Do you ever get overwhelmed by the produce section of a grocery store? Feel a wave of big feelings for having such a variety of fruits and vegetables at your fingertips? How about at a Farmer’s Market? How about when you’re looking at coffee bags filed high and wide on a shelf?
Perhaps I’m the only one who is overwhelmed with gratitude for these precious agricultural products but both coffee and, say, apples are only made possible by a culmination of hard work, dedication, commitment, time, sweat, logistical backflips, craft, and a fleeting moment of deliciousness.
This level of gratitude and respect towards the producers and process of agricultural goods is what drives us at Aldea Coffee to always improve our craft and end product. As someone recently told me,
“A cup of coffee can always be better.”
As the head roaster at Aldea Coffee, I feel a great sense of responsibility to ensure every batch of coffee we produce is as best as it can be. This is an attempt to fully honor the “100 hands” (the estimated number of people involved in producing coffee according to the Specialty Coffee Association) and countless hours of labor and love put into the incredible green coffee we receive every year from our partners in La Union, Honduras and Mbeya, Tanzania.
It was this desire that brought me to the 2023 Coffee Roaster’s Guild Retreat in Blaine, WA. In its 21st year, the CRGR brought together about 150 coffee professionals from all over the world to one place to celebrate coffee and learn from one another in three long days on Semiahmoo Bay.
The conversations and connections made at the Retreat were well worth the price of admission. However, having the ability to test out over a dozen different roasting machines, taste and roast coffees from many different origins, and then sit in lectures and workshops about sample roasting, green coffee lifespans, coffee roasting’s effect on brewing, the use of color analyzers in a quality control program (about 6 hours a day of such) by leading figures in the coffee industry was pretty incredible, too.
I’m relatively new to the industry, but from speaking to roasters who have been in the game for a long time, the open-source spirit of freely passing along coffee roasting knowledge to one another at events like CRGR is not only rare but new to the scene. Coffee roasting and sourcing used to be a secretive venture. But no more! And thank goodness. As one roaster from New York said (paraphrasing), “We spend too much time in our own weirdness. It’s great to finally be weird together.”
It sure is.
Besides the lectures and workshops mentioned above (and the giant Roaster Tent that housed dozens of roasting machines available for us to trial), the main event was the annual Team Challenge. We were split into 14 teams with coffee professionals of various experience levels and asked to take past crop coffee (last year’s harvest) and current crop green coffee (current year’s harvest) from the same producer and create the best 2 lbs of roasted coffee possible, using at least 75% of the past crop. (This is quite the challenge as coffee flavors tend to fade after about a year in storage.) In between classes and meals, our teams prepped, planned, roasted, and finally blended and cupped the coffees in a mass blind-tasting event at the end of the week where we scored each of the team’s roasts, not knowing whose was whose (“Cupping” is the industry term for a standardized coffee tasting (think wine tasting, but more jitters)).
It was a blast. I was very fortunate to have such a cooperative and respectful team. We worked hard and played harder. It was a bit like Hell’s Kitchen on day one--screening and sorting coffee as fast as humanly possible on the world’s smallest tables--yet, the process eventually devolved (evolved?) into drinking pilsners and laughing through the roasts on a 1kg Loring roaster. We got so relaxed one night that we almost lost our roasts to the elements when one of our teammates accidentally left our competition coffee under the table after dinner. He woke at midnight in a cold sweat and saved our coffee before the gulls got to it.
On the last day of the Retreat, we all ate outside near a ring of bonfires, the city of White Rock, B.C. alit on the near horizon, blue herons combing the waves below. The chorizo tacos were great, but we ate the churros by the plateful, nervously chatting about things unrelated to coffee (for once) though it was clear by our clenched fists that we were all just thinking about the results of the competition.
“We’re not gonna win. No way,” said one teammate from the Midwest.
“You never know,” a teammate from Vancouver said, feigning optimism.
After dinner, we gathered around the stage near the bay. The cascades, due east, were putting on a show of purples and golds. Sailboats cambered into port. A harbor seal peaked its freckled head out of the water but quickly retreated due to the gathering horde of coffee enthusiasts. Cold setting in, my team huddled around the fire, still casting doubts and you-never-knows. It’s not gonna happen. We weren’t gonna win. But maybe.
The song “Barbie Girl” led the festivities. We were all noticeably more comfortable with each other than two days prior; the emcees, once a bit more reserved, now letting their hair down, singing the 90s hit and dancing around the stage.
It’s great to be weird together finally.
Hard cut on the music. Nervous chatter ensued. The emcees announced the third place winners to rumbling applause. Cheers and screams. Big hugs. Pictures. Flashes. Suddenly, the competition felt like a bigger deal than I had previously thought.
Second Place was announced (the “Yellow” sample at the blind cupping that I thought was the best of the rest). Cheers. Big bugs. A picture. More hugs.
Drum rolls, please. Hands pattered on cold pants. Is that all you got?! Hands patted harder. Pause.
“The winner of this year’s team challenge isssssss. . .”
“We’re not gonna win, man.”
Pandemonium. My teammates mobbed one another. Oddly, we won. We didn’t even know we would be this excited. We didn’t know what to do. We hugged and swore like pirates. We went to the stage and took one hundred pictures. We were swarmed. I guess all of our names will be memorialized on the Stanley Cup-looking trophy of the Coffee Roaster’s Guild Retreat.
It was awesome--is awesome.
Again, gratitude is what we all felt. To each other. To the retreat. To the wonderful agricultural product that brought us all together.
Coffee is a lot of things. It is, yes, a pit of a fruit made into a beverage. But, it also continues to be a surprising vector for communities to come together to learn, laugh, worship, belong, and be together. It is precious, and I remain grateful. Above all, I had a great time. And I can’t thank my team at Aldea enough for the support along the way.
I hope to make us all proud by applying all that I gained from the Retreat to our systems here at the Aldea roastery.
Cheers to progress.
Cheers to teammates and colleagues.
Cheers to coffee and all those who make it happen.