Cambridge, Mass., was home to this country’s first broadsheet newspapers, printed for wide distribution. This spring, it’ll also become home to Broadsheet Coffee Roasters — which, despite its current status as a pop-up, took on dozens of established brands and won first place in our Roast and GO roasting competition Dec. 16.
We spoke with Aaron MacDougall, Broadsheet’s roaster and founder, who hopes the café, like its namesake, will be a place where connections are made and ideas are shared.
This is the “How’d you get here?” question. What spurred you into deciding to open Broadsheet?
One of my friends and early coffee mentors, Jake Robinson, likes to talk about that aha! moment when you realize that coffees can taste very different from one another. I had mine when I was living in Hawaii and for the first time in years had the time and capacity to be contemplative about things.
I was interested in Hawaiian history and culture and was going out of my way to find local coffee — most of which, sadly, was geared toward the tourist wallet. But there was a shop in downtown Honolulu called Beach Bum Cafe that featured the coffees of Rusty’s out of Ka’u. I had a pour over there and was completely blown away. I was pretty much hooked from that cup and wanted to learn as much as possible about coffee. One of my Hawaiian friends got me into espresso and roasting and took me hiking to pick wild coffee cherries — it was all a ton of fun and my wife thought it was the *best*hobby*ever*.
After moving to the Boston area, my coffee world opened a lot, with exposure to the professional coffee community. I probably went to every single Friday morning cupping at Counter Culture’s Somerville location for a couple of years. That’s also where I became friends with a lot of great baristas including Wolf Barn Marnell who is now my partner in Broadsheet Coffee Roasters and running the retail and beverage program.
Anyway, I was roasting coffee every week and active in the online coffee community — from which I learned a ton — and in 2014 entered a Home-Barista.com roasting competition. I won “best in show,” which was a bit of a shocker but also spurred me to take my interest in coffee more seriously. I ended up taking all of Counter Culture’s courses, doing all their certifications and occasionally working bar. After that I took a roasting course taught by Willem Boot in Mill Valley, which was my first experience calibrating with a group of trained cuppers and scoring using the SCAA methodology.
From there it was the Q-qualification — which was a great experience and through which I met so many amazing coffee people — at which point it was pretty clear to me and my family that I had completely fallen for coffee and couldn’t imagine not working in the field.
What was it that hooked you?
As mentioned, it got to the point where I was spending so much time roasting and with coffee and coffee people that it became the natural next step. Coffee people are great, and so ready to share and teach, and I simply enjoyed spending time with them.
I also find coffee to be endlessly fascinating. It is such a multi-disciplinary field. There are engineering and problem solving aspects to it. There is a rich historical, geographical and cultural component to it. There are biological, agricultural, environmental, food chain and ethical issues. There are communication and customer service issues. And then coffees are wonderful, and coffee shops such warm, welcoming and community-centered places. So many interesting areas to delve into and with genuinely interesting and concerned colleagues.
That leads us into Broadsheet. How would you describe your vision for Broadsheet and your company ethos?
At Broadsheet, we’re trying to create an inclusive third space for people in the community. We want everyone to feel comfortable and enjoy their time in the shop. So we want to keep it approachable and not make it solely about the coffee.
That said, we’re all pretty obsessed with great Specialty coffee and hell-bent on bringing the best out of it and presenting it creatively. I love a range of coffees — pretty much anything clean and distinctive — and want the roast to help those differences shine through, while staying in-bounds in terms of roasting technicals. We’d love it if our work helps spur customer interest in coffee and what goes into making a quality cup, but don’t want to hit anyone over the head with the Specialty bat. We’ve also got a great chef to help broaden the net!
How did you approach the roasting competition? How did you decide which tack to take with roasting Guama Danta, and what were you trying to bring out in the coffee?
My motivation for taking part in the competition was to create an occasion for focus and to revisit my assumptions about roasting, so I went into this with the mindset that I was going to experiment.
When I sample roasted the Guama Danta I was struck by its crisp and clean acidity, but felt there were some challenges with respect to the finish and some resinous notes. A lighter roast highlighted the brightness and helped tame some unwanted aspects. But it created issues with balance, sweetness, complexity and body. So for me, it was navigating the trade-offs and trying to get the balance in the roast right while maintaining proper development.
What was your favorite part about the competition? And what was the hardest part?
I learned so much through this competition. It really forced me to think about how best to maintain development in and impart complexity to a very light roast — principles that I think have applicability to many different coffees and roast styles. Although it was challenging to cup and score a number of fine tweaks to a base profile, it helped me to better recognize and understand the impact of the many decisions we make in roasting. I feel for the judges in these types of roasting competitions!
What are you hoping to get out of the origin trip? What are you looking forward to most, and why is connecting to the supply chain important to you?
Oh, wow — so many things! First, I have never been to Central America, so I have so much to look forward to! I am hoping to get a better understanding of the challenges faced by the farmers, their priorities and how what we are doing on the Specialty roaster/retailer end may or may not be impacting them. I also just want to better understand the process at origin, from selection of varietal, growing concerns, processing and exporting methodology to what factors are making the biggest difference in coffee quality in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.
I feel that the stories and people behind our coffees are terribly important. I also think they are a very important way for us to connect to our customers, as not everyone can appreciate the nuances of coffees. In a similar way, I don’t think that everyone who buys organic milk could pick out the conventional vs. organic milk in a blind milk cupping. But these people care because people like Michael Pollan have done a tremendous job of raising the awareness about what goes on behind the scenes and the possible environmental and ethical repercussions implicit in our consumer choices.
Anything else you want us to know about Broadsheet?
We’ll be opening in early spring — and we’d love to see you there! Thanks so much for sponsoring the competition and for all the work and resources that undoubtedly went into it!