Shift switch: Coffee roaster at Valentine
Like baking or winemaking, roasting coffee is both science and art. At its heart, roasting the pits of coffee plant cherries is a buffet of chemical reactions – molecules transformed by heat, Maillard reactions, sugars undergoing changes. A ham-fisted roaster can easily mess up the science and destroy the coffee.
But learning how to not ruin good beans is not enough to create amazing coffee. The art dances around the edges; that is where a real artist – using time and heat and other factors – can create sublime roasts that result in a stellar cup of java.
This I learned when I recently spent a day with the good folks at Valentine Coffee Roasters, 5918 W. Vliet St. I also understood there's very little skill to be learned about roasting coffee in a day. It takes time, it takes tinkering the variables, it takes practice and it takes a bit of coffee wasted in the process. Much like learning to pull a perfect shot.
I also learned that there might be no better place to learn the art and science than at this small company of about a dozen folks who love coffee and are passionate about what they do. That they eat lunch together around a table, as a family, says a lot about Valentine.
The company began about five years ago when gourmand and oenophile Robb Kashevarof – who also briefly kicked around a career in professional soccer in Poland – bought a roaster and tried to work out the ins and outs of roasting coffee.
Soon he recruited his former Milwaukee Ale House colleague Joe Gilsdorf, who had started and later sold his share of Nessun Dorma in Riverwest, to join him. The two had copious experience in wine, but little in making coffee.
In the back of the Valentine tasting room, where the roasting and packaging is done, Robb stops at a sparking red and chrome Diedrich coffee roaster.
"This is the first roaster," he says. "My wife and I bought it with a tax return and a credit card in 2009. We flew out to Sandpoint, Idaho (where Diedrich is located) and took a three-day course on coffee roasting and just took the plunge. Four years ago it was just me and this. You're looking at the whole operation."
Now, the Diedrich is in constant operation, as is a larger unit that dominates the room, as well as a smaller roaster that Gilsdorf uses to "interview" the many sample beans that arrive on a daily basis at Valentine.
As you might imagine, the process starts with the interview.
"They send these to us, sometimes at our request," says Joe, as we inspect a small bag of green beans from Burundi that have just arrived. "Sometimes it's them knowing what we've worked with and had success with in the past.
"Looking at the coffees you can usually tell processing, like whether it's a wash process coffee or a natural process coffee or somewhere in between. You can tell whether or not it is a pea berry ... the size. You can tell a lot of that by looking at it but you have no idea how it's going to taste. You can also see if it's been poorly processed in that there might be a lot of broken pieces in there. You're looking for consistency of beans, size, color, shape, this kind of stuff."
Gilsdorf also travels to meet coffee farmers around the globe and taste their coffee.
The interview process allows a coffee roaster to narrow down the field of potential inputs. The coffees that make the cut are then further roasted and cupped and, ultimately, the team – which also includes roaster Michael Cothroll and tasting room manager Aaron Cleavland – decides what will become a Valentine Coffee.
Peek at the tasting room menu and you realize a lot of coffee comes through here. That's because Valentine isn't looking for bulk business. The company has grown, but slowly and purposefully.
"When was the last time you went and had 13 different coffees to choose from and that was okay," asks Robb, rhetorically. "That's just the way we do it. We do everything one cup at a time. When you buy a bag of coffee we always buy you a cup of coffee. We've got return customers who come back every week and buy a bag of what they tasted the week before and then they try something new by the cup. They just go through all of our coffee that way."
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