Fear of the Next Step or How I Finally Started Roasting

Even though I have been in the coffee business since 2002, and despite dabbling in roasting since 2012, I just began roasting in 2019. I had numerous reasons (read: excuses) for not starting sooner.

First, I had it in my head that I needed to have three store fronts to make it worthwhile. The cost-benefit analysis said that to make the start up cost of a roastery worthwhile, 3 cafes was the magic number. I watched roaster friends struggle with wholesale accounts and wanted no part of that. (Looking back now, I find it odd that I whole handedly rejected the wholesale model without considering options, including 1. Someone more talented than I could manage this program 2. Wholesale could be very rewarding from an outreach/community perspective 3. Wholesale business could bridge the sales gap I was searching for to build a roastery).

Second, I also wanted more stores because I thought that meant I could make more money, which I found out quickly was not necessarily true (at least not in the way I had done it—more on that in another post).

Third, and most telling, and the absolute biggest reason: I doubted myself. Once I really decided to do it, setting up the roasting program was easy. I was my biggest obstacle.

The roasting world is made up of white men. Gobs of them. And they are loud. And they have opinions. And they take up space, which I have not always allowed myself to do. I was privileged to be invited on my first origin trip to El Salvador and Honduras in 2012. I learned so much and that was where the nascent idea of wanting to roast really fomented itself. I also came away absolutely terrified of starting to roast. These men had great palates, no fear, and big opinions. For an introvert, it was overwhelming. And don’t get me wrong, most of them were kind about sharing information. But the introvert in me came away remembering the loudest ones, the boisterous ones, the ones that left no space for anyone else. I wish I could say I pushed through my own fears at that point, but I didn’t.

However, that trip did help me do one thing: I allowed myself to be open to new possibilities. I was presented with the opportunity a few months later to buy another existing café, El Diablo Coffee Co on Queen Anne in Seattle. That led to the chance to manage a third shop, Royal Drummer Cafe (which I would own outright one day according to the deal once the debt was paid off). I was on my way and started planning a shared roasting space.

However, the spaces were not easy to run. And it is not easy to manage three separate entities with three separate identities and very limited funds. I did not enjoy it and lost sight of what I enjoyed about coffee: the coffee itself, the community and closeness to customers and staff.

In a desperate, almost flailing move towards what I truly wanted; I approached a local roaster about renting time on his machine. I just wanted to start roasting. Deep down I knew that’s where I needed to be focusing my attention. Small batches, perhaps just single origins, perhaps some blends one day, just to get my feet wet. As soon as I started, though, there was no turning back. I took to it. It was everything I had ever wanted and more. The things I had wanted out of roasting came to fruition and were even better than I had hoped. Some of the things I wanted to do or understand:

  1. Interact closely with the coffee, taste it at all steps of the process, understand what tweaks to storing, blending, and roasting would do to it.

  2. The life cycle of coffee production intimately.

  3. How what I tasted on the cupping table could predictably be turned into a production coffee, and how it would taste blended with other coffees.

I also craved the relationships in coffee producing countries and I wanted to do my fair part to ensure producers were paid fairly.

I wish I had started earlier, but I am glad I finally started when I did. It turns out that it is only too late if you never try.