Recently we had the pleasure of spending some time with some dear friends of ours at Branch Street Coffee Roasters. They gave us the opportunity to attend one of their coffee tastings with full access. This was a public event that was free of charge. This occasion was in celebration of their recent achievement of a 94 rating from the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America). They are the first here in Youngstown to even be rated much less to receive a rating this high. This event allowed us to taste their award winning coffee with co-owner Matt Campbell and better understand all of the tasting notes of the aromatic java. This was a huge privilege for us and a great way to gain some coffee knowledge. We decided this would also be a perfect opportunity to ask Matt a few questions that have been on my mind. This will begin a new series for Spade and I that we are entitling “5 Course Interview”. The concept is that we will ask 5 questions that will take you deeper into the mind of a local owner or chef that better explains their specific trade or craft, just as you would go through 5 courses in a gourmet restaurant. Our hope is that this will be a bridge between owners and patrons. It allows the owner/chef to preach their message while also giving the patron a more personalized perspective you might not get in an ordinary dining setting. We hope you all enjoy getting to know Matt as much as we have.
Where did your passion for coffee come from?
“As odd as it sounds, 10 years ago I was a common “drive through” big-box coffee drinker. Light and sweet was my order, and it was the only way that you could really enjoy the awful coffee that was being served up. While I was working one of my shifts at the medical office, a co-worker brought in a cup of coffee. It was from a local coffee shop that had just opened, and I had been hearing him talk about them for weeks now. It was a cup of black coffee from Guatemala, and he insisted that I drink it as-is. Black. From the first sip, it was a total game-changer for me. I had no idea that coffee could taste like that way; so full of flavor and inherently sweet. I wouldn’t dare add anything to it, it was so great on its own. I was instantly hooked. My wife Kristin and I began frequenting this place, and before long we both dove head-first into the world of specialty coffee. Within that year (2011) we had decided to change our lives to open a coffee roasting operation, and I had signed on for an apprenticeship with a local coffee roaster, Booskerdoo Coffee Company.”
Can you explain the trade aspect of your business?
“Oh man, great question. This is one of the most interesting and compelling aspects of specialty coffee. Coffee is traded on the public markets just like any other commodity. The ticker price on the market is a single price, called spot price, and it fluctuates every second that the market is open. Just like buying stocks and bonds, there is never a moment that the price isn’t in motion. There are trends, but the spot price can be altered by sudden news or projected yield from certain growing regions. This spot price is for low-grade coffee, or what we refer to as industrial grade. On top of that industrial grade coffee price is another category called “Specialty Coffee.” This is the stuff that we deal with, and it comes at a premium. Although it follows the spot price in a general way, it is often several dollars more expensive per pound than the industrial coffee. Specialty grade coffee is considered green (un-roasted) coffee with a quality grade of 80 or higher. This makes up for less than 7% of the entire coffee crop worldwide. Currently, we deal with specialty coffee importers. These are companies who specialize in finding, grading, purchasing and importing coffee from all over the world. They have inventory listed, and we can buy at market price whenever we need to restock our inventory. The importers often have relationships with the farmers whom they deal with, but it is still not considered “sourcing” when we call them for an order. It would be like a knitter saying that they “source” their own wool to make their sweaters by ordering spun wool online. This summer we are expecting to expand our influence and control over product by going to the coffee growing origins ourselves. This would allow us to taste the coffee on the farm, meet the farmers and their families and learn about the work that goes into a harvest. We plan to form lasting relationships with these farmers, and buy from them directly. We would import the coffee ourselves and form a true farm-to-cup chain of custody. This should empower us as roasters to find only the best coffee, and the farmer or producer by giving them a better wage for their efforts. It could truly be called direct-trade and be considered sourcing. Sorry that this part is a little wordy, but it is hugely important to us, and it is one of the most involved and intimate parts of the trade. The ethics and sustainability of this part of the business is one of our most passionate subjects.”
How does the rating system work and who does it?
“There are actually two parts to the rating system. There is green coffee rating, and roasted coffee rating. The green coffee rating is a system of standards put in place by the specialty coffee industry, namely the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). This arose out of necessity when trading coffee from distant locations. If I am a roaster in the United States calling to get coffee from my green coffee buyer in Panama, how can we communicate the quality of the coffee? When he tells me it is “great,” what does that mean? The SCAA set up a standard to try and simplify the problem. With specially trained “Q-Graders,” a rating on the green coffee is determined by the processing, the number of defects seen in a sample, the quality of the care given during the harvest, and a score on a small sample of the roasted coffee called “cupping.” The scale goes from 1-100, with specialty grade being 80 or above. Now the green buyer and the roaster can discuss the purchase, price and quantity using a qualitative measure. As a note, to be a Q-Grader, you must be able to accurately describe samples coffee repeatedly, and pass a grueling test where you can only deviate from the other registered Q-Graders by a margin of 1 point. That is a deviation of less than 1%. These Q-Graders must re-test or re-calibrate every few years to keep their certification active. The roasted coffee grading system is very similar, and follows the same cupping procedure. It is preformed by licensed Q-Graders, and is the industry standard for judging coffee in competitions. The Q-Graders assign a point value to 10 categories, and detract points for flaws and faults in both the roast of the coffee, and the quality of the beans themselves. The judge the dry fragrance, the wet aroma, and a bunch of different flavor characteristics such as acidity, sweetness, balance, clarity, complexity, etc. An overall score is tallied up, and awarded to the coffee. Although there are a few different services that will provide a roasted cupping score, Coffee Review is considered to be the gold standard. They have been grading coffee for over 20 years, and they pioneered the 100 point system to simplify the process.”
What is the purpose for the educational aspect of your business?
“For everyone involved in Branch Street, coffee has become our lives. We love everything about it, and it has ignited a passion in us that has been very transformational for us all. Although not everyone that passes through our doors will become as deeply entwined into the coffee world, we want to make it as exciting as possible for anyone who will listen. We have all been frustrated when trying to get into a new hobby or learn a new skill, and there are endless variables in learning the alchemy of coffee brewing. If we can make it easier or more enjoyable for more people, we get to pass the torch of our passion on to other people. There is nothing quite like seeing someone sip their coffee for the first time and pick up some awesome flavor that they never expected in coffee before. Everyone remembers their first Ethiopian Natural and it is so cool to see that excitement in someone tasting it for their first time.”
What’s your next event?
We have just started ramping up our “Home Barista: 101” course. It is designed to be sort of a “boot camp” for people who want to learn about the fundamentals of brewing coffee in their own home. We cover a huge amount of material, and we show the attendees how to achieve their home brewing goals using the hands-on approach. We provide course materials for them to take home and reference later. It is the only way to really get something out of a crash course, and to jump start the learning curve. We have a goal of holding several of these 101 courses to catch as many people as we can up to speed. Using these fundamentals, we will build on the skill set with progressively more in-depth courses. In the next few months, we plan to bring in additional resources and materials. One of the most exciting is a “sensory” class. We are asking a guest barista to come in and help to fine-tune the sensory aspect of coffee. Again, using hands on approaches, we will show the difference between “bitter” “sour” “sweet” “acidic” “savory” and several other senses. Attendees will be able to blindfold themselves and see if they can identify different tastes, like peas, strawberries, apricot, etc without tasting the texture of the produce. All of these are offered either free-of-charge, or for a nominal fee to cover expenses and materials for the course. It isn’t our goal to profit from learning about the products together, and it builds us as a coffee community when everyone can get involved! We will likely have several other tasting and collaborative events in the future, and we have a few ideas floating around already, but we can’t let the cat out of the bag until we have some confirmation and dates planned. 🙂 People can always sign up for our e-mail list which will always have the most up-to-date information by logging in to our website www.branchstreetcoffee.com and putting their information in the popup request.”