Start, Scale, Sustain
Filtering the noise: Advice for the perplexed
There are a lot of absurd opinions expressed online and the commercial coffee roasting community is not immune. For those of you trying to figure this out as a business, it helps to keep in mind that people who roast for money fall broadly into two distinct groups.
Quite a few people start roasting commercially because it’s an easier gig. They buy the cheapest roaster, greens and equipment they can. They don’t pay for instruction and are convinced they know how to roast because their fresh roasted coffee is slightly better than stale gas station coffee. They’re more cunning than wise and will never earn enough money to figure out that a company can not cost cut its way to prosperity. They aren’t building brand equity. Their businesses aren’t scalable. At the height of their success, they’ll only own their job.
Harsh? Maybe, but if you aspire to more than this, you need to figure out who you’re listening to.
On the other side, you’ve got people that love coffee and coffee people and coffee consumers. They differentiate their businesses with cup quality and they’re trying to figure out how to do the best possible job with every green that comes their way.
These might be “old heads” like me on a second or third career doing what we love (for money) or young people that start in coffee behind a counter and are aflame with passion for an industry that sort of requires they become owners to ever have a shot at making enough money to buy a house and raise a family.
The problem is, this second group often gets sidetracked by chatter from the first.
Coffee roasting is excessively mysterious because there are so many people trying to do so many different things. You’re online and people you don’t know and/or whose coffee you have never tasted are opining about venting, combustion efficiency, drum construction size materials and speeds, BTU’s, thermocouple sizes and the relative merits of the shape of a derivative roast curve. Oi gevalt!
“Coffee roasting is excessively mysterious because there are so many people trying to do so many different things.”
Worse, if you haven’t yet spent a couple of years developing some chops, all of this sounds reasonable and serious and is expounded with great conviction and backed up with innumerable Wikipedia quotes referencing white papers written by 22 year old kids peer reviewed by 24 year old kids that think Starbucks Frappuccino’s are coffee. Hang around long enough and you’ll discover coffee has its very own social media driven Qanon level madness and Nexium worthy cults with vocal and prolific adherents and acolytes.
Exactly the same as electoral cycles, the voices you end up hearing the most are only the ones that shout the loudest.
It’s a free country. You do you, but a lot of this makes me want to hurl. These are NOT serious people. If you don’t believe me, order their coffee.
– and that’s worth repeating: ORDER THEIR COFFEE!!!
Because there are really a lot of very internet coffee famous people that are shockingly way more hat than cattle.
“Coffee professionals approach each coffee and roast on its merits irrespective of preference.”
If you are plotting an investment in yourself and you’re taking input from anyone about just about anything, do yourself a favor and make sure they can do more than just talk a good game. If they’ve done the work and their coffee is great, you now know what they know, you got a great bag of coffee, and they earned the $20. If it’s rough, you now know what they don’t know and that $20 is the least expensive way possible to figure it out.
If you give this a try, be a human. Don’t expect a “God Pot” in every bag, because that’s not a thing. Coffee professionals approach each coffee and roast on its merits irrespective of preference.
I don’t care much for savory coffees, but if I get a blend with a little excess black pepper I’m not going to automatically judge it as failure. I’m noting freshness, heat defect, underdevelopment, evenness of roast, and balance or lack thereof. Coffee is all about contrast and comparison. I’m evaluating each individual bag based on the green and the roast and cataloging each experience internally to compare against the next.
To judge each coffee fairly, my confirmation bias has to be weighted to the positive. I’m actively focusing my senses to find the things I like. There are two reasons to do this.
First, if I sip a spoonful of coffee and immediately give in to hate, I’ll likely miss out on the opportunity for contrast with future cups. I’ve just short circuited my craft, because I’ll have never developed the ability to precisely analyze the deviation and someday successfully navigate around it.
Secondly, consider the idea of the best and the worst coffee you’ve ever experienced. Amazingly, the work that went into both is exactly the same. Someone trudged up the mountain and harvested cherries. Spread them out to dry. Ferment, depulp, milling, drying, bagging, shipping, roasting and brewing. How is it possible that one is so stupendous and one is such dreck?
The good one was handled exactly right at every stage. As crazy as it may sound, it’s very possible that somebody may have dropped the ball at just one single point along the way to the bad one. I’m a pro. It’s my job to understand what happened and I can only do that by giving each coffee a fair shake.
Incidentally, to preserve your own sanity, you’ll do exactly the same with each coffee you roast. Do your best always, but cut yourself some slack. Misery isn’t a flavor note. It doesn’t have to be practiced and I can tell you from experience that it won’t boost your balance sheet. You wanted to do this for the love of the thing. There’s absolutely no requirement that you roast thineself.
If you haven’t figured it out, we’re doing the best we can to help you figure out how to differentiate with quality. That’s not some “pie in the sky” feel-good BS: if a guy walks into the cafe, drinks a cup and it’s so good he orders a second cup to go on the way out, someone doubled their sales. If he grabs a bag of whole bean, takes it home, brews it and it’s so good he brews a second pot, something really good is going to happen to you and your business.
This is the real growth in Specialty Coffee. We’re here to make sure you’re as equipped as possible to pull that off.
If that makes sense, give us a call.
Pedro Castro Alicea
Ever since I found your videos, I found the will to go ahead and invest in this trade that I love since childhood. The frankness with which you communicate is refreshing and triggers self evaluation.
I’m looking up to schedule a trip to get formal education with your team. Refine what I’m doing well, learn and correct what I don’t know, and ultimately improve my trade. It is the least one can do to show respect to the growers, the consumers, and the coffee community.
Take care and talk to you later.