An Interview with an Aspiring Coffee Roaster

By Dani Goot, Roasters Guild Executive Council

One of the most exciting things for me within the coffee community is meeting people that are brand new to our industry or looking for a way to get in it. By teaching roasting and brewing classes it keeps me engaged with the people that are pumped to get behind espresso or roasting machines. Their motivation and excitement keeps driven and grateful for the knowledge I have acquired over my years in the industry. 

When I met Sara Gibson, she was a roller derby coach for The Oakland Outlaws. The back of her Jersey read, #40 VAL HELLA. She found out I worked with coffee and immediately came at me with questions about my involvement. The words "I want to be a coffee roaster" came out of her mouth and that set me off to help her along that journey. She enrolled in my Intro to Roasting class I held at Bay Area CoRoasters and she fell in like a natural. Too bad her and her family were scheduled to move away to Austin, TX just over a month after the class. Well... too bad for the Bay Area, and very lucky for the coffee community in Austin. 

Name: Sara Gibson

Pronoun: She / Her

Astrological Sign: Capricorn, but it's not a thing I pay attention to. Probably because Capricorns are supposed to be serious and well-mannered, but I make lots of terrible jokes, curse constantly, and pride myself on my loud burps, so...

What sparked your interest in coffee roasting? 

I've always loved coffee. My dad would make me mugs when I was little - I'm sure they were mostly milk, but I loved the smell, the warmth, and the ritual of the percolator. In high school and college, I had opinions about what made coffee bad or good, but it was just a simple mental equation of weakness vs. strength and how long a coffee pot had been sitting on a burner. A college trip to Italy and easy access to Peet's in Berkeley got me into espresso.

I only really started paying attention to specialty coffee in the last 4 years. All credit goes to Philz for getting me to notice pour-over coffee and flavor profiles. (Their signage and staff are a really great entry point for specialty newbs!) Since I was working in SF at the time, it was easy enough for me to visit tons of great shops like Sightglass, Ritual, Blue Bottle, and Hole in the Wall. And I learned that the people working in shops that make great coffee tend to be really happy to talk to you about coffee. They would tell me about roast recipes and acidity, oils, caffeine levels, etc. It reminded me of molecular gastronomy, which I don't pretend to really understand, but it's so interesting, right? Quality ingredients + science + thoughtful methodology = amazing product. 

So, I guess you could say that the roasting process just straight-up fascinates me. Taking some grassy green coffee beans and Frankenstein-ing them into a product that gives visceral pleasure – how cool is that?

What roasters have you roasted on? 

My very first go at roasting was an intro class at Bay Area CoRoasters. We sample roasted on a Probat 2 barrel and then did a 5 lb. batch on a Probat as well. Since then, I've found that my cast iron skillet does a pretty bang-up job, but I scorched a few batches on my way to figuring out the initial heat setting. I've used my Whirley-Pop too. 

Have you read any books in coffee roasting? 

I've read The World Atlas of Coffee, which I loved. It really helped me get a grasp of varietals and regions. Plus, it's just a gorgeous book. I've also read The Coffee Roaster's Companion, which was more of a standard procedural, but it definitely helped me understand industry best practices. I check out Sprudge, the Roaster's Guild blog, and jimseven when I get the chance. 

Other than roasting coffee, what are the other facets in coffee interest you? 

All the sensory skills stuff, probably because I'm still learning about a lot of the flavors and aspects. I try to go to cuppings when I can, and I'll taste something good and interesting, or something off, and struggle to describe it. I'll look at the flavor wheel and be like, "OK, I'm going with fruity. Maybe apricot? And then there's maybe another flavor - is it vanilla? Oh, you think it's floral?" And then I just melt into a puddle of uncertainty.

I'm jealous of people who can slurp some coffee and instantly be like, "Full bodied, red cherries, dark chocolate, hint of clove. BOOM." I want to get there!

What do you do professionally now? 

I'm a freelance writer and editor. 

Do you plan on going to any SCA, Roasters Guild, or local coffee events this year? 

Yes! I'm waiting to hear from Texas Coffee Traders – an SCA Campus – about what their class schedule will look like this year. I'm also planning on attending Coffee Champs this weekend in Austin, and I've gone to some cuppings. I was working a contract editorial job for the last few months, but now that that's done, I want to ramp up my coffee learnings. 

Have you reached out to the roasters in Austin since you moved there? 

Yes and no. I've reached out about attending cuppings, but I haven't really tried to talk to roasters about taking me on as an apprentice or employee, I guess because I feel awkward about it. Most people seem to start out as baristas, so moving into roasting is a more organic progression for them. Where I'm at with this is confusing to people.

I've had a few roasters tell me, "You don't want to do this – there's no money in it." Maybe they think I'm having a mid-life crisis, and soon I'll come to my fiscally responsible senses and drop this coffee business nonsense. But I'm a big believer in major life shifts. Sometimes changing a core aspect about who you are or what you do can be incredibly, awesomely affirming. Basically, I just have to get over my awkward feelings and get out there more.

In that vein, if anybody in or around Austin wants a roasting apprentice who can help you with website content and/or marketing, hit me up!

What are you hoping to get out of roasting coffee? Why is it calling to you? 

I recently retired from roller derby, but I'd say, in a weird way, roasting appeals to me like derby did. It involves a die-hard counterculture that's getting bigger and stronger by the day. It's tangible and physical. It handily intersects with DIY ethos, feminism, and sustainability. It involves a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but the knowledge and experience you gain along the way is pretty badass.

Want to learn more or connect? Contact Sara Gibson at sarasama@gmail.com.