October 24, 2014
A couple of years ago when Hunt Slade of Safehouse Coffee Roasters called me up to ask me about my opinions on some different roaster models, we ended up having an even bigger conversation about realizing and actualizing the potential of any roasting machine. From that I knew that Hunt would be a perfect roaster to talk to about “why” he roasts in the first place and what has pushed him to take his interest in roasting and turn it into a profession. Building a business for the purpose of supporting a community and organization could easily put any number of extra pressures on maintaining a love for roasting coffee, but Hunt faces all of it with a contagious positivism.
CS: What roasters have you played with? Everything.
HS: Chronologically: Many different consumer popcorn poppers, both stock and hacked Various heat gun/metal bowl combinations Freshroast ( I forget the model - from 9 or 10 years ago ) Long handled pan over open fire RK 5lb perfed drum in a LP gas grill - this is what we actually started SHCR with Sonofresco fluid bed 1lb roaster (LP gas) Freshroast SR500 Has Garanti 5k (natural gas) Behmor 1600 Quest M3 110v Limited roasting on: Deidrich 24k both IR and direct flame Probatino (natural gas)
CS: Have you ever built a roasting device or kit?
HS: I didn't originally build our old RK drum/gas rig - Ron Kyle gave it to us years ago, but I have deconstructed and reconstructed it many times. I learned several things through this although much of what I learned was really only painted in broad strokes. In this rig, I found that modifying drum speed would either promote or inhibit scorching and tipping. I also found that air flow for removing effluence from the roasting chamber was highly desirable to limit certain "roasty" attributes in the coffee. Other things learned: the need for roaster cleaning, even in a grill rig; the limitations of batch size/ achievable roast profile vs available BTUs; slow batch cooling robs your coffee of sweetness in the cup.
CS: Do you enjoy roasting more on a bigger machine, or did it ruin a hobby you like?
HS: It may not be the right choice for someone else, but I absolutely love roasting on machines larger than home or sample roasters. For me, it felt like a natural progression of learning. However, I have no experience with anything larger than a 24k and have no current personal interest in owning a roaster much larger than that.
CS: What prompted you the most to make roasting a business?
HS: Our organization needed a way to produce funds and I wanted to do something that I would enjoy to achieve that, so I decided to try to turn my home roasting hobby into a small cottage industry that hopefully would become more substantial in capacity over time.
CS: How do you maintain your enthusiasm with roasting when you become a business?
HS: I've never found it difficult to do so. I originally took on roasting as a hobby because I thought that it was a relatively bottomless subject. For as much as we know about roasting there is still so much that we do not and I/we are driven to continuously gain legitimate ground in learning and research. Every coffee is a new challenge. Every client need is a target that challenges our ability to specifically shape our processes in order to hit that target. I can't imagine ever "getting bored" with roasting.
CS: What does the time and money commitment look like?
HS: It is not insubstantial. That being said, (in my personal opinion) most companies tend towards one or the other. We have found that we have to make up for fiscal limitations with time - time spent in study and research to do the things that we could hire out. Experimentation and data gathering take a lot of time but that is time well spent to us. We're not immune to the attraction of equations and formulae but the benefits of putting the work and study in to find and confirm roasting practices are preferred over just taking someone else's work and trying to make it policy. Of course, we do try to replicate others' work for learning purposes but that's just part of being thorough - we learn a lot from other people's work but only if we can repeatedly confirm it! I think that the time required for scheduled maintenance and cleaning is often underestimated. We do these things ourselves because the better we understand our equipment, the better we can understand our processes and by extension, our finished product and its replicable quality. Overall, we have chosen over the years to grow more slowly than some others due to making up for less capital with sweat equity.
CS: How do you know your coffee is good?
HS: This is tricky and it depends what you mean. If good = sales, then that is fairly easy to quantify. If good = cupping score by elite cuppers, this is reduced to a number value by people with varying capacities to divorce themselves from personal bias. If good = our personal enjoyment of a coffee and our assessment of "how much" of a coffee's "potential" we have "accurately" developed, then we are in danger of myopia. Honestly, we try to balance these differing approaches and match coffees to their proposed application. For example (and this starts to reach into the next question), within our bean menu, we have set up a system that tries to match the use of a given coffee. Our Black Label coffees are generally familiar to our customers and clients in origin and flavor profile - accessible coffees with accessible flavors. White Label is for extreme coffees - strong fruit flavors that are somewhat uncommon to the average southeastern palate - these cost a bit more but more often than not open the taster to a new spectrum of coffee flavor experience. Grey Label coffees are very high scoring but nuanced and layered - coffees whose quality is likely to be missed by even most specialty coffee end users. I digress. We constantly seek to expand our experiential perspective by tasting other companies' and individuals' coffees as often as possible. Without perspective, opinion of what is "good" is too isolated to be valuable.
CS: Do you try to match the tastes of your local audience?
HS: To a degree. We accept the reality that in order to retain the privilege of roasting the coffees that we are personally in love with, we have to maintain positive cash flow by selling coffees that our customers and clients want/need to buy. In years past, we refused to have any kind of syrups or sauces in our retail shop but after years of requests, we decided to add a few but only after doing our "Safehouse thing" to them - all in house made from scratch; our chocolate sauce from Askinosie chocolate, our caramel from pure cane sugar and butter, simple syrup, and this year we added a pumpkin spice sauce made from brown sugar, molasses and pumpkin. The sales on these items are outstanding and our customers are super happy. In wholesale roasting, we found that a lot of our clients needed a lower cost coffee for batch brewing so we had to ask ourselves, "How can we make a more affordable coffee that is true to our quality standards?" It took us two years to create PLENTY to fill that request and it matched our best-seller in sales volume within a month. Because of these decisions to follow our local/regional market in deliberate and selective ways, we still get to geek out in the coffee lab over nuanced 90 plus scoring coffees and continue to push those to our clients that appreciate them.
CS: What do you feel like makes someone a legitimate roaster?
HS: Oooo - danger, Will Robinson! It's my personal and corporate policy to never comment negatively about any other roaster or company, but I'll try to answer this in a positive fashion. I am a huge proponent of home roasting and think that if you enjoy it - do it, no matter what your level of knowledge. I do think that the specialty coffee roasting industry has been flooded with up starts over the last few years with less than experienced roasters that go out of business quickly and loose their investments and sometimes their dreams of running a coffee business. This isn't exactly new but with the prevalence of simple digital design tools, there has emerged a plethora of roasting brands that look like quality without necessarily delivering quality in the cup. On one hand, some really fantastic roasters have come up within this time frame - roasters that have added greatly to the ongoing pursuit of better roasting and service, but on the other hand, it has perhaps created a signal-to-noise problem in the specialty micro-roaster category where competition is stiff in a largely digital marketplace inundated with marketing that presents the appearance of comparable quality without the reality of comparable quality. One thing for sure that I believe does not make a legitimate roaster is having this specific brand of coffee roaster or that specific model of coffee roaster. We have personally tasted mind blowing coffees from every different type of roaster that there is. Sure, there is such a thing as inferior materials when it comes to thermal properties, lifespan of components, etc. but almost any and every roaster, if handled properly can produce amazing coffees - it's all about having the love to make it happen.
CS: Do you believe in the idea of the freedom and independence of being a small business owner?
HS: Not quite sure how to answer this, bud. I think that many people going into private business for the first time (not just coffee but anything) have an idealized idea of what it is going to be like without truly following through with the due diligence required by such an undertaking. It saddens me to see people lose their investments, life savings, even their homes that have been leveraged against their desperate hope for success. About half a million new small businesses start up every month but more than that shut down each month as well. It really is a shame when this loss happens to a person and their family. Business ownership/operation is not for everyone. That being said, approx. 50% of employees in the US work for small businesses (defined as having 500 or fewer employees by the SBA) - small business is an incredibly important part of the financial engine of our country. So yes, with proper study, research, support, and counsel, I do believe in the value of freedom and independence of small business ownership for those with the potential to sustain it.