By Phil Beattie
In the late ’90s, the café culture in the United States was rapidly accumulating new faces, including pilots, engineers, and pretty much everyone else with a 401(k) who was hoping to cash in on the burgeoning specialty coffee marketplace. As the café movement spread—enveloping both the east and west coasts as well as many interior metropolises, and then spreading from those points—eager entrepreneurs were diving headfirst into the business of coffee retailing. By 2000, for many that dive also included learning the craft of roasting.
This rapid growth of the specialty coffee industry, however exciting, posed a potential threat to its very foundation of continued development and appreciation of an exquisite cup of coffee. With the number of new players in the industry quickly outnumbering that of the experts there was an increasing volume of average coffee being passed off as Specialty. In many cases this was due not to malice, but purely out of inexperience.
Companies that established the concept of specialty coffee for most consumers, such as Peet’s, Starbucks, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, had entire divisions of experts focused on the scientific development of their roasting processes and continued to emphasize the importance of quality and differentiation to millions of American consumers. But for many small roasters elevating quality and continuing to proliferate that message could be particularly challenging, considering that many small coffee businesses often have one person managing all equipment and production requirements, as well as marketing, training, and all other aspects of day-to-day business.
There was clearly a need for further educational opportunities pertaining to roasting within the specialty industry, and in 2000, a small group of visionaries sought to create this opportunity for small roasters in what would be billed as the Roasters Guild Retreat.
Planting the seeds
That first gathering of roasters at McMenamins Lodge outside of Portland would set the spirit of camaraderie and discovery that still embodies the Guild 10 years later. This initial retreat proved to be perfectly suited to the rustic style of the typical craft roaster, complete with all of the obstacles of setting up impromptu roasting stations in the basement of an old lodge. Many of these fuel and electrical supply issues would provide spontaneous lessons on troubleshooting, a skill that every roaster needs.
“That first Roasters Guild Retreat was kind of like a gathering of the tribes,” says Peter Giuliano, director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee. “The people at that time who were communicating through email about the proto-Roasters Guild were having great discussions, and were already blowing my mind with coffee professionalism and passion. I went to that first retreat inspired by the prospect of interacting with my peers—and my idols—in coffee. I’d met a lot of these people already through the SCAA, but this was the first time that we truly coffee-oriented people were taking the time to get away and talk about nothing but coffee.”
During the event, coffees were roasted using countless techniques from standard to absurd, and nothing was off limits as roasters compared notes to find the perfect roast. Coffees were cupped and rich dialogue of all things coffee stretched to the wee hours of the morning as passionate professionals plotted the course of our industry.
For attendees like Giuliano, there were other valuable lessons as well. “I was, at that time, struggling to get my roastery certified organic,” he says. “I had already failed one inspection, and I had no idea how to proceed…At one point on the front steps of McMenamins, I expressed this frustration to a group of roasters who were sitting around talking. Paul Thornton—who I didn’t know at the time—said ‘Oh, it’s not that big a deal. I’ll tell you what to do.’ He proceeded to sit on those steps and explain to me exactly what I needed to do to get my roastery certified. It took about an hour and a half. I was so amazed and stoked that a fellow roaster would take the time to help me with something I was having trouble with. That incredible generosity has really stayed with me for years.”
Giuliano wasn’t the only one who had this kind of experience; ripples from this first retreat spread quickly through the coffee world and anticipation of the next retreat was palpable. Finally, the geeks of roasting had an event to call their own.
As the Retreats continued, the technical difficulties eased with each year of compounded experience. Thus, retreats became events with streamlined educationally intense character during the days, with coffee dialogues and evening roasting sessions maintaining the spirit of that first retreat in Portland. As the years progressed, the Retreat began to draw international attention and attendance. Classes spanning the scope of green coffee farming to sorting and grading were integrated to facilitate roasters with the full scope of the supply chain.
With selection of green coffees being one of the largest factors dictating the quality of coffee that a roaster is capable of producing, classes on this subject were a major focus of early retreats. Varietal cuppings, defect cuppings, and the effects of fermentation on the cup were just some of the many complex sessions offered early on. The inclusion of coffee farmers, exporters and importers into the Retreat collective expanded the depth and breadth of available information.
Over the years, the Roasters Challenge has become the foundation for the format of Retreat. In this event, introduced at the first retreat, attendees are grouped into teams balanced in roasting experience. These teams then spend the weekend roasting and learning together, all in the unified goal of taking the provided coffees and competing against other teams to discover the perfect roast.
The team aspect of Retreat is less about the competition—although that is certainly entertaining—and is more about the interactions between veteran roasters and those with less experience. The format of this event encourages team discussions where those that are new to the industry expose veterans to fresh ideas and outlooks, and the new are privy to the roasting wisdom that has been passed from master to apprentice for years.
Of course none of these opportunities would be possible without the quiet guidance of the roaster manufacturers and their generous support of Retreat. Providing fully functioning roasting equipment as well as insight, Ambex, Diedrich, Probat, US Roasters Corp as well as countless volunteers and industry professionals have been assuring that equipment is onsite in proper working order to facilitate roasting, experimenting and learning.
Many manufacturers, coffee producers, importers, and roaster attendees over the years have shown very different philosophies as to how coffee should be roasted and how coffee should taste, but the one uniting factor is the belief that far too few people are enjoying great coffee. The purchase and enjoyment of a great cup of coffee by a consumer provides the promise of prosperity for this specialty coffee supply chain that stretches across the globe.
The Roasters Guild, and specifically the retreat, provides the tools, knowledge and interactions that will allow any roaster, regardless of experience, to take their roasting abilities to a higher level. As the sales people worry about getting your coffee in front of people and trying to convince them it’s the best, the job of the roaster is make sure that the coffee will speak for itself.
A Return to the Northwest and Coffee Passion
With this goal of providing roasters with the tools they need to produce a better coffee, the 10th anniversary Retreat is going back to basics with classes focused on quality assurance.
New to the retreat last year was the addition of optional classes offered on the Thursday prior to the event. Their popularity has them returning for this year, with the focus being on assessing green coffee for purchase. Additionally, SCAA’s popular Instructor Development Program will be available on Thursday for a discounted rate to attendees of the retreat. Attendees of the Thursday programming can challenge themselves and test tasting abilities with the sensory skills test, or learn the science of green coffee grading based on the SCAA’s defects grading book, or learn the principles of adult learning and instructional design- all of the Thursday offerings provide tremendous value to coffee businesses of any size.
The highlight of Retreat—the Roasters Challenge—is titled “Guatta Love It.” As the title suggests, attendees have the privilege of working with six of the finest green coffees from Guatemala. Guatemala’s specialty coffee association, Anacafé, has graciously provided these coffees for everyone’s roasting pleasure. The challenge this year will be to roast these coffees in any way that the team decides is fitting and create a blend that will knock the socks off the competition.
As usual there will be a variety of roasting equipment available, and virtually unlimited green coffee to work with. If the past is any indication, these roasters will be working late into the night as the “roasting hardcores” attempt to coax all that they can out of these green coffees.
New at this year’s Retreat is a session called “The SCAA Cupping form & Peer Calibration,” this class will be a great tool for learning the basics of scoring coffees, as well as great exercises to develop a common language for grading coffees among professionals.
Phil Beattie is Director of Coffee for Dillanos Coffee Roasters and Secretary Treasurer for the Roasters Guild Executive Council. His first Retreat was 2001 at Lake Lawn Resort, Delavan Wisconsin, and he credits that retreat for sparking the flame of his coffee passion.