trial batches, but it took me 20+ years to know how to do that on the spot. I waste no coffee in trial batches.

My style of roasting is pretty pragmatic. I roast most coffees within a small window of medium/light. I don't roast as light as some in this niche do, but I often get mentioned for roasting very light. When I started roasting lighter back in Oslo when I lived there 1999 to 2003, it was a new thing for Specialty. They've taken it much lighter since then. The way I roasted in 2001 would be called "dark" by Oslo 2013 standards.

(If I'm blending, it's going to be before the roast—not after—because I have never found any concrete reason to blend after roasting. The reasons other roasters give for that always sound great on paper, but when I roast it the way I like, I never see the evidence that it is necessary.)

What's the biggest challenge in contemporary coffee roasting for the growing specialty industry? The biggest problem is that there are a lot of roasters out there that never get any training aside from another more senior roaster showing you how to use the controls—this is not mentorship. I see teams of roasters not sharing information within their own roasteries and I see other roasteries with no one "in charge".

I also worry that, even though we have been talking a good game in the past few years, coffee people still don't want to pay attention to what the average non-industry non-insider cares about in coffee. People want sweetness and RICH and BOLD cups of coffee. Is it a crime to use those words to describe coffee? No, they make sense to the average coffee lover, these terms have meaning for those people. WE don't have to use those words ourselves, but we need to understand them. Don't get so caught up in the idea that your guests are unsophisticated or undereducated. They actually like coffee in the same ways you do. Acidity plays a supporting role... it's not our only mandate.