Grilled Coffee Aboard the Coffee Caboose!

Taylor Kirkman and Steven Leganski, owners of SW Grilled Coffee, are making their mark on the Phoenix coffee roasting scene with their mobile coffee bar and grill-roasted coffee business. In addition to maximizing flavor, the entrepreneurs are also dedicated to energy efficiency. In every step, they are trying to minimize waste and contribute to projects with close ties to environmental preservation.

What started as a COVID work-from-home side hustle turned into a full-time career for Steven. He left his position at the State of Arizona Department of Education to become a coffee roaster, operating out of the trailer they named the “Coffee Caboose.” While Taylor currently maintains her position managing grant funding and programming for HIV/AIDS services at a public hospital, she also shares Steven’s love for coffee roasting with a keen focus on an eco-friendly approach through the use of a gas grill.

SW Grill Coffee Caboose

SW Grill Coffee Caboose

Roasting Coffee on the Grill

“We read somewhere that you could roast coffee on a grill, so we gave it a try using a small rotisserie vegetable roasting drum,” says Taylor. “It actually turned out well, so we upgraded to an 8-pound RK Drum – a drum from specifically built to roast coffee on a grill. We spent many, many roasts and hours perfecting the process until we were able to roast different quantities of beans consistently and evenly.”

Coffee isn’t something you usually find cooking on the barbecue, but that’s exactly what Steven and Taylor do on their 4-burner Nexgrill propane grill. Instead of transitioning to a traditional drum roasting machine, which usually requires an indoor space and exhaust system with high heat to burn off dangerous gasses, they opted to stick with a gas grill that uses propane, which is considered a clean energy source.

8lb RK Drum Roaster for the grill

8lb RK Drum Roaster for the grill

“We wanted to create a business without creating a lot of the additional waste and energy use that many businesses generate as a byproduct of producing something,” says Taylor. Their whole coffee roasting setup uses just over 50 watts of electricity – a 30-watt rotisserie motor and 25-watt cooling fan – plus some propane.

Unlike traditional roasters, there is no window or sample spoon to check the appearance of the green coffee beans while they’re being roasted in an RK Drum. It took many experiments to develop a consistent roasting formula based on coffee volume, temperature, and time, always with one eye on the thermometer to check for indications of endothermic or exothermic processes. Since their grill sits outdoors, they also have to adjust based on the outside temperature, wind speed, and humidity. Steven is the head roaster, and his nose is one of the most important measuring tools during the roasting process.

Taylor Kirkman of SW Grill roasted coffee serving coffee out of the coffee caboose

Serving SW Grill roasted coffee

Coffee with a Purpose

Everything about SW Grilled Coffee is designed to benefit a greater good. That includes how they source green coffee beans. “We source mainly from Genuine Origin due to their work with small farms and helping farmers increase their wages,” says Taylor. “We know ‘fair trade’ doesn’t always mean fair, so we look for beans that have other benefits attached. For example, we use the Honduras World Coffee Research Guama Danta in our main signature blend specifically because of the 10-cent donation to WCR. We could buy the exact same coffee for 10 cents cheaper with no donation, but any little bit where we can contribute somewhere to help is important to us.”

Taylor and Steven are also always on the lookout for Rainforest Alliance green coffee, organic green coffee, green coffee from women-owned farms, and shade-grown green coffee. That’s why SW Grilled Coffee’s coffee offering is likely to feature coffee beans that use fewer or safer resources to produce added benefits for producers.

In July 2022, the pair bought a vintage horse trailer and spent the next four months remodeling it into the Coffee Caboose. Their approach to packaging, brewing, and serving coffee aligns with their goals to reduce waste, opting for fully compostable cups, lids, sleeves, bleach-free napkins, and straws. The only exception (for now) is their coffee bags, which are recyclable and chlorine-free, as they search for a fully biodegradable alternative that meets their needs.

“We work with a company called Recycled City here in Phoenix, and they pick up our business’s compost each month via a 60-gallon container and compost it back into Arizona farmland. Between our recycling and composting, our business generates an extremely small amount of trash,” says Taylor.

Pulling shots of espresso in the coffee caboose

Pulling shots of espresso in the Coffee Caboose

Future Plans

Since October 2022, SW Grilled Coffee has also been generating growth in its following, and they make sure to share this growth with the greater community. They donate one dollar for every pound of coffee sold (whether through beverages brewed in the trailer or retail bags) to the Grand Canyon Trust, which works to preserve the Colorado Plateau and areas of the southwest. “This way, every time we use or sell coffee, there is a benefit generated to help the environment,” says Taylor.

They also partner with Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty to estimate their carbon footprint as a business and use a monthly assessment to create a donation that goes toward carbon offsetting in developing countries. “For example, our monthly donation may go to farmers to plant trees to help offset our carbon footprint, among other projects around the world. The donations not only fund these programs but also pair fair wages to the folks providing the service,” says Taylor.

Taylor Kirkman in the Coffee Caboose. Open for business

The Coffee Caboose open for business.

Aside from their commitment to owning and operating a socially and environmentally responsible business, Taylor and Steven are passionate about roasting high-quality raw coffee beans and developing flavorful medium roasts for their customers, many of whom have made the transition from dark roasts with cream and sugar to SW Grilled Coffee’s medium roasts – black. “That’s because the flavor is so good. We prioritize the early flavors that farmers work hard to achieve through medium roasts instead of burning them away in dark roasts,” says Taylor.

“We really enjoy the simplicity of going outdoors and relying on our senses to roast our beans. It makes us feel more connected to the process versus watching a computer screen or being able to watch the colors of the beans change,” Taylor adds. “I think most roasters would agree that roasting is an art no matter what equipment you’re using – you have to rely on your senses, your experience, and understand the science behind it.