Roasting as an Art, Part 1: The Roasters

The Roasters of Zoka Coffee Company

by: Erik Evenson

Rumpelstiltskin used to turn straw into gold. No one knew or cared how he did it; the only thing that mattered was the final product, and everyone only ended up greedily wanting more. In the world of specialty coffee, roasters feel a similar pressure, but even less appreciation in the public eye. For twelve hours a day, Zoka’s roasters work tirelessly behind the scenes, transforming green coffee shipped directly to the roasterie from around the world into the rich, aromatic beans that customers consume every day at the cafe or buy for use on private machines in their homes. “Keep it coming, ” everyone seems to be saying. “We don’t care how you do it; just make sure it tastes good.”

Even the most discerning coffee enthusiasts (customers, baristas, you and I) know little about these people behind perhaps the most nebulous and certainly one of the most important links in the chain of artisan coffee: the roasting. Theirs is a mysterious art, overlooked, prone to misunderstanding, and full of intrigue. Most people wouldn’t find it too far-fetched if they were told that roasting coffee is done in the dark corners of caves by little elves in their time off from making shoes. Roasters, some would say in hushed tones, perform alchemy.

And in a way, this notion isn’t too far-fetched.

So who really does roast your coffee? Who are these alchemists who turn the straw into gold, so to speak? Zoka employs three of them, and none of them are elves. In this first part of two blogs dedicated to roasting, some formal introductions are in order. For God’s sakes, these people are in charge of making your morning cup taste the way it does! Meet them. Get to know them. Learn to love them. Their creations are in your grinder at this very moment.

Drew Billups

Drew Billups already knows how much espresso he is going to drink for the day: three shots- two in the morning and then a single cappuccino in the afternoon. He makes his own drinks on the espresso machine in Zoka’s roasterie using beans he most likely roasted himself. Drew learned how to roast coffee almost seven years ago in Muncie, Indiana – not the most likely place one might associate with coffee roasting. He began roasting when the company he worked at began roasting. His learning process was organic, fueled by the spirit of experimentation and growth in his roasting art. Drew spent four years at the coffee shop in Indiana until he moved to Seattle with his wife two and a half years ago to roast for Zoka.

As Drew stands by the 1964 Probat roaster that Zoka uses to roast its beans, he tells me that roasting coffee is not unlike other culinary professions. “It takes a certain type of person, someone who is self-motivated, has a natural propensity towards the love of good work, and pays attention to detail.” As he says this, he checks the half-roasted beans in the trier (a detachable rod used to observe beans as they are being roasted) in the bright light over our heads for the amount of smoke the beans are giving off. Our conversation runs in shifts because Drew is constantly recording numbers from a gauge or adjusting the intensity of the burners under the roasting drum. What he exactly is shooting for, I can only imagine.

Drew was a music composition major in college, a field of study he says that has helped him with roasting. “It definitely requires the balance of the left and right brain, just like in music. You need both imagination and precision to be a successful roaster.”

Drew’s profession has become a family affair. His sister, Lori Billups, roasts coffee for Alliance World Coffees, where Drew first learned how to roast. His favorite coffees right now are Kenya AA Chinga and Panama Las Marianas.

Jeff Shafer

Jeff walks into the roasterie in the mornings carrying his preferred mode of transportation. After hooking his bike to a latch on the wall in the corner of the roasterie, he walks into the bathroom each morning, bag in hand, and comes out a few minutes later donning regular guy clothes instead of a cycling outfit. He is the resident southpaw of the group, which doesn’t alter his roasting techniques, but does look backwards when he jots down crack times of the beans.

Jeff started roasting along the Nickel Plate Road, in the city of St. Louis. He helped open a bike shop/cafe in 1997 that he named Java Hub. He quickly moved on to Kaldi’s, a roasterie in St. Louis where he began learning the art of roasting on a 25lb. San Franciscan Roaster. He roasted for five years at Kaldi’s in St. Louis, until, when in 2002, he moved to Seattle with his wife and began roasting intermittently at Zoka while roasting was still becoming a burgeoning department within the company. The roaster itself was still located in Zoka’s Greenlake shop.

Today, though, Jeff is firmly established, along with Zoka’s roasterie, which is now located separately from the cafes in Interbay, just east of Magnolia. He darts back and forth from the roaster to the cupping table, tasting the single origins and blends he concocted the day before.

I ask Jeff when the most crucial time is during the roast. He thinks about it before he replies, “From the time coffee is dropped into the roaster until the time it comes out.” He tells me that half and quarter batches, the proportions that are often used to roast Zoka’s Artisan reserve coffees, require the most attention in order to hit the first crack of the beans perfectly. I ask him what the first crack is and that starts an entirely new conversation.

Jeff also has a penchant for photography (some of his photographs were featured in Barista Magazine) and frequently talks politics over a pressed El Salvador. He also enjoys Sumatra Lake Tawar and when prodded can mimic a pretty mean mid-western accent.

Chris Davidson

Chris, as roastmaster of Zoka’s roasting department, isn’t without his routines. When I walk into the roasterie at eight in the morning, bleary eyed and half awake, I find Chris easily into his second hour of roasting for the day. A French press sits on the cupping table already half gone. He looks at me, his baseball cap backwards, smiles and says, “What’s going on, man?”

Chris has been at Zoka since 1999. His path towards roasting coffee has been a winding one, with a few detours along the way. He first discovered Zoka as a customer, spending hours a day in the Greenlake cafe while studying ethnomusicology. He quickly applied as a barista and spent the winter of 1999 working both at Zoka and a drive-thru espresso bar called Steamers. He originally had plans of becoming an upright bass player and still dabbles, picking up the occasional gig. In the summer of 2001, Chris spent four months in New York, hoping to find work as a musician. Oddly enough, it was there that he realized that 1) he wanted to dedicate his time to coffee and 2) he couldn’t do it in New York. So, he came back to Seattle in the fall of 2001 and traveled once again, this time with Zoka to Norway for the Nordic barista jam. It was there that his decision to make coffee a career solidified. When he came home, he soon learned the art of roasting and became head roaster of Zoka in 2003. That same year, he spearheaded a small group of volunteers to create The Barista Guild of America, a trade guild of the Specialty Coffee Association.

It is pouring outside when I talk to Chris. When I ask him what the most important aspect about roasting is he gives me a surprising answer: cupping. Of course, this will need some explanation. “Before you put any single origin bean into the hopper for roasting, you have to know what kind of flavor profile you are shooting for,” Chris explains as he scoops green coffee beans into a bucket to record the weight. “You have to know if you want to roast for acidity, for body; what do you want to bring out of that particular coffee? What strengths does it have? The ultimate goal is to enhance the intrinsic characteristics of the specific bean you are roasting.”

Chris’s favorite coffee right now is Colombia and he loves roasting Sumatra Lake Tawar because of its always varied flavor profiles. He also likes Latin and Funk music, and one would be hard pressed to find a Coen Brothers movie he hasn’t seen.

Want to know what a first crack is and why it is so vital? Want to understand the differences between African and Central American coffee and how they are roasted accordingly? Come back for the second part of the roasting blog where you will learn about these things and more:

Roasting 101, coming shortly.