In today’s SUNDAY Coffee, we will be looking at the business of being an independent coffee roaster. I recently had the opportunity to meet Stephen Pivonka, owner of Barkeater Coffee Roasters, on Google Plus . After noticing multiple posts from satisfied Barkeater customers, I reached out to Stephen for an interview. We talked about his love for coffee, the founding of Barkeater and current trends in the specialty coffee market.
Anatomy of an Independent Coffee Roaster
Barkeater Coffee Roasters was founded in October of 2014 as a “roast to order” online retailer based out of a suburb of Albany, New York. Coffee enthusiast, Stephen Pivonka started with a simple philosophy; provide the highest quality coffee with outstanding customer service.
We are a micro roaster, probably more like a nano-roaster. We are roast to order, which means we do not roast until an order comes in. So there’s no roasted coffee sitting around in stock.
I was like a kid in a candy store, getting the chance to talk about coffee with a professional coffee roaster! I’ve always admired coffee roasters, especially their sensibility to identifying quality coffee and the artisan processes of roasting. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I prepared a few questions for Stephen, to guide our conversation.
When did your love for coffee begin?
My love for coffee started out when I was pretty young. Coffee has always been a part of my family, and I started drinking coffee very young. You could never have dessert at my mother’s house without having coffee. It started from there and then in my early twenties a couple of coffee shops opened up in Saratoga Springs, NY, which enhanced my love for coffee even more.
How did you become a coffee roaster?
I was talking to my wife about it, that I wanted to get into the coffee business. I did some research for a few months and found another coffee roaster willing to work with me and then I just went out and did it. I thought, just go for it!
The gentleman I was working with happened to sell Ozturk roasters and so that’s what I ended up buying. He showed me how to roast and I started doing it. First, I started roasting coffee and then decided I’ll start selling it, and that’s what I did. I basically went all in.
It was definitely a rough go for the first couple of months, but now I’m starting to get regular customers. I email them personally and thank them for their purchase. I get regular emails from my customers asking me what they should try next. It’s a pretty cool thing actually. Lucky for me, each month has been better than the previous.
What’s a typical day for an independent coffee roaster?
Checking emails for orders, accounting work, calling on wholesale clients. I roast on Wednesday’s and Saturday or Sunday for my wholesale clients. For my online customers, each day I decide what coffee gets roasted depending on the orders.
Being so small, I still hand stamp my logo on all the bags, hand apply the labels for the coffee, roast the coffee, bag it up, prepare the shipping labels and ship them out for delivery.
Early on in the business I partnered with the local milkman, and he delivered my coffee to people’s doors every week, it’s a neat thing and pretty popular.
What kind of roaster do you use?
I use an Ozturk 15 kilo roaster. No bells or whistles, and I can roast 90 – 100 lbs an hour. I joke that I roast with the force because I don’t have data log software or anything like that. I am looking into doing that now, some data solutions, but nothing yet.
When you’re roasting coffee, during the process, what do you look for to tell if its a good or bad roast?
It’s not necessarily a good or a bad, its what are you going for in your roast, what are you looking for. You can certainly miss your mark and you don’t get it exactly where you wanted it. Especially the way I do it with no data logger.
What happens is, you start the coffee, there is an initial temperature drop. Then there is a moment called a turnaround point, now the temperature is going back up in the coffee. I’ll start checking on things around the 6-minute mark, when chemical changes are happening with the bean. At that point, the coffee changes color from green to a light yellow. The color change means that the sugars in the bean are starting to cook.
From there, I can make the decision to turn the temperature down and increase air flow. Now, we will start having what’s called first crack. The bean is literally cracking like popcorn, you listen for that, its very faint at first but then it becomes very audible. Some coffees, depending on what they are, like a lighter coffee such as an Ethiopian, I generally only bring them just past first crack.
I like to accentuate what nature has put in the coffee. I use wine as a reference, just as each country and region will produce a unique flavor of wine, coffee is the same way. An Ethiopian Yirgacheth coffee has a certain flavor, a Colombian and Brazilian coffee, even though they are both South American, can have very distinct flavors. So I tend to roast on the lighter side, just enough to bring out those flavors and it’s trial and error to get it right.
When I first get a coffee, I have to do some sample roasting to figure out where I’m going to be on those. You don’t want it to be too acidic, at the same time you want to keep those inherent flavors that are in the coffee. I do have some coffees that I roast to a full medium, like my Bali Blue, and the reason for that is it’s where that coffee tastes the best. Same with Sulawesi, another Indonesian coffee, that lends itself to a medium roast. I do have a full and dark roast, that I bring well into second crack, but I don’t have anything that would be considered a dark roast where the oils are coming out of the bean, I don’t take any of my coffee that far.
Long story short, I can tell what is going on in the roast. Only a few times have I roasted and I totally missed the mark and had to throw the coffee out. I just bite the bullet when that happens. As an independent roaster, it hurts when I have to do that but I do it because it doesn’t meet my standards. I gave it away to friends who all thought it tasted good, but it just didn’t meet my standards.
What is the most popular coffee you’re selling at the moment?
My most popular coffee is probably the Bali Blue Moon, it’s really good. It comes from Bali in Indonesia and has a unique earthy taste. I’ve been told its attributes come because it’s so wet in Bali that they have a hard time drying the coffee beans. The Bali Blue is a consistent bean, full body with fruity tones to it, a very popular coffee. Some liken it to a Jamaican Blue. Followed is my dark roast which is a Brazilian coffee and then a mixture of the others.
Did the recent drought and coffee rust disease in Brazil affect your business?
In the beginning yes, it killed me. Right when I went to buy coffee for the first time I had planned to buy four bags to start. From the time I checked the prices to the time I was ready to buy my coffee the cost jumped up $0.50 a pound. I only had a fixed amount of money to spend on coffee, so I had to settle for three bags instead of four.
So in the beginning yeah, it really hurt. But now, prices have come down and it’s been ok. I’m now buying at the prices others had early last year. I have to take those ups and downs, I can’t raise my prices with my customers each time it goes up.
What are some of the current trends benefiting independent coffee roasters today?
There are a lot of independent coffee roasters out there and hopefully they can continue. It seems that the market is there. People today are coffee aficionados and like variety.
Currently, the pour-over method is huge, so the coffee pour over bars are very popular. Another trend growing the business are shops and coffee bars selling multiple roasters. For example, I sell coffee in a multi-roaster shop called Brew Albany. Barkeater is on the shelf, right beside Stumptown and Intelligentsia. So its nice to be in that upper-end market.
People seem to love craft coffee!
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