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10 Questions with Front Coffee Roasters

Front is a tiny new San Francisco microroastery in Portrero Hill that sits, well, at the front of a San Francisco start-up that has made good by bringing together eggheads from the worlds of design, film, robotics, and visual arts. Autofuss is a design/production company that uses repurposed auto manufacturing robots to shoot commercials for clients including Google, Jambox, Chevy, and Louis Vuitton. Like all hardworking, design-geeky entrepreneurs, the brains behind Autofuss wanted better-than-average coffee to keep the engines of industry turning. Rather than invite an existing coffee slinger into their space (like Amazon did with Victrola in Seattle, or like Facebook did with Philz Coffee in SF), the principles of Autofuss, Randall Stowell and Jeff Linnell, did one better and started their own microroastery. Now Front fronts the eclectic studios of Autofuss.

Front

Photo courtesy of Autofuss

The teensy cafe has a few seats, but is mostly standing-room only, with Deutsche beer garden tables on the sidewalk. On nice days, a garage door rolls up to reveal the entire space. It’s built on the footprint of what used to be an industrial loading dock.

While Stowell and Linell are responsible for getting Front out of the harbor in 2012, the captain of the coffee ship is Ian McCarthy, who has been roasting for just over a year in the space. (The retail cafe opened in summer 2012). McCarthy first came to coffee when his grandparents threw him into the kitchen of their Italian-American restaurant at the ripe age of twelve. “My shift drink was either bad Italian-American restaurant espresso, or sparkling water with as many dashes of bitters as the barkeep would let me have,” he McCarthy. The year between high school and university, he had his God Shot moment: “I found an espresso that was better than any I had ever had at a cafe in Portsmouth, NH, called Black Bear. I wanted to be close to it. I demanded a job on the spot. A few months later, I was managing the cafe.” He went on to work at Metropolis in Chicago before relocating to the Bay Area.

Website: http://www.frontsf.com/
Visit: 150 Mississippi St., San Francisco. Open daily, 8am-4pm.

10 Questions

What inspires your roastery and your roasting?

The idea behind the coffee program at Front is to give gracious, honest hospitality while operating technically at the highest level possible. We sweat everything. This isn’t a large space, and we have a tiny roaster. The folks at Sterling, in Portland OR, (who started on a one-pound San Franciscan, operating out of a kiosk the size of a generous mop-closet), were big inspirations for me when I was presented the idea that was to become Front. They were as good a proof-of-concept as I was going to get, and they are killing it to this day.

Front

Photo courtesy of Autofuss

Our roasting philosophy is to highlight the intrinsic qualities of the bean; the things that make it unique—variety, processing, geography. Terroir. In the end, this means having a light touch. I want our our coffees to be reflections of time and place, and have an energy like a tightly-coiled spring. To get technical, we roast our coffees for non-pressurized brewing in the city to city+ development stage range, usually for 10:30 to 11:20 minutes, dropping the coffee when the bean probe measures about 400-403F.

Single origins vs. blends: Which wins in a fight to the death?

The blends v. single origin question is an interesting one, and one I think roasters look at a little too narrowly. Why limit the question to political geography? I think we need to look at coffee through all possible lenses—processing, geography, varietal, etc.—to really have a complete picture of what we like or dislike about coffee. Do you love Kenyan coffee, or do you love SL-28? How many non-Kenyan SL-28 have you had? In particular, I am inspired by the work of an Alsatian winemaker, Marcel Deiss. Marcel grows the noble grapes of Alsace: riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, and muscat. Normally, though not always, these grapes would be vinified separately, and you would simply buy a bottle of Pinot Gris from vineyard X. Marcel has a thought here, though—what if your conception of the vineyard in fact gets caught up in the variety? You think you are tasting vineyard X, but really you are tasting the qualities inherent in pinot gris in general. Now, you can of course drink lots and lots of pinot gris from Alsace and elsewhere and know what it is all about, which you should, but for Marcel it is more effective to see the vineyard from multiple angles simultaneously in order to see its full realized potential. He will vinify all of the grapes together and create a field blend. The idea is that when you eliminate the lens of varietal, you see the terroir for what it really is. If and when I blend coffees, its is with an approach inspired by this mentality—there has to be a concept behind the aesthetic. It has to give you some insight into one or more of our variables. Putting together a Bourbon from Rwanda with one from Brazil, roasting a single-origin espresso to three different roast levels, blending three different processing methods from a single estate—these are the sort of combinations that I think offer us insight into the breadth of variation and nuance inherent in coffee. Putting together an Indonesian coffee for earthiness, and a Costa Rican for brightness, so I can chase some idea of “balance,” this is less interesting to me. I am looking for the edge of things, less so the center.

Sipping

Photo courtesy of Autofuss

We have a one-kilo Probat, and are moving up to a 15-kilo Loring Smart Roast shortly. I have more experience on Diedrich roaster, particularly the IR-12. From a R+D perspective, roasting on a one-kilo roaster is wonderful. From the perspective ofproduction, it is a nightmare.

Sustainability is something you think a lot about. Was that the rationale for deciding to buy a high-efficiency roaster like the Loring?

More than anything, I am realizing just how dirty and inefficient these pretty, old , German, fire-breathing beasts are. As lovely as an old Probat is from a roasting and aesthetic perspective, they are hardly sustainable. As much as my hair still stands on end when I tell people I am about to buy an air roaster, there is no way I can justify the footprint of either exhaust or afterburner anymore. Coffee Collective in Copenhagen is doing game-changing work using air roasters; this proves to me that new-fangled technology can be just as good if not better than the old roasters.

How did you get started roasting?

My roasting experience started in a tiny apartment in Chicago, using a hand-cranked popcorn popper, a stones throw away from Metropolis where I was working as a barista. Chris Schooley, the roaster and green buyer at the time, had an infectious dedication to roasting that ended up pulling more people than me into the craft. He was tremendously helpful, giving me spare green samples from importers, and letting me put my awful Whirly-Pop roasts on his cupping table.

Tell us about the most memorable coffee you’ve had.

There have been too many memorable cups to count. Like many people, I think it was probably a natural-processed Ethiopian coffee (fruit bomb!) that made me do my first double-take. Everything seemed possible after that.

Espresso or filter?

I am a big filter proponent. Occasionally, espresso preparation gives me the chance to see a facet of a coffee I would otherwise not experience. More often than not, I think non-pressurized brewing is the clearer lens through which to see a coffee. I drink much more coffee brewed with a Hario V-60 than anything else. I love the range of potential flavors possible with V-60s, almost as much as I love the range of opinions on how to use them.

Photo courtesy of Autofuss

What can I say about SF? I think there is as high a concentration of talent in this city as anywhere in the world. It is a flavor playground. It has me in its claws.

Preferred soundtrack for roasting?

Lots of jazz on the ones and twos. Sanders, Coltrane, Coleman, Sun Ra, Hamilton, Mingus. The same principles apply to roasting: Tension, dynamic range, and negative space. Sometimes too much is too much. Sometimes it is just enough.

Roaster Roundup: De La Paz Acquired by Four Barrel

When I interviewed Jason Benford of De La Paz Coffee Roasters in San Francisco for Left Coast Roast, we talked among saw horses. At the time—way back in early 2011—the company was planning to open a new cafe modeled on a nieghborhood bar—lots of counter stools, no obvious place to stand in line, lots of wood. As the book went to the print, we ended up pulling out a few sentences that described the space. De La Paz was running way behind schedule and it hadn’t opened yet. (It’s never good form to write about something that hasn’t happened yet in a book, our most permanent of literary forms—well, after petroglyphs).

Fast forward to early 2013. De La Paz still hasn’t opened a cafe, though they have been roasting coffee out of the half-finished SOMA-neighborhood space for the last two years, and have a cart out front. I was puzzled as to why until I stumbled on this recent article from Eater SF. Turns out Benford was trying to juggle two businesses, coffee and woodworking, and it was just too difficult to do both. Instead of let De La Paz go belly-up, though, he approached the folks at Four Barrel about a friendly takeover. Here’s more:

Four Barrel owners Jeremy Tooker, Jodi Geren, and Tal Mor…are planning to build out a new cafe in the company’s Mission St. roastery. Geren spoke to us about the Four Barrel group’s plans for their newest acquisition: “We want [De La Paz] to be a side project that’s different from Four Barrel, and focused on a different kind of coffee. While Four Barrel is focused on single-origin coffees, De La Paz will be focused on blends…we’re really excited to do this other kind of coffee, that focuses on sweetness and body.” … The Four Barrel team’s next task is building out a cafe in the De La Paz roastery, a project Benford had already embarked upon with Seth Boor of Boor Bridges Architecture, but had yet to complete.

So, another exciting project from Four Barrel, which is just on a roll these days.

LA Coffee Tour: G+B

Two weeks ago, I spent a whirlwind 36 hours drinking coffee in Los Angeles. Coffee touring is well-matched to a sprawling place like LA, an excuse to ramble around a strange city with purpose. Part of being enamored with LA’s coffee scene, I know, was just having a “way in” to a place that otherwise feels mostly incomprehensible to me (strip malls? everywhere?). The longer I’m attached to it, the more I’m forced to concede that coffee is a club, with it’s own coded language and markers of belonging. But in a foreign place, it’s wonderful to have symbols to lean against.

The Angelenos have been gunning for the mantle of “hottest coffee city” for a while now. Perhaps it was all the sunshine, but I may be ready to concede them the title. With only a day and half, I didn’t get to a fraction of the places on my list (there are so many!). Those I did visit charmed me immensely. My undisputed favorite was G+B.

G+B

It took me almost half hour to unlock the mysteries of the food menu at G+B’s patron-partner, the inspired SQIRL, and get down to the task of ordering coffee. I couldn’t do it on my own. Instead, Charles Babinski (he of the “B”),  gently escorted me out of my helplessness to an order of brussels sprouts with egg and toast with “blubarb” jam. (I’ll get back to those in a minute.) I asked him to recommend something special in the drinks department, something I would be unlikely to find elsewhere. He was gracious in his reply: “We pride ourselves on doing the regular things really well.”

Pure, yes, but not puritanical.

So nothing fizzing or foaming, or called “Geisha.” At G+B, there are scales and refractometers, but they’re refreshingly out of sight.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not above gimmicks. But Babinski and his partner, Kyle Glanville, achieve magic without them. They manage to be pure without being puritanical. Ferreting out the best coffee, from a predictably small list of roasters around the country, they take time with each to find exactly where it sings. Each coffee they serve is served only one way—the way they can make it maximally delicious. Heart‘s Ethiopia Yukro was the best cold brew I’ve ever had (“Really?” asked Babinski, as if sad for me). It’s a bright coffee to start, and the refreshing citrus came through loud as a bell on ice, but then it resolved into a syrupy caramel that ran to the end of the block and back.

In the “different” department, Babinksi did acquiesce a bit and steer me to their almond milk cappuccino (the nut milk is made in-house). I loved it, but to really do the drink justice you’d have to rename it. Call it amandine, or anything to keep people from dismissing it as an ersatz substitute, when really it’s a whole new thing. Almonds are an especially oily nut; when soaked in water before being ground, the oils pass easily into the water to make “milk”. It went together with espresso in a masculine way, emphasizing its heavier, folksier qualities. If a regular cappuccino is dreamily looking up at clouds, the almond-milk version is hands-stuffed-in-your-pants-staring-at-a-country-road. The nut milk had an earthy sweetness, thinner than cow’s milk but heavier on the tongue, with just a touch of grit. Unusual for a coffee drink, it was actually thirst-quenching—like horchata, but without the teeth-numbing sweetness. (The espresso was Epic, from 49th Parallel.)

In conversation, Glanville mentions that they are toying with the idea of pre-sweetening lattes for those who want them that way. Think Dunkin’ Donuts: “Two milks, one sugar.” Despite the protestations of coffee purists, 95% of people that buy a latte put sugar in it. “So why don’t we determine the optimal sweetness of a drink and do it for you?” asks Glanville. It’s a fine question.

Perhaps I loved G+B so much because coffee isn’t even the main attraction. That honor goes to Jessica Kaslow’s SQIRL—a sort of magic workshop where small bites are transfigured into big flavors. Toasts, jams, “two-faced” sandwiches, and bowls of veggies. I have never had a better bowl of Brussels sprouts. The blubarb (blueberry rhubarb) jam was sweet for my taste, but still made a fine duvet for a thick, pillowy slice of bread.

If you don’t like affogado because you think it’s an affront to coffee, I don’t want to be your friend.—Babinski

Kaslow lends space to G+B (it’s kind of a “pop up”) but their contract is up in April. The tenuousness of the project is unquestionably part of its charm—the whole thing feels of a particular moment. Even the space has the feel of serendipity and impermanence. Pure, but not puritanical. It doesn’t look like a typical cafe—if anything, it reads more like a New York lunch counter. It’s narrow and cobbled together. The geometrical blue paint is chipping, the metal shelves behind the bar are cluttered. There are no tables, anywhere. Inside are two small counters where you can take a stool and assume the position of a regular. Outside, on a shaded patio, it feels otherwordly. Svelte birds preen, perching their plates and drinks and bangles on too few, too small stools. Eating in the sun? Makeup for breakfast? Bracelets? I’m not from a sunny, sophisticated place—it’s all too romantic. I love it.

Babinski and his partner, Kyle Glanville, were stoic about what might come next. Possibly, an extension of the lease. They are looking for permanent cafe space, but G+B has proven more successful than they envisioned. Whatever it is, I’m in.

 

 

 

10 Questions with Entimos Coffee Roasters

Entimos Coffee Roasters is a collaboration between Matt Dittemore and Tim Tubra. Northwesterners by birth and by inclination (they were both steeped in Portland’s coffee culture in the early 2000s), they now call Sacramento home.  Matt and Tim began as home roasters (Matt in 2002, and Tim in 2009), but after exchanging notes and critiquing each others’ coffees, they began to collaborate.

"We'd kill for good coffee."

“We’d kill for good coffee.”

“I began this competition between myself and the coffee I was roasting,” says Tubra, “I wasn’t satisfied until I knew I’d found the perfect profile.” Friends and family took notice and began placing orders. With enthusiastic encouragement from their community, the duo formed Entimos in 2011 and began their fledgling business.

For now, Entimos is a tiny, roast-to-order operation. In addition to a small slate of individual coffees for sale online, customers can also sign up for three-month subscriptions, with coffee delivered once or twice a month. As a small operation, they roast only once a week and regularly update their website with their offerings. (Subscribers can expect to see 4-5 different coffees over the course of three months, so there are some repeats.) Beans are always shipped within 24 hours of roasting.

But there is at least one place you’ll soon be able to grab a cup of “the divine draught” on a Sunday morning—at the church where Dittemore serves as a pastor. He’s sharing the gospel of coffee with his congregation: “We are just starting to serve Entimos at the church. We want it to be a true representation of what our coffee is. We are in the process of changing over the equipment—it was pretty bad—which involves training the wonderful volunteers that make it in the morning.”

Might they expand in the future and consider a retail shop? It’s probably a long ways off. “We know that starting and running a retail space would be a large undertaking,” says Tubra. “Our focus is very much in roasting great coffee and we want to keep that our main priority.”

Website: www.entimoscoffee.com
Twitter: @entimoscoffee

10 Questions 

What inspires your roastery and your roasting?

The same bean roasted one day will taste different the next; from one brew method to another it will develop subtleties in flavor. There is no single cup that is the “best” coffee. This is what makes coffee so exceptional. One of our main goals is to help educate consumers about the differences between origins and assist them in recognizing different characteristics in each cup. While we enjoy a good blend, single origins are our main focus right now.

Diedrich IR-1What kind of roasting equipment do you use and what do you love about it?

We roast on a one-of-a-kind, white Diedrich. When we started we tried several different roasters but ultimately fell in love with this machine. It gives us full control over both airflow and gas pressure, important determinants of the roast profile. Apart from producing phenomenal coffee, it’s just so gorgeous to look at.

How would you describe your roasting style?

Knowing that it’s possible to roast a Kenyan and a Colombian very “dark” and have them taste essentially the same, we tend toward the lighter end of the spectrum. We want to give our customers a taste that showcases the particulars of each coffee’s origin and the farmers who grew and processed it.

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?

Tasting Wrecking Ball's Kenya GatugiSeveral months ago we roasted a coffee from Nyeri, Kenya. It was processed at the Gatomboya co-op wet mill in Mathira, Nyeri. After dropping the beans into the roaster, we gradually brought up the heat. Just before first crack, we charged the temperature. We finished the roast just after first crack. It made a very delicious drip that was full of strawberries, but the single origin espresso that came from that bean was out of this world. We miss that coffee a lot!

What does Entimos mean?

Entimos is an English transliteration of a Greek word that carries the connotation of “esteemed,” “honored,” “held in high regard,” and “valued.” It encapsulates much of what we want our coffee to be. Being a student of the Bible, Greek is a language I [Matt] love. I took several years of French in high school but I don’t remember much of it—and “honoré” doesn’t have the same ring.

Do you have a favorite way to make coffee?  We have a mausoleum of coffee brewing devices and it seems like our preferences change all the time. If we had to pick one “go to” method right now? It would be a lovely pour over in a Chemex using Able Brewing’s Gold Kone.

What do you love about the coffee scene in Sacramento?

Without a doubt, we love the fact that it is growing.  For a long time, San Francisco was the closest place to get good coffee.  Specialty coffee has exploded in Sacramento in the last few years. The sense of community between roasters and coffee shops has been awesome. It is a privilege to be a part of it.

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

Hearing the positive responses from those who drink our coffee. Seeing people enjoy the coffee experience as much as we do is phenomenal. Being a part of the coffee community and experiencing the camaraderie there has been very fulfilling. How could there be a “worst thing”? We are doing what we love!

Preferred soundtrack for roasting?

Tim enjoys beats like RJD2 and Matt occasionally gets down with any kind of bluegrass. It just depends on which one of us is roasting.

Finally—and I’m dying to hear this—what’s the story behind that awesome photo of you being arrested for brewing coffee?

Tim: We wanted to enter the Able Xtreme Kone contest [a competition for the best brewing recipe for the Able Kone filter, along with a photo of Kone brewing that is “extreme, creative, and extremely creative”]. We thought it would be a killer idea to have a picture of us being arrested for brewing coffee. After many failed attempts to stage a photo with our buddy who is a police officer, we had all but given up on the idea. I [Tim] was driving home just an hour before the contest deadline. I was stopped at a light and looked to my right and saw the officer. I rolled down my window, got his attention and asked if he had 15 minutes to spare and wouldn’t mind taking a photo with me and my buddy for this coffee contest. He obliged and I had him follow me to Matt’s house. Hilarity ensued. Matt’s neighbors couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Matt: I was almost asleep when I got a frantic call from Tim informing me that he was three minutes from my house and had an officer following him. He told me to get dressed and get my Chemex and Kone FAST! Leave it to Tim to convince a cop to follow him somewhere in the middle of the night to pose for a picture.

Coffee at Home

Last week, I taught a beginner’s class on making coffee at home at 18 Reasons, the amazing community education space connected to BiRite Market in San Francisco. Ariel Soto-Suver, a reporter from the SF Bay Guardian, was there and took some wonderful photos of the class and wrote up a little piece about it. There were 24 people in the class and they asked great questions. Every single one of them deserved kudos for coming to a two-hour class on coffee at the very end of the day (7-9 pm!).

You can check out thumbs of the photos below, or see the whole gallery over on the Bay Guardian site.

It always a bit funny for me to do these events because on the one hand, I have achieved some definite next-level knowledge of coffee in the last couple of years. But I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means. Case in point: I almost never talk about coffee and make it at the same time. I totally underestimated how long it would take to make two carafes full of coffee using a V-60 pour over and got all flustered at the start of class (hopefully it didn’t show too much!). It took me a bit to work my way back to a comfortable rhythm, but everyone hung in with me. Troopers. Anyway, it put a fine point on what a demanding skill set it is to make coffee. It’s not difficult, exactly, but it does take quite a bit of practice and it’s very physical. I hadn’t been reminded of that in a long time — since I was last serving customers behind a coffee bar, over five years ago now.

Coffee at Home, Jan. 22 in San Francisco

On my visit to SF in January, I’m exciting to teach an intro class about making the most of coffee in your home:

18 Reasons
Tuesday, January 22nd, 7-9PM, Ticketed
Brew Methods: Coffee at Home
$25 for 18 Reasons members; $35 for the general public
Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/296796

We are hosting a primer on exploring coffee in your home kitchen. It’s easy to make drip coffee just as well as top cafes. We’ll focus on “slow coffee” approaches like French Press, pour over, and Aeropress. Find out what equipment is must-have and nice-to-have, and get suggestions for how common kitchen tools can help you get better results.

Throughout the class, we’ll discuss the complex flavors of coffees, talk about ways to develop a more nuanced palate, and explore how taste preferences differ. We’ll also touch on how roasting coffee at home (even just once!) is easy, inexpensive, and a great way to deepen your knowledge of coffee.

Coffee and Sustainabilty Panel, Jan. 21 in San Francisco

Sustainability is notoriously complex, embedded in deeply interdependent environmental, social, and economic contexts. And coffee, which must play convoluted games of global leap frog to get from farms into our cups, is no less tricky. The coffee industry, somewhat uniquely, has intertwined itself with sustainability at a deep level. But there are no easy answers.

When I was writing Left Coast Roast, the issue of sustainability was the thorniest, and therefore led to some of the most interesting conversations I had with coffee roasters.

I was interested in exploring how ideas about sustainability have changed in the last decade, and in hearing from both coffee roasters and academics on the issue. What is known about effective solutions? What are we still guessing at? Are quality and sustainability mutually reinforcing or do they conflict? I am grateful that the amazing folks at CUESA in San Francisco were keen to take up the topic and agreed to sponsor a panel discussion on it. Below is the description—I hope to see many people there.

Coffee and Sustainability Panel Discussion

Ferry Building, San Francisco
Jan. 21, 6 pm

Coffee is a daily necessity for many of us, savored quietly in the kitchen, downed at work as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, or sipped at a cafe among friends. With the exploding popularity of coffee in recent years, there are more options than ever, and more confusing messages about what “sustainable” means. Which coffee should we choose? In the Bay Area, you won’t find any coffee farms, but you will find local artisan roasters who are grappling with these questions, selecting their beans not only for quality and taste but also for values. Join CUESA for a discussion of the ethics behind a cup of coffee: What is its environmental footprint? Are the farmers taking care of the land? Are they getting a fair price, and what is the effect on the communities along the supply chain?

Hanna Neuschwander, author of Left Coast Roast: A guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle, will introduce the complexities of growing coffee and moving it around the globe. She will moderate the panel.

Panelists:

coffee-&-sustainability-flyer

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.

 

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.