An Interview with Colby Barr of Verve Coffee Roasters

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How and when did you begin working in the coffee industry? (What was your first coffee job, or did it all start with Verve?)

I began working in the coffee industry in 2005; my first foray into coffee was actually as a business owner. I had finished college and was working a “professional” “job” using my “degree” (Environmental Geography and GIS). I liked the field, but had always planned on having my own business. One day, while sitting in a coffeehouse, I had the classic epiphany: “Hey, I should open a coffeehouse!” I always loved coffee, and the culture of cafes, and thought it could be a perfect match for me. One thing led to another, and in seeking advice from the shop’s owner, I actually ended up taking it over from him that very year. That cafe taught me so much. It’s also where I met Jared Truby, who was working there at the time. We went to our first barista competition together, where we met Chris Baca and so many others. That was the kickoff.

What made you decide to open a coffee-roasting company?

Fast-forward exactly one year from the day I entered coffee: I was reflecting about what should happen next. I had had an incredible (and exhausting) first year, and completely fallen into the abyss of coffee. I had become obsessed with quality, standards, and was really becoming intrigued with what makes coffee great before it gets to your shop. There were not many resources at the time in California, so it felt pretty mysterious; I knew the only way to find out was to do it myself. I had an acquaintance from college who I knew was coffee-crazy. He had always worked in coffee, done home roasting, and had a real knack for developing espressos. I knew he also wanted to open a coffee business. I was sitting on a curb at the farmer’s market in Chico, California (where I lived) and spontaneously called my now-business partner, Ryan O’Donovan. I said, “We should open a roasting company in the Bay Area.” He and I don’t waste much time, so two days later I was at his house and we were looking for spaces.

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How did you go about learning about coffee-buying practices? Was it a calculated effort (education, training) or more of an organic process (on the job)?

There is no school to learn how to buy coffee. You have to teach yourself. That said, it would never have happened for me without the generosity and incredible patience of a handful of people early on. Andi Trindle, Andrew Miller, Jason Long, Ian Kluse, and Jennifer Huber really helped me understand the market, the nuances of region, seasonality, booking strategies, and how to build an aggressive and responsible position. I was that kid that would call and just keep asking questions. I was desperate to understand, and they really helped me get up to speed quickly. I would like to officially say thank you to them for answering the phone when they saw me on Caller ID!

The other half of the coursework (probably more like three-quarters) lies in origin. What you learn in an eight-hour truck ride in Guatemala can trump all the other coffee knowledge you ever had. When you are with farmers, and millers, and exporters, you are basically in a live Wikipedia moment. You can ask anything and get answers. “What is your tree spacing? Why do you ferment like this, why do you dry like that? What happens if the rains don’t come? What are you doing to combat rust?” All of this info stacks up, and as you travel to these countries, you see trends as well as gaps. It is possibly my favorite part of the job. I’m kind of an information addict.

Lastly, learn and use Excel or another spreadsheet program. It will save your ass.

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You’re the co-owner of Verve, but you also act as the green buyer. Do you work with a green-buying team or others in the company who help make decisions about potential coffees? 

For years, I was the only green buyer. I would always get Ryan and others to cup with me back at home but it ultimately fell on my shoulders, especially at origin. Now I have a great resource in Jesse Crouse, who travelled with me last year to get calibrated at origin, and will be doing some traveling and lot selection on his own this year. We still do final approvals collaboratively in our lab whenever possible, which is great. We also have Chris Jordan, who has a very deep background in sourcing. We collaborate strategically on coffees, but he’s pretty busy with everything we have going on and counts on us to run the buying program.

Do you have any special or unique rituals when it comes to cupping/purchasing?

Always, always, always cup blind. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. I also like to re-cup a few times (again, blind) to prove to myself that I believe what I believe. This is especially helpful when narrowing selections at origin, as well as when cupping against coffees you already own in the lab at home. It’s easy to want to purchase that coffee you spent three weeks in Ethiopia chasing, but is it truly good? That can be a tough question to face. Cupping blind is the answer.

colb4colb4How much do you travel for this aspect of your role in the company? Are you traveling with importer/exporter partners, or do you work directly with producers themselves to organize the trips? (We’ve heard you talk about the importance of maintaining these links in the supply chain, could you touch on this a bit?)

I travelled about four months last year. You could travel forever and still not even scratch the surface of what is out there to see and discover. You could do that in Colombia, alone, actually.

Every trip is different. Every country is different. Traveling and buying in Ethiopia has nothing to do with traveling and buying in Costa Rica, from a cultural and logistical point of view. That said, sometimes I travel solo and may not really have much lined up, and sometimes it’s very well-organized and I am hopping on someone else’s itinerary. Sometimes you’re in a hotel across from a McDonalds in San Jose, Costa Rica, another time you’re in a soaking-wet tent in western Ethiopia. The travel is as diverse as the coffees you’re seeking. Regardless, you need to connect those links in the supply chain (exporters, importers, et al) one way or another, and incorporate them into your overall buying plan. You can’t do it alone.

What is the most memorable or unusual thing that’s happened to you (or that you’ve witnessed) on a buying trip?

Hmm, there have been so many! The weirdest thing probably has to do with some sort of transportation (goats on motorcycles, motorcycles on taxis with goats on them). It is amazing what people will try to carry. As far as most memorable, it would have to be my first trip to Africa. Touching down in Ethiopia and the first 24 hours there, I will never forget. It is like no place on earth. It’s amazing, challenging, and one of my favorite places to travel.

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You must wear a lot of hats. How do you balance this role with the day-to-day management of a roasting company of this size? What other responsibilities do you have?

It keeps me pretty busy, that’s for sure. The only way it is possible is by having such a great team. You need to have great people surrounding you that you can count on. This allows you to focus on your priorities, and hopefully, those are what you are good at and what energizes you. For me, I love sourcing and developing coffees, and I also love the navigation and challenges of being an entrepreneur. These ends of the business are where I spend my time, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do so.

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What’s next for Verve? Any plans on the horizon that you’re able to share?

It’s a really interesting time at Verve, and for boutique coffee in general. The landscape is changing so rapidly, with venture capital and private-equity money hitting our peers at one end, and so many new, small roasting companies starting every day on the other. Staying independent, and yet wanting to grow our culture and impact, puts Verve in a unique place amongst our peers.

Specifically, we will be opening two new stores this year in Los Angeles (in the Fashion District and West Hollywood) as well as a roastery and cafe in the Arts District in early 2015. There are some other things in the works as well, but I can’t comment just yet. #cantstopwontstop

colbyColby Barr grew up farming in Northern California, where he learned the relationships between farmers, processors, buyers, and consumers. With Colby’s love of coffee and travel, and his experience in farming and supply chain management, he naturally took on the position of Green Coffee Buyer for Verve Roasters, which he founded with partner Ryan O’Donovan in 2007. In this role, he travels the globe to discover and develop the finest coffees in the world, while co-managing the company and its direction.

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