Café Imports’ ‘Stump the Roaster’ brings Bay Area coffee community together
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
œIt’s got a dual meaning, says Café Imports’ Joe Marrocco as he introduces the panelists for the latest installment of the roasting-focused series Stump the Roaster. œWe’re putting the roasters on stumps to learn more about them, and we also want to ask them hard questions that might stump them. Stump the Roaster, as one of the panelists put it, is like œtaking a band and highlighting the drummer for a minute. The discussion series that Café Imports has hosted in Portland, Ore., Melbourne, Australia, and most recently, Berkeley, Calif., brings to the forefront the hard work and dedication that roasters put into the coffee supply chain, which can often be overlooked or ignored since much of this work is done behind the scenes. The latest iteration of this series took place last Thursday at the Bay Area Co-Roasters space, and was particularly noteworthy for a number of reasons.
To list these reasons would be to devalue just how special all the components of this event were, but we gotta start somewhere, so let’s start with the panel. Six roasters and green-coffee professionals were chosen representing a wide breadth of experience and expertise, and all the panelists happened to be women. œYou don’t have to be a manimal to roast coffee, said Jen Apodaca, director of roasting at Royal Coffee Importers in Oakland. The panelists discussed the myths that roasters need to be big, strong men to handle the often physically demanding work of roasting coffee, and ways in which they and their companies have found smart ways to avoid undue strain. œWe invented a hoist to hold up green coffee bags, and we simply slice them open and there you go. Work smarter, not harder, said Mandy Spirito, roaster for Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco.
After some additional discussion about the misinformed perception that one must be big and burly to roast coffee, the Stump the Roaster conversation focused much more on the panelists themselves as opposed to their gender. All the speakers shared stories of not knowing what questions to ask or things to care about, like Jamie Smith, head roaster at Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco, who said, œpeople would tell me in the beginning that nothing matters before first crack, but the moment you start roasting a coffee, everything matters. Many of the panelists agreed that when they began roasting, information was scarce and that there were times where, as Jamie put it, œthings were painted as if you should already know them. But as time wore on, many felt more comfortable with their craft, like Buffy McGuire of Java Beach Cafe in San Francisco, who finds the rules of roasting to sometimes be confining: œSometimes I just put the coffee in and see what happens ¦breaking free of rules really liberated me.
Perhaps the reason the conversation leaned more on the experiences of the panelists and not their gender was the second thing that made this event special: the location. The San Francisco Bay Area is unique in that there are a number of powerful coffee innovators working throughout the region who also happen to be women. œIt’s really not an accident, said Trish Rothgeb of Wrecking Ball, a legendary coffee professional in her own right who was part of the audience at this event, referring to the panelists. œI feel compelled to share the stories of the women before me, she said, referencing Bay Area legends like Erna Knutsen of Knutsen Coffees, Teri Hope of Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, and Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell of Equator Coffees & Teas.
œThis is not a panel I could have done anywhere else, Joe Marrocco shared. œI’ve been on the phone with roasters, who call me looking for people, and when I say I know an awesome female, they’ll say, ˜eh, we’re kind of looking for a dude.’ In the Bay Area, however, female roasters are common and leaders are plentiful. From Trish to Katie Cargulio, head of West Coast Coffee Operations for Counter Culture, who were members of the audience, to the co-founder of the Bay Area Co-Roasting Space, Floy Andrews, the Bay Area hosts a plethora of female coffee innovators.
This account of the audience only hits on some of the notable members of the local coffee community in attendance, because to count them all would be near impossible. And that brings me to the third thing that made this event special: attendance. Well more than 150 members of the coffee community came for the panel, which well above previous Stump the Roaster audiences, Joe noted. People drove down from as far as Sacramento and San Jose to see this group talk and share their experiences, and to drink and be merry with other members of the community at large.
œYou can teach anyone to roast in a few days, Jamie said, œand there’s this long stigma that coffee roasting needs to be secretive, but it doesn’t. This sentiment echoed the general theme of this panel, which emphasized openness and communication. Panelists were frank and gave real answers to questions, like how to make your roaster not hate you ( œif you want your roaster to like you, ask them where they are on the roast, Jen advised) to why they got into roasting in the first place, ( œpeople are difficult, shared Caitlin McCarthy-Garcia of Atlantic Specialty Coffee Inc., eliciting a loud cheer from the audience), and Joe encouraged members of the audience to ask questions.
The crowd lingered long after the panel was over, which goes to show just how excited and engaged the audience was. Groups splintered off and spilled into the adjoining parking lot, where a saint of gentleman who was only identified as Mike dispensed beers from Russian River Valley to patrons. œIn 2005, in Portland, [Ore.] no one was sharing information, Jen noted earlier. Looking at the crowd at the end of the night, however, it’s almost impossible to imagine that could have ever been true. Stump The Roaster was a beautiful and engaging night filled with laughs, information, and some serious real talk from some serious coffee pros.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @ashcommonnam