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 address: 1552 Beach Street, Unit T, Oakland
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
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.