Discovering what it takes to roast and sell fine fair trade coffee beans.

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Location: Siloam Springs, AR, United States

Join me as I follow my love for coffee into my first entrepreneurial venture. I'm sharing my vision, my excitement and what I learn along the way. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

March 15, 2009

Roasting has been going great. In about two weeks time I did a little over $100 in sales just by word of mouth. The feed back I've gotten has all been really positive and encouraging. I think that instead of moving into the Farmer's Market at this time, I'm leaning more towards building relationships with local businesses who may be willing to carry my coffee. I'm already realizing the limitations of my roaster and am looking at what I would need to do to be able to step up my production level. From batch start to finish it takes me about 45 minutes to make one pound of coffee. If I were able to move even to a 5 kilo roaster I'd feel more capable of running a website and selling from there, but as it is, if I were doing more than a few pounds at a time I could very easily fall behind.

My next endeavor is to find a decaf that I like. From what I understand decafs roast differently than caffeinated because the processing that the beans go through mean that they're yellow, like unprocessed beans become after a few minutes in the roaster. So, I'll be back to some trial and error there, but I keep getting asked about it, so it's worth playing with!

We've had a crazy last two months since my last post. My husband had surgery and we had a cross country move - so things have been a little busy in our household, but despite all of that I'm still happily roasting and working at getting my coffee out there.

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January 16, 2009

Elusive Roast Times

I've been playing more with my Behmor. There's no way to gauge the temp as the beans roast, so I'm left a little in the dark wondering when I can stop the roast and get the color I prefer. This has led to sour batches and 'roasty' batches. I think I was saddest to get a really 'roasty' tasting Ethiopian Harrar that burnt off all of the blueberry notes. It did, however, make an okay espresso shot. I think that whatever blend I use for espresso will definitely include a bit of Harrar.

After destroying one batch of Harrar, I tried it again and managed to taste all of its berry wonderfulness, but I think there's more I could do to get it just right. I've learned that the best time to cup a coffee is two days after it's roasted, so I'm trying to do a better job of sitting on my beans before I break them out. I have a batch of Guatemalan that Carrie and I are going to taste tomorrow. I gave some of this batch to my mom the day I made it and she said it was the 'perfect roast'. Here's a cheer for being believed in!

I took my roaster to my parents' house to play with last weekend, and Fritz, my step-dad, the nuclear engineer, took a look at how to tell roast temp. He -gave- me a laser gun that you shoot at the beans and read their surface temp with. Now, this is still an imperfect tool, because there's a glass screen between my beans and me that reads at 180 degrees right when I want to stop my roast. BUT, all I have to do is crack the door and shoot the beam at my beans when I intend to stop the roast and perhaps that will at least prevent me from stopping the roast too soon. Opening the door changes everything in terms of the temp inside the roaster and could make a roast difficult to duplicate, but it could also be a good way for me to discover how the temperature corresponds to the color, times and sounds of the roast.

The hope is that I could get a good roast on my little home roaster and possibly recreate that same roast again and again. I also received my voltage regulator in the mail the other day, so that should help with variations that exist just because it uses a variable electrical current. So, more to come on all of that in the future!

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January 3, 2009

First Roast

I did it. I don't have a scale yet, but I had a one pound sample bag of Sumatra Mandheling Gayo Supreme FTO and decided to take it for a test drive. I did a dry run to burn off all the residue from my factory fresh roaster, and then started in on a 1/4# batch. It ran a little cool and a little short, because after 10:50 I was just getting into what I'm now sure was my 1st crack. (The beans have two cracks during roast time, they give an audible cue to where the beans are in the roast. The crack is caused by the change in moisture content), but I wasn't really sure what was going on and the cycle was wrapping up, so I just let it. The beans were lighter than I usually think of Sumatra as being, but I was so excited I ground it up and served it, french press style, to my husband and two housemates.

Benny took the cup and kept to himself about his opinions, but Carrie, John and I had fun reading into the different flavors. Right on top was a buttery chocolate earthy flavor, there was just a hint of cinnamon and barely a touch of fruit (John suggest pomegranate) and then it finished out with a sour acidity and a hint of pepper. Eww. It was great until that sour hit me. I puzzled about what could have caused it, and figured that the roast must have been too light, maybe a cinnamon roast. There was also a good deal of chaff still on the beans.

Encouraged by the good flavors I did get out of the beans, I tried again in the afternoon. This time I told the machine that my 1/4# batch was a 1/2# to get the heat up a little higher and tried a different roast cycle. I head the scattered couple of first cracks, then a silence and a smattering of rapid cracks like popcorn. I had a hard time telling if it was first crack or second crack because they happened so close together, but the smoke billowing out of the machine told me it was time to quit the roast and start cooling at 8:50. I wondered if I had burnt the beans, but as it cooled the smoke gave way to a bit of aroma that gave me hope. 10 minutes of cool down is a long time to wonder if you were successful or not.

Just looking at the beans got me all giddy, they were a deep brown with an oily surface, maybe a Vienna or French roast. A little darker than I had hoped for, but still beautiful. I ground up a smaller batch (most of the first press got dumped because of the sour notes) and did a two cup press poured for Carrie, John and I. I can't tell you how great it is to have a few extra sets of coffee loving taste buds around to pander my wares to! Again, it was heavy with earth and chocolate tones, but it was full-bodied, smooth, and almost creamy, with a peppery finish. The sour tones must have been from the greenness of the beans, because the darker roast completely took them out.

I'd like to try it again with a roast just under where I got it today. The darker roast took out the more subtle nuances of cinnamon and pomegranate, and I think roasting a hair or two lighter could possibly bring those back. The darker roast from today though would make excellent straight espresso, but might be a little 'dirty' for milk based drinks.

Anyways, I had fun playing today!

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January 2, 2009

Behmor 1600

It's here! I got my Behmor, my 1/2# bags, and 55 lbs of green beans! I'm so excited! For beans I got 6 lbs of freebies (including Guatemala, Sumatra, Ethiopian Harrar, Costa Rica, Timor, and Sulewesi), and 4 different fair trade organic origins: Guatemala Asobagri SHB, Ethiopia Natural Sidamo Shanta Golba, Timor Maubesse, and Paupa New Guinea Purosa Grade A. I'm really excited to start playing around, but I'm going to try to wait until my scale gets here (on the 6th supposedly). It's very possible though that I might take it for a spin with one of my freebie pounds because they're already measured out and I really am just so excited! I mean, let's review the exclamation points used so far in this post...

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January 1, 2009

Beauty in Ritual

I love hearing about the ritualism associated with coffee. Coffee isn't just something you pick up and drink because you thirst, it's not even something soley picked up for caffineation. Between reading "Javatrekker" and "Home Coffee Roasting" by Kenneth Davids I'm brought into a depth of ritual that most of us have lost. I've read about the rituals of the Ethiopians (where the air is first purified by sweetgrass and burnt frankincense, and then coffee is roasted in a skillet over fire and then pulverized in mortar before three cups are served in succession) and the memoirs of an Italian (waking up each morning to the smell of coffee roasting on patios all over the neighborhood in little pans of coals with manual crank run cylinders turning over top). I thirst for a little adventure in my otherwise common life. I long to be welcomed in to the beauty of small celebrations of culture.

What is our American ritual? Have we become too rushed for simple beauties? Reducing ourselves to gas station coffee to get us through on long road trips, and we stumble out of bed happy to get a waft of anything to get us through our Mondays. There is an alternative, we can treat coffee like a fine wine, according to bean origin, depth of roast, freshness, grade of grind, method of brewing, quality of water. We can take something that has been stripped to the ordinary and restore it to beauty and art.

I boil the kettle, weigh the beans, grind them coarsely, poor the hot water over the grounds, cover loosely for 4 minutes and then slowly plunge the grinds to the bottom of the press. I choose a certain mug, not all of my mugs are meant for french press, I have a thin small mug with textured lines on it like string tied around it. I pour. I inhale. I slurp. I welcome you in.

Look for beauty in the common. Create ritual in the everyday.

* On a side note *
I spent more time today looking into what I will need to sell at the local farmer's market. Currently I need to find a commercial kitchen to roast in for food safety and I need to find out more about what I need to do personally to be licensed.

My roaster still hasn't arrived, but it is the holidays (and Happy New Year, by the way) and package delivery is slow. That means more time to really read "Home Coffee Roasting" instead of just excitedly jumping straight to the "how to" parts.

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December 30, 2008

How Do I Know If My Coffee Is Fair Trade?

Most companies that carry a fair trade certification will label their coffee with their fair trade logo,. Fair Trade classification is determined by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization International (FLO), their U.S. division is known as TransFair. Some companies have their own version of fair trade labeling because they want to offer different things to farmers, like higher prices (Direct Trade offers 25% more than Fair Trade prices) or allowing farmers to join in fair trade practices without joining a farmer coop. So, you might see a label that touts "Fair Trade", "Equal Exchange" or "Direct Trade" depending on which company is backing the standards.

Many companies will advertise upfront their personal relationship with farmers or that they offer a fair price. Starbucks claims on every bag that they support farmers. In their annual corporate social responsibility report they advertise that they paid $1.43/lb on average in 2007, but they only specify one country as an example where farmers retain most of that profit. There is no mention of how much of that price goes to farmers in other countries. They do have one coffee that is expressly labeled "Fair Trade" by TransFair. So, while it sounds mildly impressive that they 'support farmers' and pay '$1.43/lb', it's still not clear how much of that money goes back to the actual farmers. One company that advertises it's relationship with supplying farmers is 'Dean's Beans'. I like this company a lot. They're very transparent with their prices (no less than $1.41/lb going directly to the farmers), they pay an additional $.06/lb for "social equity" where they help build services in the communities and they submitted themselves to an external audit of their fair trade practices.

I just read last night in "Javatrekker", by Dean Cycon, the founder of Dean's Beans, that $.60 is the make or break. When a farmer makes less than $.60/lb he is no longer making any money on his crop. Often, in this situation the farmer won't even have the money to finish harvesting his crop and the berries are left to rot on the tree. At $.60 the banks don't want to offer the farmers any more assistance either because there is no guarantee that it could be repaid. The price for coffee is set on Wall Street and the buy and sell of coffee futures which vary depending on what the weather will be like in Brazil and whatnot.

If you want to know if your coffee is fair trade I would recommend checking out the web page of the company you get your coffee from or asking the roaster directly. Often a roaster will carry some fairly traded coffees and a majority that aren't. If they don't offer fair trade coffees ask them if they'd consider carrying some. There are less than a dozen 100% fair trade coffee companies in the U.S. according to the Dean's Beans web page, but this is the direction I want to go with my business. In time, as I grow, I would love to be able to travel to the coffeelands and foster relationships directly with the farmers. I already have people-who-know-people in El Salvador, Uganda and Rwanda and I'd like to see that list of countries grow. I'm so excited that I could be a part of this change.

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December 29, 2008

Why FairTrade is Important

This is actually a new concept for me and I might stumble about on it, but, even with my limited knowledge I know it's important and I want you to get on board too.

See, farmers in third world countries are at the whim of what companies are willing to offer them. Many times farmers with the highest grade coffees aren't given their fair price because of improper grading methods because there isn't a universal standard for what determines a coffee's grade. A perfect example of this is in Paupa New Guinea where coffees grown by tribal people are automatically given a "Y" classification and given less for their beans regardless of the cupping quality. This means that a coffee bought for $.25/lb could be resold at the standard rate for green beans despite the original low grade it was given. This is where fair trade comes in, by guaranteeing the farmer a minimum of $1.26/lb.

Small farms form cooperatives and submit themselves to fair trade regulation and requirements. In return they are given a fair price for their labors according the regional costs for living and farming expenses. This isn't a charity, but simply a fair price for the product purchased. Because the farmers are exporting their product directly through the fair trade organization the cost to the consumer is cut because there isn't a middle man jacking up the price. Sure, it might be putting one middleman out of a job, but the goal is to protect the millions of third world farmers and labors working and working in substandard conditions. The fair trade organization that works with the farmers also use the money from the subsequent sale of green beans to build schools, medical facilities, clean water supplies, create micro-loans for women trying to start businesses, prohibit child labor, provide safe work environments for farmers, and teach farmers about sustainable agricultural practices. Not to mention, when coffee becomes profitable to farmers, fewer farmers will sow their fields with the previously more profitable coca, poppy and khat crops.

This isn't a matter of whether Wal-Mart employees get breaks, this is life or death, clean water, drug-free, family orientated, educating... it's hope, for millions of impoverished people, and we can help by purchasing fair trade coffee. It makes so much sense.

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