A whole latte java: Local roast master finds coffee kismet
Three years ago, Adam Walsh, 25, was living on the Big Island of Hawaii doing transportation survey work for Road View of Madison and visiting a coffee plantation or two in his spare time. He loved the work, but after three years of extensive travel, including a four-month stint in Alaska, home was beckoning. “I wanted to see my friends and family again, and sleep in the same bed every night.”
Searching the Internet one night, the Lodi native responded to an ad from JBC Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee roaster in Madison.
He certainly knew coffee. In fact, he loved coffee. He’d been drinking it since the tender age of 13, so he applied.
As coffee beans tumble inside the roaster, Walsh removes samples and checks their color and aroma. It takes less than 15 minutes to roast a batch.
The telephone interview with Michael Johnson, who started the company (originally known as Johnson Brothers Coffee) in 1994, went well. Johnson, who now owns JBC with his wife, Laura, remembers that interview. “Adam reminded me a lot of me,” he said. “We knew he was in love with the product and had a solid work ethic.”
Back in Hawaii, Walsh knew he had to make a decision, and he chose to follow his heart back to the Midwest.
For a kid who used to flout Lodi High School’s no-drinks policy by bringing a daily mug of coffee to class, the JBC opportunity landed him in java nirvana. “I find so much fulfillment in the daily creation of something I love so much, and in sharing it,” he said.
He apprenticed under Michael for several months to learn the machines, but it’s taken him about two years to truly gain an understanding of the chemical processes at play.
Now, as roast master, Walsh is in charge of all the roasting, blending, packaging, coffee deliveries, and shipping. He also educates customers on the best ways to properly brew coffee.
“Coffee is the second-largest commodity traded on the market, right behind oil,” Walsh explains, “and the specialty coffee market makes up less than 10% of that. The coffee we buy makes up less than 10% of that specialty market, so we’re really digging through the top 1% of the world’s quality coffees.”
In April, he took his first solo trip to Panama to secure a relationship with a coffee farmer JBC had been pursuing for a while, and he notes that learning Spanish will be his next pursuit.
Cupping the ante
Coffee beans are actually seeds from the cherries that grow on coffee trees. The beans JBC purchases are ideally handpicked at the height of ripeness, when the sugar content is highest and the cherries weigh the most. Workers typically get paid based on the weight of their take, so while it is more time-consuming to pick only the ripest cherries, a basket of perfectly ripe fruit weighs significantly more than one full of cherries that haven’t fully ripened.
“That’s our sustainability-through-quality model,” Johnson explains, “because it’s about getting the money to the guy who actually picks the coffee, whether the small farmer or the natives. That’s the truth of it.”
The company primarily sources its beans from farms in South Central America and Africa, with the bulk purchased through brokers who specialize in green (i.e., unroasted) beans. In a given year, the company brings in more than 20 different coffees from around the world.
Tasting the coffees and assigning a flavor profile to each is done in JBC’s cupping lab, typically on Fridays.
Walsh will put beans from the same shipment through separate roasts, varying the time and temperature of each batch. “A matter of two minutes and 10 or 15 degrees can completely change the flavor,” he says.
Together with the Johnsons, Walsh blind-tastes each variation, relying on his refined sense of taste and smell to pull out the subtle nuances of each, while evaluating them on a 100-point scale. Is there a hint of citrus? Nuttiness? “Sometimes we argue about it,” Walsh admits. “Everybody has a different coffee nose and taste profile they prefer.”
JBC roasts on demand, usually two to three times a week, using a 25-kilo (just over 50-pound) roaster resembling a clothes dryer.
“We roast fast and light,” Walsh says. By doing so, the natural flavors from the terroir, or local growing environment, can be preserved rather than cooked out. It’s a method that’s suited for higher-grade coffees. “Coffees taste different due to soil, nutrients, and weather conditions, so as a light roaster, we can highlight bright fruit tones, good acidity, and sweetness — the attributes we appreciate most,” he explains. Generally, higher-altitude coffees will be denser and contain better flavors.
Decaf and blended coffees are usually roasted earlier in the day, with higher-grade coffees roasted later, when the machine is piping hot and at its peak performance. Depending on demand, Walsh might roast 15 to 25 cycles in a day.
Ascending a short ladder, Walsh dumps two plastic bins — each containing exactly 23.5 pounds of green coffee beans — into the top of the roaster.
As the drum spins, the beans are heated to a specific temperature. Walsh monitors the process, frequently checking time and temperature. A blue line on the computer screen indicates the air temperature inside the roaster, while a red line measures actual bean temperature.
Early in the roast, any lingering moisture inside the beans is removed before the Maillard reaction, or browning, begins. As roasting continues, Walsh’s trained ear listens intently for the “first crack,” which is the moment the first bean pops open inside the drum. Coffee beans expand by 100% during roasting.
Working quickly, he removes and replaces small samples of beans, observing color changes and sniffing the aromas. Aromas change during the roasting process, from grassy in the early stages, to a yeasty, “bread” odor, to vinegary at first crack.
“Right between bread and first crack, the coffee reveals itself,” Michael Johnson explains, watching Walsh work. “That’s when you get a whiff of the real essence of the product.”
Within 15 minutes, the roast is complete, and the steaming beans fall into a rotating, horizontal cooling tray below the roaster. From there, they are emptied into plastic bins and moved to the production area for packaging, delivery, or shipping.
Roast with the most
Less than two years ago, Johnson said, the company made a tough 80-20 decision to work only with clients willing to pony up for higher quality. Some customers were difficult to lose, but the decision paid off in the end.
“It’s a more sustainable model now,” Johnson says, “and how we want to move forward. We’re not going to compete with the big guys on volume and low grade, so we have to find our niche — which is high grade — and work with those people that are committed.”
The company sells its coffees online and just recently ventured into retail at Jenifer Street Market. It is also featured at several specialty shops and restaurants in the area, including Rosie’s Coffee Bar and Bakery and Manna Café.
JBC regularly participates in national and international barista competitions, and Johnson says the company has more 90-plus-rated coffees in Coffee Review than any other roaster in the world.
And after three years, Walsh is now earning props as well, recently taking fifth place overall in the Roasters Choice Competition and 10th place overall in the Brewers Cup Competition at the 2015 United States Coffee Championships.
“It’s a beautiful thing, in my mind, how coffee becomes a part of so many people’s lives in the smallest way,” Walsh says. “It’s a small ritual, and it’s amazing how a really good cup of coffee can change your day for the better.”
JBC Coffee Roasters
608.256.5282 | JBCcoffeeroasters.com
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