A look inside the highly caffeinated life of a coffee roaster
By Dan Gentile @dannosphere Most people start their day with a cup of coffee, but only a dedicated few turn that one cup into thousands. Before a bag of coffee beans ends up in the hands of a condescending barista or is coarsely ground in the kitchen of the French Press Hard-On Guy, somebody's gotta turn those raw, green caffeine nuggets into the brown bombshells that we all know and love.
To give a window into a roaster's daily grind, we visited Cuvée Coffee just outside of Austin, TX and shadowed the staff for nine very caffeinated hours. You'll get a closer look at the roasting process, as well as an incredibly thorough brewing course with an emphasis on the science of flavor. But mostly there are pretty pictures of coffee! Continue Reading Related Stories
Each day starts with a cupping session to test the quality of the previous day's roast. The entire staff circles the tasting table, slurping spoonfuls of coffee and noting irregularities in the flavor profiles.
A violent slurp is important because it sends the coffee across every part of the mouth, from the tip of the tongue, which is most in-tune with sweetness, to the back of the mouth, which has evolved to taste bitterness. That bitterness can trigger a gag reflex as protection against dangerous substances. Like instant coffee. Related Stories
Meanwhile, Mike, the owner, is breaking open a bag of unroasted beans. The burlap sacks are lined with GrainPro bags that can keep the beans fresh for up to a year. This is important because roasters generally buy a year's worth of product at a time, using an importer as both a credit line and storage facility. Related Stories
Every two weeks they receives a truckload of 40-50 bags, each of which weighs roughly 130lbs. Cuvée is intimately acquainted with their farmers, who make regular appearances on their Instagram account.
Every bag of beans is roasted to order and tagged with a sticker showing origin, roast date, and tasting notes, ranging from their Rwanda Virunga (sweet citrus acidity, red grape, chocolate brownie) to the Dead Fingers blend (dark chocolate leads and ripe cherry finish).
Similar to how beer brewers break down the starch in grain into sugar, roasting beans is all about forcing the complex polysaccharides to the surface of the bean. As those sugars caramelize, the color turns from green to brown.
Head roaster Logan will fill this 30kg hopper at least 10 times throughout the course of a day. Today, they've got 900lbs of orders to fill, but, on their busiest days, they can nearly one ton of beans. Which would be this guy's absolute worst nightmare.
The highly customized roaster features an industrial ribbon burner that keeps the temperature even across the length of the flame. Each type of bean has an ideal roasting time between 13 and 15 minutes -- so not every bean is lucky enough to experience 15 minutes of flame.
A small window in the roasting drum allows the roaster to see the color of the beans, but nobody's eyeballing it. A pet peeve of the Cuvée staff is the idea that some guy in a tight sweater drinking a dainty cup of espresso is hovering over the machinery checking the color and smell. If it's a professional operation, everything is automated, and the only coffee whispering going on is gossip about other roasters.
After the time's up, the beans spill onto the cooling tray at temperatures over 400 degrees. They smell downright intoxicating, but if you touch them, it will be the absolute worst part of waking up.
The beans are kept in motion, while air is sucked through the perforated metal grate, chilling down the beans. Cool them too quickly, and the coffee will stale more quickly; too slow, and it will lose 50% of its sucrose (that's the good stuff!).
The coffee is then vacuumed out of the cooling wheel, and anything that weighs more than a bean drops to the bottom of the hopper. Cuvée finds a few stones a day, which have the potential to totally devastate a really fancy coffee grinder. On Mike's last trip to El Salvador, he took a bag of these stones to the farmers, who likely were embarrassed to be caught getting stoned.
You can order more than 15 different varieties from Cuvée's online shop, and that's not counting signature roasts for Austin restaurants like La Condesa. Every bag needs a sticker, so everyone on the crew is intimately familiar with this station.
Like any good dealer, Cuvée's supplier occasionally scores special, super-dank greens. The roastery keeps a stash box of these to test out on slow afternoons. The choicest of these might make it into the regular rotation.
Once the beans are roasted, they pass through the Weigh Right machine into 1kg bags.
Cuvée goes through over 50,000lbs of their San Jose Ocaña a year, so this PLEXPACK machine is crucial. It seals off each bag against coffee's four primary enemies: moisture, heat, light, and oxygen.
In the meantime, Cuvée's tasting room is turned into a science class, as Lorenzo walks three of the newer employees through an all-day brewing class. Courses are also offered to the public, ranging from beginning espresso technique to milk science.
The four main factors in achieving the "greatest possible flavor development in an acceptable concentration" (a definition coined by MIT scientist Dr. Earl E. Lockhart in the '60s) are grind size, amount of beans, water temperature, and brew time.
In order to create the best-tasting coffee beans, brewing errors can't taint the roaster's impressions of the flavor. To learn to recognize the source of off-flavors, the staff tastes flights of coffee in which each variable is controlled.
This flight tested brewing time, and reminded everyone of the Goldilocks story. The left cup wasn't brewed long enough and had a vegetable-like taste akin to zucchini or squash, the right cup was brewed too long and was equally gross, and the middle cup was brewed just right and displayed hints of tropical fruit.
Brewing time is crucial, but how fast you drink your coffee is also very important.
70% of the flavor leaves coffee within the first two minutes, and specialty coffee standards dictate that, after 15 minutes, it's officially stale. In terms of espresso, you've got about 20 seconds before those volatile aromas leave the liquid.
But all this brewing stuff is pretty subjective, right? Wrong, says the refractometer! The staff uses pipets to drop small quantities of coffee into this tool to measure the precise concentration of coffee to water.
The coffee concentration is then charted electronically against extraction percentage (grounds are weighed before and after brewing to measure how much dissolves), and lines of best fit are drawn across the Coffee Control Chart based on the amount of beans used.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America has defined a Gold Cup standard in the center of the chart, with other areas telling whether the coffee is too weak/strong or underdeveloped/bitter. In a sense, coffee flavors are completely objective... as decided on by a room full of people whose hands won't stop shaking.
Back in the roasting area, Logan is kegging Cuvée's Black & Blue cold brew for distribution throughout Austin. Little known fact: most cold brew is not technically considered coffee, but rather a "coffee-like substance", as the grounds don't dissolve in cold water.
The Black & Blue develops a heady foam thanks to a healthy dose of nitrogen added during kegging. In addition to cranking out kegs of B&B, they're always experimenting with new variations of the cold brew. Here, a batch ages in a Balcones bourbon barrel.
Near the end of the day, the entire staff tastes each new batch of cold brew to make sure that the flavor is on-point. This is, coincidentally, at the time of day when they are most in need of some iced coffee.
Once the beans are bagged, the cold brew's kegged, and class is dismissed, it's time to sweep up the errant beans into the shape of Texas. You shouldn't mess with Texas, but it's fine to turn a mess into it.
After the day's work is done, a shift usually ends with a brew of an entirely non-caffeinated variety.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. The only thing he spends more money on than coffee is tacos, both of which he consumes at any time of day. Follow him to breakfast tacos and evening espresso at @Dannosphere.