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The evolution of a roaster: 14 years of obsession

On July 1, 2001, I opened Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee. The first decade flew by quickly enough; it’s hard to believe we’re an additional four years past that. When I started out roasting coffee beans, it was just over my kitchen stove. I’ve obviously learned quite a bit since then and refined my technique considerably, but it was there in my kitchen in the early days that I discovered I could craft a coffee that I really liked—and I already knew that I liked great coffee.

In the beginning… there was a lot of smoke
My first “roaster” was a three-quart sauce pan held over an electric range. I spent hours and hours adjusting that process and really getting to know the beans. I learned a lot about the way coffee behaves during the roasting process. I also learned the importance of meeting certain “marks” in while batch roasting. This was when I began to recognize how to use all of my senses to gauge how the coffee was coming along. If you listen just right, you can hear the beans relay precisely when they’re ready.

It wasn’t too long before I was hooked on roasting. The electric range worked, just not particularly well, and the six or eight ounces I could roast didn’t go very far. I needed something bigger and less hokey, so I set to the task of having my own roaster built. It was a simple, charcoal-heated drum. I could roast about two full pounds at a time, which was certainly an improvement, but this low-tech unit definitely came with some drawbacks.

My home-built roaster had a hand crank on the side, and the process involved an awful lot of smoke in the face, if you were doing it right. Getting the thing to breathe properly was a creative journey unto itself. It was with this roaster, though, that I began to acquire my first commercial accounts, small as they were, and realize that I might have a future in producing fresh, whole bean coffee. I roasted for nearly a year and half on this roaster, learning more every smoke-in-the-face-filled day about the need to employ rigid consistency measures between batches.

I toiled day after day with my hand-cranked roaster and earned enough to start getting serious. I started shopping around and ended up purchasing the roaster I use to this day: a 15-kilo Balestra wood-fired drum roaster. I set up my first real shop during this time, too.

This is when the fun really began. Sure, I got to leave some of the face-smoke behind, but now I had to learn a new method of roasting and strive to overcome the inherent obstacles that come along with wood roasting. All the while, I was teaching myself how to build a real business, which comes with its own challenges. I should note that both have become incredibly rewarding experiences. I would, however, recommend doing them separately if at all possible.

Stoking the fires
As I honed my craft and came into my own as one of less than a dozen wood roasters in the country, my knowledge and standards grew. Today we source only Specialty Grade, 100 percent Arabica coffees. We roast to order as much as possible to minimize waste and, more importantly, maximize freshness. It’s rare that we have more than ten or fifteen pounds of coffee roasted and languishing on a shelf—and we only keep that amount around in the event that someone stops in unexpectedly to buy a few pounds.

When beans are roasted over a wood fire, the sharp edges of the coffee are softened. Acidity is muted on the palate. The beans retain their regional character, and, in fact, it sings in them. Complex flavors arise, flavors I’ve learned to draw out or temper in the roasting process, depending on how I’d like a given roast to turn out.

Generally being a traditionalist, I felt that employing an age-old and time-tested method for roasting was in order for my business. I struck by the process, wooed. I wanted to come as close as I could to imitating the old world style that was employed for centuries, roasting coffee over the cooking hearth. It’s a very hands-on, artistic way to craft roasted beans, much more so than computer-generated roasting profiles and degrees. Both methods have their place, but it was clear early on which way I wanted to take my craft and my business.

One of the more fun aspects of coffee roasting is the constant growth. I so enjoy keeping up with trends not only in roasting style but in boutique coffees. In 2011, we here at Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee had a phenomenal experience that can only be attributed to this constant learning. Ken Davids and Justin Johnson of CoffeeReview.com gave our Kenya Nyeri Gichatha-ini AB Signature Series a 97 out of 100 in a blind tasting. It’s the highest rating they’d ever given, and we had the honor of having the ninth coffee to achieve it in their fifteen years of reviewing.

Our life blood is regular and devoted customers, of course. There is something special, though, about one’s craft being recognized on such a large scale. Our Signature Series roasts are sourced from carefully selected small lots grown with care. It’s finding the true gems from amidst a world of coffee growers and coaxing the subtle characters and nuanced flavors out of the non-descript green coffee seed that is my passion, and bringing that to friends, my joy.

Roasting in the moment
We’re fortunate to have a community of followers and dedicated clients who appreciate our work. Today, Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee is appreciated in more ways than I could have anticipated. We’ve been a part of award-winning barbecued ribs. We’re a part of FiftyFifty Brewing Company’s Eclipse Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, a beer that’s so popular they actually sell futures.

However people choose to enjoy my efforts, I like to stress the importance of being with the experience in the moment. In other posts, I’ve talked about developing a coffee ritual to get the most out of every cup. I take pains to make sure my roasts stay flavorful through the final sip of every cup, and when you take time to enjoy that, it can be a truly wonderful experience. Take the time to find your perfect cup of coffee—the perfect grind, the exact proportions, the precise brew method, it all works together to help you get everything out of our roasts.

Our success has been such that we’ve been able to give back to the community that supports us. Since 2010, we’ve donated over $10,000 to local nonprofits. We’ve also helped numerous children’s fundraising efforts over the years, offering our coffee to them at a big, so they can resell it to raise money.

Self-Evaluation is ongoing, particularly around this July 1st anniversary date. I think about our business dealings, product decisions, personal interactions, and client development, and I try to figure out exactly what Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee is all about. After much dwelling and deliberation, the answer I always come back to is this: we are about the coffee. Fourteen years later, I stand by it. I live it. And I drink copious amounts of it.