A Peek Behind The Groundwork Curtain
Author | groundwork coffee Date | December 31, 2014
So, where do we keep all of our coffee? Those of you who have visited our little warehouse nestled in a corner of the North Hollywood Arts District know that we can’t possibly keep all of it there. So, where? Well, if it isn’t going to the purchaser’s warehouse, it may be stored in a shared “public” coffee warehouse. Our coffees go to warehouses in Oakland, CA; or they come in through the Port of Los Angeles, a facility called East Bay Logistics (EBL). EBL maintains a substantial location in the Bay Area, in addition to two smaller spaces in SoCal. Here is an example of one coffee’s journey, once landed, and how we work with an outside warehouse.
When our container of Organic Brazil landed at the Port of Los Angeles and cleared customs, we moved it to EBL’s 90,000-square-foot specialized coffee-storage facility in Rancho Dominguez (aka Compton). Upon clearance, we were sent an “arrival sample” selected from a random number of the container bags, designed to create a sample representative of all the coffee in the container. We roasted that sample to SCAA sample spec. At the time, CoffeeCon was only a few days away and we wanted to hand out pre-release samples at the event. In order to do that, we needed to find the coffee’s sweet spot and create a roast profile.
After 20 years spent working with coffee and roasting, I have developed a feel for various coffees and where a particular coffee’s sweet spot might end up. However, while that sense may help to inform where we begin our search, it isn’t definitive. We still have work to do. I call the first step of our profile development process “bracket roasting.” We choose certain pre-defined profiles to which we roast at least three 250-300 gram samples and then cup them to see how the coffee reacts to changes in certain roasting variables. In order to do this, however, we need either a sack of the coffee or a few big samples (most green coffee samples are about 100 grams). It is times like these when it pays to have good relationships with vendors.
Enter Edgar. At EBL SoCal, Edgar is the man. He took me to the facility’s inner sanctum to visit my long-awaited beans. I love walking in warehouses full of green coffee. I like the feeling of being surrounded by massive columns of coffee. The smell, the lighting, the quiet . . . maybe not the dust . . . For me, it’s like walking into a coffee cathedral (but I’ll save those ruminations for another day). Anyway, I followed Edgar into the storage areas. He was carrying a “trier.” To someone who’s never seen one of these tools, they can appear pretty intimidating. How does someone put together a random sample? My rule of thumb: When duct tape alone won’t do it, you’ve gotta have a tool. In this case, that tool is a trier. Look at that thing and let your imagination run wild . . . or maybe don’t.
As I watched Edgar select the sacks from which he was going to pull samples, inserting the trier and pulling out a measured quantity into a waiting plastic bag, I couldn’t help but think about this process. All over the coffee world there are people who pull samples all day long. Stabbing bag after bag after bag after . . . I wonder, what goes through their minds? What are the job requirements for this position? Is there a tryout, or is it just one of those things where everyone simply knows who should get the job? SNAP!
Back to Edgar, who was handing me several pounds of green coffee that he collected. We then headed back to the front office. Having received the sample, I hustled back up to L.A. (Or I did what we refer to as “hustling” in SoCal. In L.A. traffic, any sort of movement on the freeway is a happy occurrence.) As soon as I walked into “The Workshop,” our Director of Coffee, Steven Lee — who had warmed up our profile roaster in anticipation of my arrival — grabbed the samples. I tried to focus on other work while Steven roasted the samples to our predefined profiles, but that didn’t work too well. I was feeling a sense of anticipation akin to awaiting the birth of a child. Not exactly the same thing, but you know what I mean.
Then the roasts were done. We inspected the color and fragrance, and then . . . nothing. The official cupping protocol says that the samples need to be roasted within 24 hours of cupping them and that the beans be allowed to rest for at least eight hours. After roasting, the coffee beans continue to emit gasses for quite some time; the process is called degassing. Ever wonder why there is a one-way air valve on the majority of coffee bags? It is so the gasses can get out and the bag doesn’t explode. The rate coffee emits gas is at its highest in the eight hours after it is roasted. Even though it smells great, those gasses carry negative flavor and could skew our evaluation of a coffee. Personally, I like to let the coffees rest overnight before we cup them.
They say, “Waiting is the hardest part.” I don’t know who they are, but they are correct. But wait is what we had to do. The next morning, Steven measured out the coffees from each profile and we sat down to taste. As a small roaster, we buy large quantities of specialty grade coffee. Each container represents a large investment for us. With as many things that can go wrong between the time the coffee leaves the farm or co-op and lands in Oakland or Los Angeles, it’s always a minor miracle when our expectations and what’s in the cup are perfectly aligned.
While in this case we were able to quickly assess the optimal profile for the Organic Brazil, some coffees are trickier due to their shape, size, moisture content . . . the list goes on. Having decided how we should roast this coffee, we continually monitor it and make adjustments due to changes in moisture, weather, and just the natural process the raw beans go through during the time they are guests in our shared warehouses as well as at our roastery.
I thought that you might enjoy seeing a little bit of what goes on at the Groundwork Roastery and the process of bringing you the best coffees we can find, roasted to our demanding standards. I hope that you pick up a package of our Organic Brazil and that, while you enjoy its soft chocolate notes, you also take a moment to reflect on the invisible lines of connection from your cup all the way back to the farm.