The Genuine Origin Coffee Project began selling green coffee in August, and one of our first customers was Coma Coffee — a café and roastery in St. Louis that was also new on the scene. We spoke recently with Coma Coffee head roaster Chad Denney about how “delicate” the needs of new roasters are and the process of discovering, with the help of his community, who both he and Coma might become.
Genuine Origin: Tell us a bit about yourself — how’d you get started?
Chad Denney: I started out at Kaldi’s Coffee, as a barista. Eventually, I became a lead barista, and then I left to manage a shop called VB Chocolate Bar. We did high-end coffee, chocolates, wine and craft beers and stuff like that. So I got to manage that bar as a multi-roaster, which expanded my understanding even further, and I got to work with other people’s coffees and new coffees almost every week. As a barista, that really helps you to better understand coffee.
From there, I got hooked up with a guy who was opening a café in Indonesia. By that time, I had bought a roaster and was kind of roasting at home, just to be a better barista and understand coffee a bit more. He didn’t really know a whole lot about café workflow or roasting — all his training was in agronomy and basically the farm side. So I got to go to Batam, Indonesia, which is a small island about 45 minutes south of Singapore, to help him open the café.
GO: That sounds incredible. How’d it go?
CD: It was definitely a unique experience. By that time I understood the general theory of roasting and was able to spend a couple of weeks there roasting. And as I taught him, I was also teaching myself. We got to spend about a week or so up in the coffee farms in Northern Aceh, which pretty much solidified my love for coffee. Everything kind of came full circle. I really started to understand a lot more about how what I was doing on a daily basis connected to people’s lives, versus just the consumption of a beverage.
After I got back from Indonesia, Macy and Corbin Holtzman, the now owners of Coma, contacted me with an opportunity, and Coma Coffee Roasters kind of emerged from that.
CD: I’m still pretty new in coffee — it’s just under four years. I certainly don’t want to be so arrogant as to think that I have it all figured out.
In St. Louis, I have a good variety of roasting styles in front of me, to learn from. With Kaldi’s and Blueprint and Sump. And all three of them roast, I think, differently, and I’m able to go around, try their coffees, reflect on them, and then taste my coffees in comparison to understand more about how I’m roasting, how they’re shaping up, how they’re comparing.
GO: Coma and Genuine Origin are both young companies. Has having that in common been a good thing for you?
CD: For sure. The needs of a small coffee company are very delicate, when you’re starting off. Especially with me, and how I’m really … I’m involved in every part of what we do, from when we get the coffee in to when our customers finally enjoy it. An importer that is easily accessible, knowledgeable and has a clear vision is very beneficial to work with. And I’m still finding who I am in coffee and how I want my coffees to taste.
People are naturally going to be skeptical when they come into our shop, because we’re new, and they’re naturally going to compare us to the specialty coffee companies around the area. Genuine Origin really has allowed us to not worry about whether good green coffee is available, and to know that I can order samples and always count on fresh green coming in. And that if I’m in a bind and don’t have a couple weeks to really survey all the importers and sort through the options, you guys are going to know how to help us showcase who we are.
Having a local person to work with, Tony Auger, is also a really nice part about working with GO. He lives in the area, so he’s able to come by and cup coffees with us and really learn my palate and the direction I want to take Coma. And because of that, when he cups a coffee that he knows is coming in soon, and that I’ll like, he lets me know. That’s every roaster’s dream, really — for that process to be as easy and smooth as possible.
GO: Do you mix and match coffees, or buy single boxes? Are those options interesting to you?
CD: Yes, absolutely. And that’s definitely something I think the industry as a whole is heading toward — big importers offering smaller amounts. There are a lot of small coffee companies out there that are focused on quality and that want to put forth specialty-grade coffee that’s roasted at a high level. Sometimes buying a 70KG bag just isn’t economical or right for us.
Having the option to buy smaller amounts, and maybe offer more variety, can also help us grab people’s attention. Rather than being stuck with only two coffees, because of the amount we have to buy, we can have four coffees. If one or two are really taking off, it’s easy to order more of those boxes. Not to mention, I’m the only one roasting, so it’s nice to be able to lug the GO boxes around and put them where I need to, and really be able to do everything myself, which is quite difficult when I order a 70KG bag.
GO: What have you been roasting? What’s working for you these days?
CD: One of the first coffees that we bought was actually from GO, and it was the Kenya Kiriani.
Kenyan coffees are known to be the best. And I personally kind of shrivel a little bit, when I hear anyone use such absolute language, but I think in this case it holds true. They’re very unique, and they can satisfy a lot of tastes across the spectrum, which is really what I think makes a great coffee. You have complexity, you have the cleanliness provided by the double wash process, and then you have that kind of thick, molasses-type body that can also satisfy those who aren’t in the light, subtle complexity, and you can kind of cater to them.
That was one of the coffees that we cupped — I think we initially cupped about 20 samples, from Genuine Origin and others, because when you buy a Kenyan coffee, you also pay for it. And you want to make sure that you’re not only getting the best coffee possible but that it’s the one that you think is the best. Which is, really, where all coffee companies should start: That they’re proud of the coffee they’re putting out.
When we cupped that, along with the other coffees on our table, it really stood out. One thing that people look for in Kenyas is the acidity. Sometimes it can be a little overpowering. A lot of roasters should kind of take the liberty, then, to develop their roast a little bit further and really just bring the acid away and highlight more sweetness in the coffee. But what I like about the Kiriani is how I was able to develop the coffee a little bit lighter and the acidity wasn’t overpowering. Its body was so rounded and big that I was able to really kind of mask the acidity, and the acidity in the coffee at the lower roasting temperature was really well integrated.
That’s definitely something that I’ve looked for, and it wasn’t something I had to mute. I didn’t have to roast that coffee to make the acidity. The coffee came with just a well-integrated acidity, which is what you look for in Kenyas. You look for that nice, bright, juicy acidity that integrates and translates well to the back of the palate, and the nice, round juicy body that they’re going for.
GO: You sound like somebody who’s always wanting to learn. Is there something that you want to experiment more with, or learn more about as a roaster?
CD: This is an industry where you have to kind of trial and error until you figure it out. You just isolate variables and you learn that by accepting one variable, it’s going to do this to your coffee, which you then adopt in your individual philosophy.
So, I really just want to be more collaborative. I want to work with other roasters and understand better what they’re doing, so we can move the whole industry forward together. Because when you have a good coffee, when you have a sensorial experience that just really screams, “Wow!” That’s something we need to work on together, to raise the level and the consciousness of people when they’re drinking our coffees. That’s a team project. I’d really like to work with other roasters and see what they do on the technical moves of roasting, all the terminology that we use. Basically, why they choose to do things.
Because there’s not a whole lot of literature out there on roasting, at least not a whole lot of peer-objective information. You get a lot of opinions, but we’re all arriving and we’re all understanding how to roast coffee more consistently. So, I just want to come together to realize and understand the differences in how we roast. And one may not be objectively better than the other, it’s about what fits in the context. What’s right for you. •