I have been roasting coffee since 2014. My passion for coffee started at an early age but developed into more of an obsession when we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2008. As a competitive elite cyclist, my lifestyle lent itself to training, nutrition, and early morning workout sessions. The lifestyle as an elite cyclist can be dry. Inspiration on a chilly morning can be hard to come by. Inspiration was much easier to obtain after a shot of espresso or a quick pit stop at a local café to warm up. So many pleasantries can be found in the bottom of the mug. Through my enjoyment with coffee, I have turned it into a ritual and obsession.
At the start of my roasting adventure a good friend referred me to a local green been supplier in Oakland, CA and I learned everything I could on how to roast my own coffee at home.
Unknowingly, I just happened to be living in a town that turned out to be one of the world’s major transportation hubs for coffee. My obsession started with a popcorn popper then moved on to a small half-pound drum-style roasting machine. I was eager to learn more and develop my craft for specialty coffee. I was commuting to and from San Francisco by bicycle and would stop by one of my green bean suppliers (Sweet Maria’s), get the scoop on what was exciting, take the coffee beans home and roast it up. Purchasing only five pounds of coffee at a time (that is all I could fit in my pack when riding) I was able to see how adjusting the roasting process can affect the outcome of the cup. Do not get me wrong, at the time my pallet was only able to determine if one cup was better than the other and what regions and process, I liked more than others. My tastes were such a moving target because as soon as I said, “I like this more than that”, I would get a cup from a specialty coffee shop that would change my mind.
By purchasing 5lb bags of green coffee at a time, I inadvertently stumbled on a movement known today as “third-wave”. The third-wave movement in coffee is a way of appreciating a quality product and acknowledging the supply chain involved in process of delivering the end result, the cup of coffee to the consumer. That supply chain consists of the producer, importer, roaster, and barista. By having 5lb bags of green coffee on hand, I had an opportunity to see if I could do what these amazing local roasters do and pull something amazing out of a cup. I wanted to see that by changing the roast and brew methods, how that could change the taste?
My morning cup of coffee was not just a pick-me-up. It was an experiment and a journey that I wanted to experience.
After we moved to Montana and purchased our Bed & Breakfast, Good Medicine Lodge. it was clear to me that there was an opportunity in the way we serve our coffee each morning to guests. We are known for our amazing breakfast but how could we match that level to our coffee service?
I started out by roasting with a small countertop roaster during the slower seasons when I knew I could keep up with the demands. However, by Summer our B&B was bustling with guests who all loved to drink coffee. I had to outsource our coffee because we could not produce enough volume to supply the lodge. We chose to go with Black Coffee Roasting Co. out of Missoula, MT to serve our guests. They roast using third-wave methods, they were good, local and above all our guests loved it. But like any decent quality coffee, that comes with a price tag. When you are running a small business, you are always considering your options and cost. Since I loved roasting coffee already and knew I could produce a great cup, I knew I had to find a solution. I would spend countless hours on the internet looking for ways to produce large quantities of amazing coffee that ticked all the boxes. From modifying BBQ grill’s and bread makers to going with larger capacity home roasters, no option was overlooked. A new large capacity roaster was out of the question due to the cost. Then one day, I just happened to stumble across an older model called the San Franciscan Coffee Roaster in Kalispell, MT. Only twenty minutes away. With one look at the photos and then a glance at the manufacturer’s images and websites online, I could see the incredible craftmanship. It was American-made and completely serviceable if at any time a part would fail. I knew I was over my head on this but bought it anyway. My wife just about freaked. No, she did freak out. But I managed to sweetly talk her off the ledge. I convinced her that this purchase was a necessity for the business.
I had a friend come with me to pick up the roaster from the seller. It weighed close to 300 pounds. I was able to get it off the back of the truck and into our garage. My first thought was, “where am I going to put this thing?” It has a natural gas hook up and I talked to a friend who happens to be a plumber (Chris Brewer from Royal Flush Plumbing) about piping the machine. Not liking the options, I decided to convert the roaster to propane. I ordered a kit to do the conversion and was confident that I could do this from my quick search on the internet. My conversion kit arrived, and I was able to confidently make the necessary changes. I was excited when I started up the roaster and was able to run it off a propane tank from a gas grill. But for some reason I was not getting the correct gas pressure to run the machine at capacity. San Franciscan (the coffee roasting company) is known for its customer service and in no time, I was able to connect with their tech support to help me through my issue. As we were adjusting the solenoid valve, my alien key hit a wire and suddenly POOF! The roaster shut off. My heart dropped into my stomach and then the cold sweat started. I did not know what happened, but I knew it was not good. Looking back, I can chuckle about what happened, but at the time I was trying my hardest not to lose my cool.
Doing my best to maintain the calmest tone possible, this is how the conversation went with tech support:
Me: “My roaster just shorted and shut off”.
Technician: “Why did you have it on”?
Me: “You told me to have it on, so we could adjust the gas pressure”
Technician: “Oh yeah, well I’m going to have to have someone get back to you who is better suited to help you with this”.
Me: “…awkward silence… ok then…”
I hung up and was sweating from the gravity of the situation. All I could think about was how I was going to fix this. First, I started with changing out the fuses. No luck. I made a call to the guy who works on our furnace, he laughed and wished me good luck.
I was overwhelmed. The roaster is a machine that was somewhere between a wood stove and a furnace but who from that world could I call to help me? The only option was to send it back to the company in Nevada to have it repaired. That would entail putting it on a pallet and shipping it freight. How much was this going to cost? Along with the cost of the repairs needed? How long was all this going to take? My dream of roasting for the lodge was crashing down around me. In an instant, my vision of being part of the specialty coffee movement was just as far-fetched as it was before I had the roaster. My dreams were crushed.
But then, I had an idea. I made a call to a friend of mine (Brian Greger) who is an electrical engineer for Amazon.
We Face-timed for no joke, three hours! We produced a plan on how to go about making the needed repairs. It involved ordering a new transformer. If that did not work, then we would order an intermittent pilot lighter. If that did not work, then we would order a new solenoid. After all those were replaced, I had to get piping to reattach all the parts I just replaced. There were countless trips to the hardware store. Eventually, I also found additional assistance I needed from a masonry store located in Kalispell, MT. Called “Anderson Masonry”. They gave me the flex tube I needed and then I was on to the next step.
Now I needed to figure out a way to vent this thing. After a quick internet search, I found what I needed and ordered the parts. However, they did not fit. Ugh! Then I ordered more venting and that did not fit either! So, I went back to the Anderson Masonry for some much-needed assistance. We ordered additional parts, and I finally got it to code and work. Woo Hoo! Such a labor of love.
There I was, finally, roasting coffee but I still did not have the pressure needed to run this roaster at capacity. I had a furnace guy come over and help me trouble shoot what the problems were. I needed a different regulator, he said. I went online again and ordered something I thought was right. But again, I was wrong, and it did not work. I was able to get on the phone with a guy out of Texas and worked for or owned Tejass Smokers who was kind enough to help me through what I needed. And after so many trials and tribulations I was back in business!
As I started roasting for the lodge, people started to take notice and asked if they could purchase it. The fun part of sharing coffee with our guests was how people seemed to enjoy it. A good cup of coffee is a conversation starter. It is a wonderful way to start the morning and combine that with all our great food here at Good Medicine Lodge and our relaxing accommodations, it all really encompasses our passion to provide you as the guest with quite the experience.
Part of roasting commercially is maintaining a maintenance schedule. I was doing my monthly maintenance. I was applying my special food grade grease to the zurts (the thing you attach you grease gun to), and it is not accepting the grease. What the heck! I hop on Facebook and connect with a group of San Fransiscan roasters and put the question out as to why this is not working for me. One gentleman was kind enough to help me get to the bottom if my issue. The roaster still worked, but its days were numbered because if the bearings dry and seize they could waterfall into a whole bunch of other problems like the motor burning out or the drive shaft snapping. Yeah, all not good!
I eventually discovered that I had to replace the flange bearing. I was able to have someone walk me through which one to order. As I started pulling everything apart, I could not remove the bearing. A.J. from Valhalla Coffee Roasters in Tacoma, Washington (the guy how helped me diagnose the issue) made himself available whenever needed. He even sent me a bunch of extra parts and a bearing puller to remove the bearing! Interactions like that restore my faith in humanity. A.J. was awesome and talked me through all my questions, sharing all his knowledge. I am forever indebted to A.J. because if it were not for him, I would not be sitting here sharing my story. I would still be trying to trouble shoot what the problems were and figuring out how to fix them.
I am sure my journey tinkering with my coffee roaster is not behind me. Looking back, over the last year working on my roaster I have learned many valuable lessons. First off, the feeling of accomplishment was so gratifying. Figuring it out, asking the right questions and the troubleshooting process has been something I never experienced before. In my old world of fitness, it was always a work in progress. I never really hit an achievement and considered my work done. Always moving toward my next event and sharpening the sword. Trying to become faster and stronger… never really appreciating the moment.
I also have come to learn that I can figure it out! Do not get me wrong, I still make panic-stricken calls to my plumber and once he talks me off the ledge, we have a plan to fix what I need to. I also have more confidence to jump into unfamiliar projects. I could not do this with the help of the people who graciously share their experience with me. The relationships I have developed over these projects have given me new friendships and a sense of community I never felt before. One that has me growing in ways that I never knew I had in me. In a strange way I am still doing what I’ve always known. Sharing my love and passion for what I am doing here with the guests at Good Medicine Lodge. I just happen to be a better version of what I was. All of this is because of my desire to chase the perfect cup of coffee.