Published on March 4th, 2012 | by Timothy Thomas McNeely5
Coffee Roasters in Tacoma
The difference is between a factory and a workshop. A factory is immense, impersonal and aimed at the bottom line. A workshop is small, intimate and focused on craftsmanship and quality. You don’t want to live near a factory. You could live in the apartment above a workshop. Even when you buy “from the factory” you’re at a remove from where the work gets done. When you buy from a shop, you might come home with the scent of the place on your coat. When you visit a craft coffee roaster, you’re invited in to where it all happens.
Every day we have the chance to buy or borrow something we like, or choose make it ourselves – a meal, a picture, a product for work, or our coffee. We live in a day where do-it-yourself is a prevailing value. And when we can’t do it ourselves, we want the next best thing – someone we’ve seen do the work bespoke, someone we can meet. Kevin McGlocklin of Bluebeard Coffee Roasters is such a person. “It’s just coffee,” he says. “But if you’re going to do coffee, you might as well do it as well as you can.” Craft comes first.
What Happens When We Choose Craft
Going home-made or small batch means ownership of the whole process of production. It appeals to our desire for individuality and authenticity, and it creates micro-communities we can join and support.
When we go small, we take more of a detailed responsibility for what we’re doing. For example, small roasters like Valhalla Coffee Company roast approximately 100 pounds an hour, and Bluebeard only 60 pounds an hour, 15 pounds at a time. This contrasts with some of our regional roasters who produce more than 8,000 pounds of coffee per hour on just one machine. We crave this small-batch approach wherever we can find it, from fine art prints to small-batch bourbon, each individual product with its own story. We value it enough that large-scale companies try to reproduce that earned intimacy with marketing.
It’s a curious side note that only since the Industrial Revolution did “craft” connote small, instead of merely refer to the work being done at whatever scale. Cottage industries are no longer the norm, and so when we find someone making something individually, or with a process that honors quirks, we assign a different value to that rarity. The skilled laboror in isolation creates a unique product, not another commodity.
When we choose craft as we currently define it, the artist of a trade toiling in the atelier, we are involved. We are supporting small business and personalized palates. We are upholding the desire to make something with our hands and make it well. We are participating in creation.
What Makes a Man Start Making Something
“Everyone [in coffee] wants to roast,” says McGlocklin. With a degree in international relations and a background that includes a stint at ESPN.com, coffee roasting was not the most obvious career development for him. Yet when he began working at his cousin’s Lighthouse Roasters in 2003, he quickly developed an interest in all aspects of the craft. “I was terrified I was going to be found out,” he said. So he learned all he could.
Eventually he too began to roast:
I guess I felt like roasting was the key to a greater understanding of coffee and it also opened up exciting future possibilities. Until you’ve done it, roasting can look daunting – all of the heat, flame, expensive coffee to ruin, potential for error, systems to learn, etc. So learning to roast, and then seeing my control, playing with my finish, and cupping the results gave me further insights, of course, but also opened new coffee possibilities, including the one I ended up following to open Bluebeard.
McGlocklin and his wife Annie opened Bluebeard in April 2011.
McGlocklin appreciates the detail and science that underlies the craft of making quality coffee. Yet overall, his comments reveal a desire to deny exclusivity: “Does it taste good to you?” he asks, “Then it’s good coffee.”
What the Panda Saw
Michael Fernandez, also known as Panda, is a cheerleader for coffee. He loves coffee. More than that, he loves collaboration and community-building around coffee. He recently collaborated with McGlocklin to produce a special blend, Pandamonium, for the Northwest Regional Barista Championship and Northwest Regional Brewers’ Cup. Both competitions were held in Tacoma at the Convention Center.
Panda represented his employer, Espresso Parts, at the competition, but he wanted to use a coffee out of Tacoma, which had no other representation. As he said, “I will drive 30 minutes to get an espresso [from Bluebeard], because it’s that good.”
He began his coffee career as a barista at Starbucks in Seattle, then worked for Batdorf and Bronson in Olympia. There, he was trained by Oliver Stormshak and Michael Elvin, now of Olympia Coffee Roasting. Eventually, Panda came to Olympia Coffee Roasting, and then joined Espresso Parts, where his great passion for collaboration and community-building have been able to thrive. “There’s always something to learn… No one got where they are on their own.”
While Panda and his blend did not win the competition, his stated mission is centered on encouraging involvement in the industry and enjoyment of good coffee, being “coffee forward.” For him, that way forward advocates further transparency from source to saucer, fair wages for workers at all levels, and giving people reasons to love coffee and support quality and craft.
The Ancient Art and Craft of Coffee Roasting
No one emphasizes a care for the inheritance of crafts and the transcendence of trends more than A. J. Anderson of Valhalla. You can hear his care for tradition in everything he says. He describes his signature espresso blend as “a rendition of a recipe passed down to me.”
Roasting is about recipe-making and recipe-following, taking one ingredient, raw beans, and applying heat over time. Different machines each have their own characters and advantages. Different roasters are no different. “Making good coffee is just a matter of controlling chemical reactions for solubility,” says Anderson, and he means it.
“The coffee industry predates all these hipster coffees by a 1,000 years.” By hipster coffees, he refers to the so-called “third wave” of coffee roasting in America, typified by lighter roasts and an emphasis on single origin coffees, among other things. As with any such label, it all depends on who you talk to.
What We Share
What’s shared by roasters at Valhalla, Bluebeard and any third wave roasting house is the value placed on all aspects of the life cycle of production. Palates may range wildly between craft roasters, but that interest in and respect for the product is inviolable. In the end, it is this value on detailed information and the power to make production choices that make these roasters craft roasters.
Though Anderson stated that even a monkey could make coffee (horrible coffee, admittedly), his major theme in coffee-making is craft: “To do it properly takes a lot of attention, a lot of skill.”
“A cup… can be ruined by any number of things.” Quality is all about choices made at a very detailed level. From estate-grown coffee plants in the shade of a subtropical country, to equitable procurement, to well-roasted beans, to a balanced cup in your hands is an intricate dance of decisions.
Anderson made his choice clear: “I never wanted a business. It was a means to an end. [The other] week was my birthday, and I decided that I was going to sit at home and drink a cup of coffee and watch the news, and that was all I wanted from my day. There’s almost nothing in the world that makes me happier than a cup of coffee.”
Wisdom says that whatever our hand finds to do, we should do it with all our might. We celebrate when we see work done in this way, with joy in the craft. We enjoy seeing someone strive for perfection, acting in the strength of their skill. What could be better than lending support, caring for craft and drinking good coffee?
Coffee at Bluebeard: Coffee at Valhalla, all photos by Jeremy Leffel