Archive for November, 2012

10 Questions with RoastCo

RoastCo is a bit of a dark horse in the Bay Area, quietly bringing together industry veterans with some serious beverage muscle. Alex Roberts began roasting in 1997 and went on to be the head roaster for Equator Coffee before founding RoastCo in 2008. Andrew Green is a sommelier and wine and spirits director of Bacchus Management, who brings connections in the Bay Area food world. Brad Joyce started roasting in 2006 and was the head roaster for Blue Bottle Coffee during a a significant growing spurt (who am I kidding?—it’s just been one neverending spurt for them; but I digress).

RoastCo manages to feature two of the original roasters from two of the Bay Area’s most successful coffee companies, and a veteran wine pro to boot. Impressive.

RoastCo is a wholesale company, and you’re most likely to encounter their coffees in an unexpected location: restaurants. Since the beginning, the company has focused on partnerships with chefs (something Roberts must have picked up from Equator, who produces designer coffee for top chefs including Thomas Keller). However, the roastery is open to the public and cuppings are held mornings, Monday through Wednesday. Their coffees are carried by numerous well regarded Bay Area restaurants, including Quince, Cotogna, and Spruce. (A full list of where to find their coffee is online.)

Roastery address1552 Beach Street, Unit T, Oakland
Phone: 501-658-2799
Good to know: Mon-Tu, 9-3; closed Saturday/Sunday; call ahead for hours W-Fri
Public cuppings: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 9 am

10 Questions

You’ve found a niche working with restaurants, which have a reputation for generally skimping on their attention to coffee. Can you talk a little about the opportunities and challenges of working with restaurants and why this is an area of focus for you?

We started as a roaster for restaurants, so it seemed natural to expand that way. We noticed that being willing to provide proprietary blends was beneficial; restaurants tend to appreciate having their own identity.

Trying to complement diverse menus can be a challenge, but it’s also a way to measure our success. We have our coffees on some celebrated menus in the Bay Area and we know that coffee drinkers will ask about a cup they really like no matter where they have it.

It’s important to us that the restaurant or café serving the coffee puts effort into making a great cup. We offer extensive free instruction for the staff of restaurants we call our partners. We have enthusiastic clients who do just about anything to serve great coffee. Recently, we even built a custom drip bar for a two-hundred seat restaurant.

The background of the company seems to be built to some degree on partner Andrew Green’s knowledge of wine. What’s the relationship between coffee and wine—how are they alike and different?

Coffee and wine are incredibly similar. Great wine is made in the vineyard; great coffee is made through the dedication of its farmers as well. Coffee cherries and wine grapes both both have inherent qualities that will come through in the glass, as long as they are prepared with care and finished with skill.

The major difference is that most wine makers control their product from start to finish, whereas we as coffee roasters have to depend on others to prepare coffee. This is the reason that many roasters have their own cafes and rigid standards.

What kind of roasting equipment do you use and what do you love about it?

We use vintage Probats. We have a UG-22, cast iron, built in the ’60s, and a GN-12 built in the ’80s. The GN-12 is not a pretty looking roaster like the 22, but it is cast iron, has a double-walled drum, and two banks of burners. We find it preferable to most L-12s. The 12 and the 22 operate similarly which allows us to be consistent.

How would you describe your roasting style?

The style is to avoid style. Being pigeonholed into one type of roasting would bar us from finding the great flavor in so many coffees. We’re looking for drinkability and balance in every cup. There’s a lot that goes into mapping out how different types of beans that are processed in different ways develop: Smelling, watching, listening, and evaluating the progress of each roast to get to a very specific point. That point is never the same in different coffees. We never want to burn out the flavor or fail to achieve it—you won’t taste smoky roastiness or sour grassiness in our coffee.

Tell us about the most memorable coffee you’ve roasted at RoastCo: Where did it come from? How did you roast it? What most excited you about it?

Every year we roast a very special coffee from Santa Elena, Honduras. The coffee is all grown by one small community, made up of a few families. They are the friends and family of Mayra Orellana-Powell, who grew up in Santa Elena and now lives in Alameda, a neighbor to where we roast here in Oakland. Alex helped Mayra import her coffee for the first time two years ago, and put her in touch with a local importer this year. We have first choice of the lots and take 80-90% of all the beans they grow. This year we were able to visit all seventeen micro-lots in Santa Elena, roast and cup each lot, and had first choice of the crops we wanted. We were also able to physically distribute profits and give input on infrastructure and quality improvements that will increase the volume, value, and desirability of this already amazing coffee. We feel very lucky to have this direct relationship and that makes roasting this coffee very exciting. It helps that it tastes incredible also. If you like rich chocolate caramel flavors in your coffee, check out our “Catracha.”

What’s your focus: single origins or blends?

Our focus is single origins. Even our blends are all created after roasting, so the focus is either on making the single origin perfect to drink on its own or to accentuate a particular aspect to make it stand up or stand out in a blend. Because of the diversity of our restaurant customers, we have a bunch of blends with slight variations, sometimes that’s a different ratio of the same coffees or the same ratio of differently roasted coffees, depending on the chef’s palate.  Alternatively we have restaurants like Spruce in San Francisco that have a combination of single origins and a blend on their menu. Where our roasters truly excel is in their ability to find that sweet spot where the sugars are caramelizing and still maintain the individuality and sweetness in every crop from every origin.

What do you love about the coffee scene in the Bay Area?

The enthusiasm for coffee in the Bay is overwhelming. The questions we’re asked on a weekly basis delve into every possible corner of sourcing, roasting, and preparation. The best thing about that is the standards are incredibly high and the appreciation matches. It’s great to be able to try new styles or perfect traditional methods and always be able to find someone excited about trying it, giving feedback, and coming back to see the progress we’re making. I suppose the simple answer is that the people here don’t think of coffee as a boring necessity and that allows us to be creative and give people something unique.

What’s your personal preference: espresso or filter? Do you have a favorite way to make coffee?

If you spied on us during any day of the week, you would probably see each of us take an espresso shot, have a cappuccino, and make a cup with a drip cone and/or a French press. We’re the guinea pigs for our customers, so we have a ton of ways to taste coffee here at the roastery, and we use them all. If it’s chocolaty and rich our first option will probably be the French press, bright lemony we opt for a Bonmac filter, and super fruity often works best in the Nel drip. One of us would be drinking the same coffee all day and someone else two or three different coffees. We love coffee and trying it in different ways, so the real question is, “What mood are you in right now?”

What’s the best thing about being a coffee roaster?

The best thing about being a coffee roaster is meeting amazing people. We meet Michelin starred chefs, budding and established entrepreneurs, farmers from places all over the world, and our neighbors who come in for a drink. It’s exciting to interact with so many different kinds of people who all have a common thread of appreciating coffee. We try hard to be diverse while maintaining simplicity. We try to roast great coffee that people want to drink. The rest is just chaff.

Preferred soundtrack for roasting?

A constant compromise. You could hear just about anything here. Whether it’s Brad’s satanic mishmash of Listo and Slayer, or Alex introducing Isao Tomita into the mix, the person who choses the playlist is constantly defending it against all comers. You can count on hearing good music here all day, how good just depends on which of us you ask.

 

Join me in Bellingham Friday, Dec. 14

I did almost all of the interviews for Left Coast Roast in person. One of the rare exceptions was Alex Mastema, the owner of Maniac Roasting in Bellingham. We just couldn’t get out schedules to line up, so I had to interview him by phone—but man, did his personality come across just fine. The man is oozing with it.

I am massively pleased that I’ll be meeting Mastema (finally!) in Bellingham in December, when I make a book tour stop in his hometown. Mastema is going to join me on stage at Village Books, for a conversation about coffee. Also joining us will be another fine man of coffee, Edwin Martinez. Martinez’s family hails from Guatemala, where they own coffee farms including Finca Vista Hermosa.  Edwin lives most of the year in Bellingham now and has played an important role in getting his family’s excellent coffees directly into the hands of  roasters. (I unexpectedly encountered it in Copenhagen this past summer, when I was visit on of that city’s finest roasters, Coffee Collective.)

Continuing in my efforts to keep this book tour from getting too boring, or too me-centric, Mastema and Martinez will help carry the evening. We’ll talk about how coffee is roasted and how it’s grown, and everything in between. We’ll also have samples of coffee roasted by Mastema and of those grown by Martinez’ family.

Please join me, coffee roaster Alex Mastema, and coffee farm owner Edwin Martinez at Village Books in Bellingham on Dec. 14.

Details: 
Friday, Dec. 14, 7 pm
In the Book Fare Café on the mezzanine level
Village Books, 1200 11th St., Bellingham
Join Hanna Neuschwander, author of Left Coast Roast, in conversation with Alexarc Mastema owner of Maniac Roasting, and Edwin Martinez, owner of Onyx Coffee Bar, both in Bellingham, as they talk about where coffee comes from, how it’s roasted, and the different roles that roasters and producers play. This free event will take place at Book Fare Café and will feature samples of different coffees.

Visit Village Books.

 

10 Questions with OneNinetySeven

OneNinetySeven is a microroastery based on Oakland, one of a growing number of small coffee operations in the East Bay that have opened since I did the research for Left Coast Roast.

For now, founder Eric Thoreson  primarily sells his coffee by mail in the fiercely competitive Bay Area coffee market. But he hopes to eventually open a café when the right space presents itself.

Thoreson made minor headlines this past summer with Rogue Café, an unpermitted breakfast pop-up meant to showcase ONS’s coffees. Having worked in kitchens for most of his life, Thorenson put together a brunch menu and before long was taking reservations and serving open-air meals in an urban garden (chicken coop included) in North Oakland. After a piece about the popup ran in the Berkeleyside community newspaper and neighbors complained, Thoreson was issued a cease and desist order from the city’s zoning department.

Those who are interested and on the ground in the East Bay can find their beans at at the Alchemy Collective, a worker-owned café in Berkeley by the Ashby BART station (Thoreson is one of the founding members).

Details

Website: http://www.oneninetyseven.com/
Email (for ordering): info@oneninetyseven.com
Alchemy Collective: 3140 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Berkeley

10 Questions

How did you start roasting?

OneNinetySeven began as a tiny roasting operation in the kitchen of my apartment during the winter of 2011. We had been dreaming about opening a roastery for some time, and were inspired by other small start-ups that just went for it, like Sterling Coffee in Portland, OR. After a brief back and forth with Steve Ford over at Ritual Roasters, we decided to purchase a sample roaster and get our feet wet. The excitement of starting a business flourished, so we picked up a used Diedrich shop roaster and applied for a business license.

What’s the story behind the name OneNinetySeven?

I love how clean numbers are, the way they carry so much information that goes unnoticed. We narrowed it to numbers in generally accepted brewing temperature range of 195–205. Anything prime was in, because we’re geeks—that left us with 197 and 199. The coffee world has these obsessive, boisterous followers who engage in intense arguments concerning brewing parameters. In one argument I came across on a coffee blog, someone made the claim that 197 was the perfect extraction temperature, period. It didn’t matter what coffee was being used, or how it was being brewed. Just 197. Perfection. We are chasing perfection, but we don’t expect to ever get there.

 What inspires your roastery and your roasting?

We are inspired by discovery. We really had no idea what we were doing when we started roasting coffee, despite years of working in the industry. Becoming aware of how little we knew was inspiring, and filling in the cracks of our knowledge continues to inspire us.

How would you describe your roasting style?

I imagine most would describe our coffees as medium roast, but that isn’t specific enough. Each coffee we roast is different, and thus roasted differently. Some coffees are kept very light because otherwise they lose everything that makes them special, while other coffees need some extra heat to bring out the sweetness and body. We’re all over the roasting spectrum, and what holds true for all the coffees is that we don’t burn things. If there’s one flavor we don’t want in our coffee, it’s charcoal.

Tell us about the most memorable coffee you’ve roasted: Where did it come from? How did you roast it? What most excited you about it?

Picking favorites is always difficult. The aromatics and floral qualities of some high-end Yirgacheffes really blew us away last season, while the balanced fruit and sweetness of our Colombian offerings have been satisfying to drink morning after morning. Chocolate covered apricots? For breakfast? Yes please. If I had to pick one coffee from this year that really gave me pause, it would have to be our Kenyan from the Tegu factory. Kenyan coffees tend to be prized for their complexity, and the well-rounded presentation of coffee flavors they offer. This coffee, in particular, was like drinking sweet tropical fruit punch laced with rose petals and lilies. Even at $40 a pound, I wish we had bought more.

What’s your focus: single origins or blends?

The majority of our offerings are single origins, but this is more of a trend than anything else. Blended coffee can be amazing, and many times is better than a single strain from a single farm, however some very weighty people in the industry argue that blends are composed of lower grade coffees and prefer the traceability of knowing exactly what farms their coffees come from. They are both good in my book, and it saddens me to see blends under attack.

What’s your personal preference: espresso or filter? Do you have a favorite way to make coffee?

I’ve always been an espresso drinker. I’m guessing this is because most filter coffee in this country has historically been dreck, but my tastes changed once I began roasting. It’s become a routine to stand in the kitchen with my Chemex each morning after breakfast, brewing up the leftovers from the previous day’s roast. Espresso is complicated, delicate and intense. I stopped putting milk in espresso years ago, but drinking it straight in the morning is like having a glass of whiskey just after rolling out of bed.

Talk about the coffee scene in the Bay Area.

Ten years ago it was hard to track down a decent cup of coffee, and now it’s hard to decide which roastery to visit. We’re hoping to open a shop just as soon as we find the right location.

What’s the best thing about being a coffee roaster? The worst (if there is a “worst”)?

I’d have to say the best thing about being a coffee roaster is the control over the final product it provides. The worst? A surge in competition? Rising prices?

Preferred soundtrack for roasting?

Our playlist is a bit eclectic. Most recently: Amy Winehouse, Arcade Fire, Beck, The Black Keys, Doc Watson, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, Van Morison, Muddy Waters, Billy Holiday, Gold Panda, The National.