On a trip to Northern Peru Larry’s Lead Production Roaster, Brandon Elder, experienced one of the best parts of his job: enjoying a cup of coffee with the skilled farmer who produced the very beans that went into that brew. This trip was one of many that Elder has taken to not only experience the product at the source but to help cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with growers, which is a critical part of producing quality crops and ensuring the health of the industry.
“It was a great thing to be at the origin with the person who grew this coffee, to taste it with them, because they were proud of it,” says Elder who emphasizes the importance of growing relationships with farmers. Through strong partnerships and fair trade pricing, Larry’s helps to support the livelihood of growers who, in turn, then have the resources they need to cultivate better crops while also caring for the land and themselves.
Here we will look at what goes into creating unique roasts and the exciting and progressive changes happening in the world of coffee. We will also look at how a professional coffee roaster and self proclaimed “coffee geek” makes his morning cup.
In many ways, the roasting process is quite similar across most roasteries: a metal drum style roaster is used to rotate the beans while a burner underneath provides heat to the environment as well as the air passing through it. The combination of heat and airflow inside the drum is what allows the raw coffee to change color and develop flavor.
“When roasting, you're essentially controlling two things: conductive and convective heat.” The heat that comes from the burner and warms the metal of the drum is the conductive heat; heat that is passed from the warm drum to the beans. Convective heat comes from the airflow passing through the drum. The warm air penetrates the interior of the beans more effectively than conductive heat does, allowing a more even development of the entire bean when applied correctly. Airflow can also be used to slow or cool down the roast and facilitate unwanted debris or chaff (the dried skin or husk) from the roasted coffee.
“The roasting process can differ depending on the type and quality of beans used,” says Elder. The mechanics of all drum roasters are essentially the same, but how a roaster applies heat to the beans can vary. That difference can result in a wide range of differences in flavor and other attributes that you taste in the cup. Knowing how to determine when the beans have reached the desired flavor and color is up to the roaster and demonstrates their level of skill and understanding of the beans they are roasting.
At Larry’s, Elder uses a combination of a scientific data approach along with intuitive, sensory guidelines. To gain data insight, thermocouples are inserted into the roaster to give a detailed account of the temperature. This is combined with the sensory approach which requires the roaster to judge the beans’ doneness based on time, color and smell.
Combining the two approaches is an important part of getting a quality product and being able to adapt to changing circumstances. “Data will show you a representation of what happens while you're roasting, but it won't show you the whole picture,” says Elder. Using sensory indicators can help a roaster spot mistakes in the process that a data read out would not show. It also allows a roaster to continue production even if, for example, a computer or software is malfunctioning.
Having knowledge of both approaches also helps roasters to compensate for changes in atmosphere. Elevation, humidity and the presence of air conditioning and heating will all affect how a roasting machine operates. “A skilled roaster will be able to use both sensory information and data to have them work together to roast better coffee.”
The majority of Larry’s coffee comes from Cooperative Coffees, a green coffee importing cooperative. Co-founded by Larry’s in 1998, the cooperative now includes two dozen members committed to supporting small farmers and sustainable growing practices.
They do this through several initiatives including paying above Fair Trade prices and fostering relationships with growers. Maintaining these relationships and knowing that roasters will continue to buy their crops is what gives growers the security they need to continue to produce at a high standard.
“You can’t make bad coffee good but you can take good raw coffee beans and roast them in a myriad of ways to achieve good results,” says Elder who emphasizes that if the quality is there in the beans, the roasting process is secondary. As long as the beans are not burned, quality raw coffee will still produce a good brew even if the roasting process is not ideal.
While there are certain varieties of raw coffee that have unique properties such as the floral Geisha bean, the biggest factor in creating quality beans is the producers themselves. “So much of the quality comes down to the producers and the care that they put into the land, and how they treat the coffee after it's harvested,” says Elder, who feels it is important to educate coffee lovers on the people producing the coffee they drink.
Since many coffee drinkers live hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where coffee beans are grown, it is a common misconception that growers are poor, unskilled laborers. Though farmers work hard, they are far from unskilled. Growers who are part of the cooperative where Larry’s sources coffee are highly skilled at what they do and actively work to improve the land they farm. With many of the farms owned by families who pass down the trade through generations, a combination of both traditional methods and new approaches are used to create crops that are beneficial to the consumers and the land as well as the growers themselves.
“The farmers have so much skill when it comes down to everything from agronomy and how the soil needs to be treated to how to process the coffee. Farming cooperatives employ q-graders, which are quality control specialists that assess and grade the coffee. There’s so much care and respect in the process when it is done right...So, what really makes a good green coffee is a good producer.”
Two decades and longer ago, says Elder, certain varieties of raw coffee were associated with individual countries. Now, many varieties are no longer bound to countries but to regions that are often sectioned into even smaller areas. These smaller micro-regions will allow coffee producers and consumers to describe and pinpoint very specific and unique varieties and characteristics that they enjoy.
This trend is also what has changed the packaging of many specialty coffees. Consumers can expect to find detailed information about not only the land their beans come from but also the people who grow it. This brings consumers and growers closer together, strengthening the connections between quality coffee, skilled growers and sustainable growing practices.
Often called “third wave coffee,” there is a growing emphasis on educating consumers about what is in their cup and treating coffee similarly to wine. This includes discussing the specific region where it was grown and tasting notes consumers can expect.
“I think we kind of have this collective goal of making people understand more about this particular product, humanizing the people that produce it, and educating them on why it is special, not just a mass produced commodity.”
“I love to brew pour overs. You pour hot water over the coffee grounds and let it brew that way. I really enjoy taking my time with coffee and treating coffee more like a ritual. I like the process as much as the product itself.”
Instead of recommending any one particular coffee, Elder suggests trying as many varieties as possible. Look for coffees from different regions and countries to see what differences there are, what subtle flavors there might be.
“I would say experiment. This is part of what I love about coffee is that you can get an Ethiopian coffee from 10 different roasts and have a completely different experience with each one.”
Perhaps more important than the variety of coffee is ensuring the coffee is fresh. Ideally, beans should be fresh ground and brewed with clean, pure water. The importance of the water used to brew coffee cannot be overstated as it makes up more than 90% of what is in your cup.
Elder suggests Ethiopian coffee as a “gateway into specialty coffees.” This is where many coffee lovers start their journey into more unique and specialized coffees. Larry’s Ethiopia Sidamo is a popular single origin offering that is bold and spicy with citrus and chocolate notes. It is perfect for both new and seasoned coffee lovers.