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"Why I Roast"

"Why I Roast"

This essay was written by Coffee Labs Roasters employee Doug Wray about 10 years ago for an essay contest in Roast Magazine. Our of hundreds of entries, this was the essay that won. You'll see why when you read it. It was written a very long time ago, but all of what he said holds true to this day.

Why I Roast 

            I’ve always loved to cook, especially for other people. I thoroughly enjoy receiving reviews on what I have prepared. Cooking is fun and I believe it is a craft in which one’s appreciation for the final product is enhanced by his or her understanding of the process that brought about that product. In my mind, coffee roasting is much like cooking for the whole community.

            I began my experience with specialty coffee as a barista about a year and a half ago. Friends suggested the job because I was fresh out of my last cooking job and needed a paycheck. I enjoyed the work because I treated our roaster-retailer as if it were another short order kitchen. The tasks of completing orders, cleaning, stocking, etc. all had direct restaurant parallels. On top of this, Coffee Labs’ owners -- Mike Love and Alicia Kelligrew – are both restaurant industry veterans, further enabling me to approach my work with a kitchen mindset. After only a few months, though, I expressed a need to engage in “something more creative, more culinary”. Mike and Alicia reacted by offering me a coffee-roasting apprenticeship.

            I accepted their extraordinary offer, and saw the apprenticeship through. It wasn’t long before I realized that my workplace was infused with a passion for quality and a profound respect for sustainability. The issue of sustainability is something I began to investigate in school and I was pleased to find myself employed by people who pay attention to our impact on the planet.

            Did I mention I love coffee too? One of the many reasons I find coffee engaging and satisfying is that we cannot know everything about it. There is an infinite potential for discovery and development and I will never be bored as long as I am learning. Since coffee, from seed to cup, is a fragile thing, every task performed during its journey is of equal importance. Each point is critical, affects other steps profoundly and is executed more effectively when complemented by a study of the whole process. My experience as a roaster would be incomplete without my observations as a barista. I need to put my hands on it: to brew, serve and taste what I am working with.

            The coffee industry benefits from a vibrant passion, an insatiable thirst for enlightenment, which permeates discussions between everyone in the industry. This is because a complete understanding of the life of the bean is the greatest means for a coffee education. Thus, I do not wish to engage in coffee as only a roaster, but to incorporate the insights of a barista, a chemist, a physicist, an exchanger of commodities, and someone constantly searching for fabulous shots and greats cups. This sounds like quite an ambitious project, but I figure I have another 60 years or so, and a myriad of people with which to discuss it.

            Early in my coffee career, my bosses suggested that I would notice that many people in this industry are really helpful, as it is an industry that fosters its own development through communication. Indeed, collective investigations and a spirited exchange of information have been a big part of my excitement for being involved in coffee. AS individuals, and as a group, we have been and always should be seeking an understanding of growing conditions, processing means, shipping procedures, roasting styles, brewing methods and the effects of each of these steps on the cup. At the same time, the means of communication between individuals, between sectors, and between industries is developing rapidly; in fact, it is in unprecedented upswing. As coffee consumers and professionals, we have the task of shaping that development. This is an awesome opportunity because this communication allows us to learn more and thus produce better coffee.

            However, we may be hindered in our pursuit of better coffee because we have inherited a planet that, due to human activities, is in radical flux. It is now clearly our human responsibility to pay heed to the sustainability of our practices. Our calculated efforts to maintain Earth’s ability to support life play a vital role in development of both better coffee and a better world. Unfortunately, much of the history of coffee has been the opposite. In his book, Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast explains that the early development of Brazil’s coffee industry came “at an enormous human and environmental cost.” He describes slash and burn techniques that efficiently cleared the rain forest as well as the calculated enslavement of many a civilization in “unimaginably awful conditions.”

            We are in a unique position in history to shift this trend, to focus energy, attention and funding toward protecting the environment and protecting all the people involved in coffee’s production. We are constantly developing the means to encourage attitudes and techniques in all sectors of the industry that create positive change in the world. I truly believe that highlighting coffees that make it to the cup while respecting the living wage standards, increasing biodiversity, fostering healthy habitats, and being traded at the true cost of production begins, in very small steps, to reverse the damage described above.

In Costa Rica in January 2006, members of the Roasters guild of America, hosted by ICAFE, witnessed the enormous energies being dedicated to constant improvements in cultivations, harvesting and processing. the information that the Guild member were able to provide about roasting and consumption in the U.S was well received. The perspectives and inspiration that this type of exchange can provide for all of us in the industry are key elements in the production of better coffee. Roasting thereby becomes the honor and responsibility of accurately representing the serious efforts at origin towards increasing quality.

            I want to investigate all I can about coffee because I believe it is through discovery and communication that we will create great things with coffee. Roasting is filled with people, politics, and passions that are all as unique as any palate. This is a craft that I love.



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