(Originally published in The Specialty Coffee Chronicle on July 11, 2014.)
By Ben Angelo
I think there’s a common hunger for knowledge when discovering and exploring craft roasting. That first batch drops and you want to know it all: was that the right temp to drop my Guatemala Antigua? Was the time good? It all looks brownish, so what’s the color I’m looking for? What does airflow do? How will x affect the coffee on the cupping table?
I’ve learned a lot in eight years of roasting and working with coffee. The majority of that was hands-on, from the repetition of production roasts and bagging thousands of pounds of fresh coffee each week. When questions presented themselves, I turned first to the few books on coffee in my library, but rarely found the details or specifics I was hoping for. Some solid resources are out there, but there’s no standard-issue Betty-Crocker-esque cookbook for coffee. If we want the answer to “Am I doing this right?” we must seek other avenues.
That’s how I found the Roasters Guild, and how I joined the specialty coffee roasting community’s journey of sharing and learning about our craft. What follows are some musings on my experiences, the unrelated-to-roasting way I found my niche, and how that led me to getting my answers questioned and ultimately, my questions answered.
So, you (or your bosses) paid a decent chunk of change, and now you’re in a room at a scenic mountain resort for the Roasters Guild Retreat, what you hope is the pinnacle of Zen coffee roasting experiences. You’re stoked to see what the “pros” do, and add it to your tool belt. You envision your triumphant return as master of the craft, improving every tricky profile, coaxing forth the perfect flavor notes and sweetness, winning over the hearts and palates of discerning coffee lovers. Cupping notes of Meyer lemon and passionfruit dance from your pen as you confidently assess your perfection on label descriptions. You and your liquid gold are showered with accolades. Then the phone calls start coming in. The phone is ringing off the hook…and suddenly, you’re up: it’s your 7 a.m. wake-up call.
Now it’s time to show up to your first morning classroom session, and experience the intimidation of jumping onto a moving train—and you’re convinced all the other passengers are seasoned travelers certain of their destination. The first leg of the journey is cupping calibration. You can slurp without choking—should be simple, right? Well…you know the terms and the form, but you have no desire to risk putting the wrong numbers down on the score bar of the cupping sheet. Then one fellow traveler compares the acidity to a fruit you’re sure is imaginary. He sounds pissed when you ask—they do exist. Now you’ve got exotic produce shopping on your list of stops. And that fella won’t talk to you for a couple years. Great start.
You came to Retreat wanting someone to hand you the keys to unlock the unknowns: What will make me a master roaster? What’s the right way? What’s the best equipment? How do I get better green? What roast specs should I use to deliver the most appealing flavor profile for my coffees? How will I know when I nail it? What’s proper expansion look like? What charge temp, drying time, first-crack target time and temp, first crack duration, finish time and temp do I use for coffees A-Z?
What you get is more questions: Is everyone faking it? Why do there seem to be many different techniques? What’s the Big Secret?
The Big Secret
A rogue PBR tallboy got me on the train to the Big Secret at my first Retreat. It got me ousted (momentarily) from the opening dinner. I finished it in the hall and found a bin for the empty, then slunk back to a table of strangers who had watched me get spanked. “Solid first impression,” I thought. But I must have handled it well, because that event made me fast friends with those strangers. Through them, I have learned about producing and roasting, received carefully curated mixtapes, been welcomed to stay in their homes, and shared the joy as they had kids. Unplanned circumstances like this are the foundation of the majority of relationships I’ve established in the roasting community. For instance, on the night of the bonfire at my first Retreat, I gravitated toward the P.A. broadcasting the radical guts of an iPod belonging to Chris Schooley, past RG chair and current coffee design and experience coordinator for SCAA. I didn’t know Schooley. Didn’t matter. One of his favorite bands was from my hometown, he dug my Prince shirt, and we both speak records.
Soon, DJ-ing became the train that took me the rest of the way to the Big Secret. I got on it initially when I got two Technics 1200s for my high-school graduation. I’ve put in uncountable hours lugging those turntables around to every kind of venue and get-together, and years digging at records shops for dusty grooves. After that first Retreat, I thought how rad it’d be to have a DJ at these gatherings: it fits the creative community, adds some pizzazz to dinners and bonfires, levels up the event overall.
So Schooley arranged it, and I drove in for my second Retreat experience with my gear and a few cratefuls of conversation. I got to know even more people my second, third, and fourth Retreats hanging out behind the turntables, selecting records out under the stars. Seems like everyone has a connection to music, much like they do to coffee. And through those things, we make connections to each other.
And that’s the Big Secret: recipes don’t matter. People do. At Retreats, you don’t get the cookbook. You get, instead, a foundational concept and an approach. You teach each other and learn from each other’s mistakes and triumphs. You realize there is a so much to uncover and explore, and that you can play a role. Your idyllic vacation looks like it’s only phase one of a lifelong pursuit: to improve, to share, and to connect around well-crafted coffees.
Ben Angelo is Lead Roaster for Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Los Angeles. He’s an SCAA volunteer and has served as defacto Roasters Guild Retreat super DJ since 2011.