As a part of the newer generation of coffee roasters that is moving coffee away from bold caramelized and smoky flavors to subtler and delicate flavors that make a nuanced cup, Jonathan Meadows and Nathan Shelton, both 24, are relatively green. As is their coffee.
“New school roasting,” as Meadows calls it, takes advantage of the exponentially improving quality of green coffee to roast beans at a temperature where the flavors of coffee will not be covered up by tastes and odors developed if beans are left to roast for a longer time. Green coffee that has been in a roaster for less than five minutes tastes something like pea soup or grass, typical “coffee” flavors begin developing as the beans roast further.
This roasting philosophy has been in the works for years and has now become part of Cultivar’s identity. When the two started their first jobs in the coffee industry they quickly underwent epiphanies that made them reevaluate coffee as a utilitarian beverage and see it as something to be enjoyed.
Meadows and Shelton were both home schooled and met at a Richardson homeschooling cooperative. They went on to study at Richland College, but lost interest in academics when they got jobs as baristas at White Rock Coffee. Suddenly, coffee was their world and the subject of every conversation.
“We would get off work and go have a few beers and we would still be talking about the job—what was wrong with coffee, what was right with it,” Meadows said.
Meadows learned to roast coffee at White Rock and went on to take a year-long internship at Alliance World Coffees in Indiana. As he worked for the company as a barista trainer he soon learned a startling lesson. “I quickly found out everybody else can make better coffee than me. Not only that, but the coffee tasted better than anything I’ve ever had. It was a very mind-blowing experience because I thought that I was really good and it was just a quick slap in the face telling me I know nothing.”
“I started drinking lighter and lighter coffee and started to realize that the lighter it’s roasted the more flavors I taste.”
The danger with roasting lighter is that it uncovers defects in the beans that would otherwise be masked by bolder flavors. Cultivar avoids this by looking for beans that have balance to them.
“We used to find a coffee and it would be interesting. We’d get a natural-washed Ethiopian which typically has some sort of over-the-top berry. We would get really excited about it because it tastes like some over-the-top-berry—it’s unmistakable. I see that happening with people a lot and I know that when I see a coffee drinker drink a natural Ethiopian coffee for the first time I see their excitement because But typically those coffees are so imbalanced. They’re not a cup that you would go back to day after day. It’s not that comfortable cup of coffee…So buying coffee for its balance is, in our opinion, the best way to go about buying coffee. What is the mouth feel of the coffee? How much acidity does it have? It has to be well-rounded…and within that there has to be subtle notes” Meadows said.
However, Shelton is quick to point out that quality of the green beans dictates what you will get out a brewed cup, and this is only getting better in time.
“These changes start at the agricultural level. Especially in the last seven or eight years the quality that’s coming from origin has just skyrocketed. For the first time ever you can get a light roast to taste amazing. Because before it was anywhere under second crack all of these defects in the beans taste terrible. They’re green, they’re baggy, it’s gross, it’s herby—but now you taste it and you have a balance of all of these things. You have green coffee with next to no defects in it,” Shelton said.
Cultivar is using the roaster at Avoca, a San Franciscan brand roaster that has a 15 kilogram coffee. Coffee cracks up to two times while it roasts. The crack is the sound of water escaping from the beans. Roasters listen for this sound to help gauges how done a roast is. Each type of bean is different and roasters try to predetermine the amount of time and temperature it takes to roast a bean to perfection.
“Rather than say ‘I want to make this a light roast’ or ‘I want to make this a dark roast’ for the sake of having a light or dark roast, it’s not about assigning roast levels when we really need a medium roast. The problem is when you roast coffee to second crack in the roasting process the sugars start to burn and that process is caramelizing sugars. Then you get to a point when you start turning everything into carbon…The problem that I have with roasting like that are a direct result of the roast. You’re not tasting the bean anymore because those two flavors are taking over the entire profile of that coffee,” Meadows said.
Meadows also observes that roasters can act like ovens. Finicky ovens in the beginning, they transfer energy through the air in the roaster as well as through conduction as beans are thrown against the hot metal of the drum. Like the first few pancakes made on a griddle, the first few roasts require more attention to get right. This is because the griddle that has hot spots that haven’t heated evenly. Hot spots in the roaster must first be eliminated by allowing the metal and the air inside to avoid making a coffee chimera. It’s not just temperature that roasters worry about; energy transfer proves to be just as important to roast consistency—and consistency is one Cultivar’s main goals. As everything in the roaster comes to equilibrium and comes to a state where only small fluctuations in temperature occur between roasts, coffee starts rolling out like hotcakes.
“In all reality, the difference [between Cultivar’s light and dark] ends up being a variation of about 10 degrees. The lightest roast that I’ve ever done, and it’s different for every roaster – 425 isn’t always 425 … The lightest thing I’ve ever roasted for our company was, let’s say, 408 degrees and the darkest thing was 418. Maybe at some point we’ll have something lighter or darker than that, but as we go through sample roasts we try to pinpoint where this bean will taste the best,” Meadows observes.
There are ten degrees separating Cultivar’s roasts, and a thousand flavors in between. They may indeed be green, but Meadows and Shelton are hoping to prove that lighter coffees may be the way to go.”