Roasting with Mill City: Snowdrift Coffee
Roasting with Mill City is an ongoing series where we highlight companies using our roasters to build their business, make a difference, and roast delicious coffee.
There is such a thing as a coffee celebrity. They are the people who everyone seems to know, who folks turn to for advice, who’ve been around long enough to have the right answer to your particular question. They are the people who bring a level of legitimacy to any project they participate in, whose very name implies a certain expertise. If you travel to Roscoe, IL, you’ll find two such celebrities operating a full-service coffee education center, consulting business, and roastery. Their names are Rita Kaminsky and Ant Walach, and their business is Snowdrift Coffee.
A self-described “mom and pop coffee roasting company focused on quality and sustainability”, Snowdrift is a one-of-a-kind business model. Snowdrift was founded in 2018 when owners Rita and Ant decided to leave their homes of 20 years on the West Coast and return to their Midwestern routes. With them, they brought a collective 30 years of coffee industry experience and a desire to offer accessible barista, cafe, and roaster training to students from around the world. For production roasting practice and instruction, they chose the Mill City 10 kilogram roaster to install at their facility.
In an interview posted on Sprudge last year, Ant talks more about their goal for Snowdrift, their focus for education, and how they are seeking to engage underserved communities by offering free classes to coffee workers who are women, POC, and LGBTQ+. When we caught up with Snowdrift this week, our focus was on how they are adapting to doing business during a time of Coronavirus closures. With in-person training cancelled for most of the country, Snowdrift has placed its focus to roasting and providing whole bean coffee to their local customers, and offering free shipping and no minimums for people purchasing coffee through their website. They’ve also released a statement on Facebook explaining the steps they’re taking to stay clean and follow FDA guidelines to keep their facility safe.
Scroll down for our interview with Ant about Snowdrift, their choice to go with a Mill City roaster, and their journey in specialty coffee.
Mill City: What led to your decision to roast on a Mill City Roaster?
Ant Walach: I’ve roasted on many roasters over my career, different manufacturers and batch capacities (Probat, Loring, San Franciscan, Petroncini, Diedrich and Mill City). Before we were set on purchasing, we visited Minneapolis to speak with Steve Green and check out the facilities. We really connected with Steve’s vision of accessibility. He recognized that a high quality coffee roaster wasn’t being offered at a price point that small, start-up coffee roasting companies could afford. I was impressed with Mill City’s openness to receiving feedback from roasters in order to improve their product. They genuinely want to provide the best equipment and service to their customers. The team was very receptive to our needs and we felt confident we could maintain a good relationship with the company.
MC: Where did you learn to roast? What resources do you use to further your craft?
AW: My first learning opportunity was apprenticing to roast with Andrew Barnett a few months prior to the opening of Linea Caffé in San Francisco. I was roasting solo soon after opening and working closely with him on quality control and profile design. He taught me how to roast by feel, using my senses and letting the beans do what they do. Because of this, my preference for roasting is more analog; pencil and paper notes. I’m pretty sure I still have records of everything I’ve ever roasted.
I used SCA as a resource and attained a few of their certificates when they offered them: Roaster 1, Barista 1, Golden Cup Technician and Lead Instructor. My career path in coffee has always been based on the education side (trainer, department lead, etc.) so I naturally gravitated towards volunteering as an instructor at the annual Roaster Retreat and at other classes offered at events like Expo. All these opportunities have helped to make me a better roaster through the experience.
Volunteering as a Head Judge in both the US Brewers Cup Competition and the US Roasters Competition has also provided me chances to participate in sensory evaluations with other highly skilled coffee professionals. I’ve picked up a lot of pointers over the years across a cupping table.
MC: What was a roasting “A-HA!” breakthrough moment for you?
AW: My “A-HA” roasting moment happened behind an espresso machine! In the days when I was a barista, there wasn’t as much roasting theory information as readily available as there is now. More often than not, the excuse for a poorly executed espresso shot or pour over was placed on the barista’s human error. When I moved into the roasting side of the coffee industry, I was able to finally bridge that gap in my knowledge and recognize how both the roaster and barista are able to impact the final preparation.
I learned so much early on in my roasting career working bar with espresso I had roasted. Not only was I getting immediate feedback for my roasts, but I was also able to experience how easily (or not) these coffees were to dial in on a hectic, busy bar. I was able to improve my roasting skills by using this information to design profiles that not only produced the best version of the espresso profile we wanted to represent the brand, but also reduce waste by making it easy for baristas to dial in when they’re “in the weeds”.
MC: You receive a new coffee. How do you approach it? What factors lead to your decisions on adjustments during the roast?
AW: I’ll do a small test batch to get an idea of how the coffee responds to a production roast level. Starting with a generic set of time and temp benchmarks based on: green variety, density, processing, etc. We’ll cup the test roast and take it from there. I’ll adjust certain variables in the next roast to tweak or enhance specific qualities we experienced with the test batch on the cupping table.
MC: What is your favorite coffee to roast?
AW: I learned how to roast on coffees from Brazil and will always have a soft spot for them.
MC: What flavor on the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel best describes you, and why?
Rita: Under-ripe. I still have so much to learn and develop!
Ant: Other Fruit.
MC: Do you have any advice for new roasters?
AW: Record and taste everything! Get a feel for your machinery by cupping all of your roasted batches, especially the botched roasts. This can help make the connection into how specific manipulations on the roaster directly result in desirable or off-putting qualities of the final product.
Don’t just cup for quality control. The majority of your customers may be brewing coffee on an auto-drip brewer. Do you know what your coffee tastes like when it’s dosed out by sight?
I’m a very visual learner, so taking apart the machine during maintenance really helped me to understand the mechanics of roasting and roast theory and apply that to how I would manipulate the machine during production roasting.
MC: What would you like people to know about Snowdrift?
AW: We’ve designed Snowdrift Coffee to be an owner-operated business. It’s a real Mom & Pop two person roasting company without an interest in scaling up to something bigger. The level of attentiveness our coffee gets from two long term coffee professionals is not one many coffee roasting companies can offer.
The purpose of Snowdrift Coffee is to showcase the beauty of coffee and make it accessible to more people. We want our customers to have an elevated experience with coffee at an accessible retail price point. As an owner-operated company with the roasting facility on our property, we’re able to keep our overhead low. This allows us to pay more for green and charge less for retail, opening up a higher tier of coffee quality to casual consumers. We want to share the experience of that “first cup of specialty coffee”, most of us working in the industry can still remember that specific coffee that turned us on to this career path. We’re hoping that more people are able to experience that “WOW!” moment with some of our coffees because we are able to keep our pricing affordable to our customers.
MC: How have you changed your approach or focus in the past several weeks during the pandemic, in what ways are you continuing to do “business as usual” or do you have a new goal?
AW: Since we don’t have a brick and mortar storefront, we are focusing more on providing hand delivered online orders to our local community for quick turnaround. Our wholesale clients have been focusing on curb-side pick up during the pandemic. We have seen their retail sales increase, while their bulk needs have declined.
Everything is so uncertain at this time, so we can only speculate how we adapt once we’re on the other side of this pandemic. In the interim, the next phase of growth stays the same for us. We look forward to purchasing a food truck so we’re able to travel and bring delicious coffees to areas that are still under-served and lacking in quality coffee options.