By Jon Jenkins
People who love coffee love rituals. When they wake up, they brew their first cup and only then can begin their day. Maybe they prefer lighter roasts to darker roasts. Darker to lighter. Some may like mochas or cappuccinos or the buzz from a single shot of espresso, but have you ever thought about how coffee is roasted?
I had the chance to visit Symphony Coffee Roasters and meet Tony Vazquez, a local coffee roaster in Hope Mills.
Tony is from New York and moved to North Carolina after retiring from the Army in order to be close to family. While living in Spain, Tony talked roasting techniques with the baristas. Abroad, he especially enjoyed the live music scene and other social aspects that he found prevalent in coffee shops overseas, and he began to consider a career in the coffee industry. After meeting several contacts, Tony met Mike Birky of Cactus Creek Coffee in Aberdeen, who ultimately helped him start his roasting business.
Tony’s passion for coffee roasting is clear. Behind the cafe at Symphony Coffee Roasters, Tony has his roasting room, or roastery, as he calls it.
“Most people,” he said, “haven’t seen the process. They think the roaster is the grinder.” But he says that when people see it, they are very curious.
Tony travels to the Balzac Brothers & Company warehouse in Charleston, South Carolina, once a month to get his imported coffee beans. The beans themselves come in 132 pound coffee bags from a variety of countries: Brazil, Kenya, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Indonesia.
Coffee beans are the seeds from the coffea plant, which was first discovered in Ethiopia, which makes sense since coffee plants flourish in tropical climates. Coffee beans are all different. They each have distinct smells, colors, sizes and textures. Some beans are black, while others are green.
Tony keeps several containers of beans from all over the world. We compare the textures, the colors and the smells of the unroasted beans. Some smell like flowers. Others smell like chocolate. The beans from Brazil are less aromatic than the beans from Colombia. The coffee beans are either black or dark brown in color, but some beans are lighter and will turn darker after being roasted. The process of roasting transforms unroasted beans and contributes to the flavor of coffee that we enjoy.
When coffee beans are roasted, the chemical and physical aspects change. The coffee beans turn from green to brown in a process called caramelization. Tony mentions that sometimes a professional coffee evaluator, a Cupper, will evaluate the coffee to ensure quality. Indeed, when marketing to the specialty coffee community, these aspects are necessary for differentiating subtle qualities among the different varieties of beans and to discover which flavors will delight customers craving caffeine.
Tony has been doing business with the Balzac Brothers company for six years, but that company has been in business for almost a hundred. Balzac Brothers is committed to selling Fair Trade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance coffee, among others, and Tony brings these beans back to Hope Mills. Their “green” beans, or unroasted coffee beans look a bit like edamame, but once roasted, they turn to the darker and shinier brown that we are all accustomed to.
As the “green” coffee beans are put in, the roaster emits a low, humming sound that gradually gets louder and louder. This machine, a Diedrich Coffee Roaster, costs more than $30,000. It is about six feet tall and two feet wide and has a capacity for 12 pounds of coffee beans. Tony pays careful attention to sounds as the beans roast. The first crack usually happens at 385 degrees Fahrenheit, the moment when the coffee beans start evaporating moisture and when the inner oils and gasses of each bean are released.
Tony wants to heat the coffee beans to 410 degrees Fahrenheit, so he pushes a few buttons. As Tony slides a small door open, we can watch the beans being heated. The roaster is all about the coffee beans absorbing the heat, and soon they change from green to yellow.
Tony uses a small device to probe the coffee beans and check on them. Finally, he uses a lever to release the beans into a circular tray at the bottom of the machine. This cooling bin, made of stainless steel, is where the coffee beans rest. Again, more loud cracking. This means the coffee beans are drying and moisture is evaporating, which increases the size of the beans. A draft inducer and nearby fan cool the hot beans off.
“Each bean is distinctive,” Tony says, and he will sample them as they roast.
An entire batch can be roasted in thirty minutes, but Tony stays busy roasting coffee several hours per day. Oftentimes, he will go between the roastery and the cafe, checking temperature, sound and color, determining when the beans are ready in addition to taking care of customers.
After the second crack is heard, the person roasting the coffee should stop roasting immediately. Otherwise, a large amount of sucrose will remain in the coffee bean and the coffee won't have very much flavor. When the machine reaches its optimal temperature, the beans are almost ready to be ground and brewed to be made into a drink.
Once the beans are ready, Tony puts the finished product in a bag with an airtight valve. This keeps the beans fresh for up to four weeks.
Coffee roasting is especially popular now. Locally roasted coffee can allow for coffee to be fresher than the coffee you can buy at a grocery store or get from a restaurant after dinner. Tony says that some customers find that drinking freshly roasted coffee actually helps them sleep better at night.
Light, medium and dark roasted are common descriptions used in the industry. Light and medium roasted coffee usually tastes dry with noticeable levels of acidity. Lighter roasted coffee usually has a taste similar to the original flavor of coffee. Darker roasted coffee is shiny and bittersweet in taste.
You may be wondering how roasting coffee can affect caffeine. The longer coffee beans are roasted, the more caffeine will decrease. And depending on the brewing method used at home, caffeine can vary.
As an entrepreneur, Tony understands the importance of an innovative product. He not only roasts straight batches of each kind of bean, but he also creates blends, two or more types of beans roasted together. The sweetness of Sumatra beans mixed with coupled with the smooth and fruitier blackberry-like flavor of Colombian beans creates one of his most favorite combinations.
Tony has been roasting coffee for six years. He owns Symphony Coffee Roasters, but before that he owned Trade Street Brews in Hope Mills. You can also find him and his roasted coffee beans at the Farmers Market on Saturday mornings downtown Fayetteville. He sells his locally roasted coffee in blue airtight bags. The most popular varieties are the Guatemalan and Sumatra coffees.
Good coffee has a lot of sweetness and a pleasant aroma. And who doesn’t love the way coffee smells? Dark roasted coffee loses sweetness and can become bitter. This is why black coffee and espressos tend to be an acquired taste, unpalatable to some, and which is why some people prefer to include milk or sugar in their drinks.
Tony loves to discuss the process of roasting and offers visitors an opportunity to learn more.
Tony does all the roasting work by hand. In the cafe, a barista helps him greet customers and with work behind the counter. He wants them to be informed about their coffee and where it comes from, but also for them to feel comfortable asking questions about the roasting process. Indeed, the smell of coffee wafts throughout the shop. Customers come in and chat. They discuss their day. They walk around with their cappuccino or simple cup of coffee, giving them a caffeine jolt for their day.
“It’s about the whole coffee experience,” he says. “You enter as strangers but you leave as friends,” he said.
Symphony Coffee Roasters is located in the historic district of Hope Mills at 3787 South Main Street. The building was once a flower shop. Tony intends to bring in live music and eventually conduct interviews via podcast with local leaders in the community. He considers coffee his passion and wants to use his business experience to sell coffee beans to customers who may be seeking a different product than from what they can purchase at grocery stores. Customers can purchase Tony’s freshly roasted coffee beans to brew at home in addition to coffee by the pound, tea from small merchants and local artisan products.
Check out Symphony Coffee Roasters on Facebook or visit the website www.symphonycoffeeroasters.com to learn more about pricing and the coffee shop hours.