Ramsey is a coffee hot spot

Some of the world's best java comes through the Minnesota town



In a small, nondescript warehouse in Ramsey, Minnesota, thousands of miles from Central American coffee plantations or Seattle coffee shops, Miguel Meza slurps up a spoonful of so-called black gold in one noisy schluuup. The genteel 25-year-old—he's dressed in khakis, a sweater vest, and dapper Rat Pack-style dress shoes—is no rube. His technique is standard practice for taste-testing coffees, or "cupping." These beans, Meza says, come from a Panamanian farm known for producing some of the world's best coffee—and they retail for $300 a pound. "This is the most expensive coffee on the planet," he says.

Miguel Meza in India: A coffee expert calls him "one of the hottest buyers in the industry"
Miguel Meza in India: A coffee expert calls him "one of the hottest buyers in the industry"

Meza's family's company, Paradise Roasters, has quickly become one of the top specialty coffee roasters in the country after just five years in business. Their coffees have garnered accolades from Food & Wine magazine and CoffeeReview.com—the industry's rating resource that is basically the Wine Spectator for coffee. Paradise's accomplishments are all the more surprising considering it's a small mom-and-pop operation. Actually, it's more of a brother-and-brother operation, though mom and dad help, too.

As the roaster hums in the background, Meza says that he and his brother, Aaron, started drinking coffee and hanging out in coffee shops as teenagers. As soon as he turned 16, Miguel started working in one. Miguel and Aaron's parents, Bob and Deb, had always been interested in starting a family business, and in 2002, after much reading and research, Miguel convinced them that it should be coffee roasting.

Miguel heads up product development, which means he sources green coffee beans from around the world and serves as the chief roaster. Aaron, 24, dressed in boots and jeans with a cell phone clipped to his belt, is in charge of operations. Deb handles the finances, and Bob, who isn't involved with day-to-day proceedings, advises on business strategy.

Aaron explains that coffee tastes best when the beans are consumed within a week or so of roasting—but at most restaurants and coffee shops, the time between roasting and drinking is often much longer. While most roasters deal with large volumes and sell their coffee wholesale, Paradise differentiates itself, even among the small pool of local roasters, by focusing on selling fresh-roasted beans directly to individual customers—coffee drinkers willing to pay more for beans that were roasted and shipped the same day they were ordered. A few months ago, Miguel expanded the business by launching a second roasting company out of the Paradise facility. Called R. Miguel, it sells ultra-premium coffees for an even more discerning customer. These are beans grown in the best possible conditions and processed very carefully, in small batches—coffees like the $300-a-pound one that Miguel just slurped.

While Aaron and I are talking, Miguel buzzes around the warehouse, pulling a handful of beans out of the roaster to inspect them, while taking a phone call from a coffee farmer in Brazil. Between tasks, Miguel sets up a cupping so we can compare a half-dozen coffees. After filling several small glasses with just-ground coffee, he brings each one to his nose, covers the whole thing with both hands, and takes a deep sniff. Satisfied, Miguel pours hot water over the grounds, which foam up like the head of a beer. "Fresh coffee gives off CO2," he explains. "If it doesn't bubble, it's stale."

After a four-minute steep, Miguel leans over a cup and pushes the grounds back with a spoon as he sticks his nose so close to its bowl that I'm waiting for him to come back up with a mustache of coffee grounds.

This cupping process is essentially the same one used by Kenneth Davids, the author and coffee guru who evaluates beans for Coffee Review. In June 2004, he reviewed Paradise Roasters' espresso blend and gave it the highest rating an espresso had ever received. (Since then, all 32 of the Paradise and R. Miguel coffees that Coffee Review has evaluated have scored top marks of 90 and above. Davids says this is because Miguel sources the very best coffee and roasts it light enough that the bean's natural characteristics—their nuanced, well-balanced flavor profiles and clean finishes—shine through. "At the moment, he's one of the hottest coffee buyers in the industry," Davids says.) The Mezas quickly transitioned from renting time on another company's roaster and selling to acquaintances to opening their own facility and distributing their coffee to individuals around the globe.

In terms of sheer volume, coffee is one of the most actively traded commodities in the world, second only to oil. But many aficionados see it like the Ancient Mariner: coffee, coffee, everywhere, but nary a drop to drink. "There are a lot of really bad coffees," says Andrew Kopplin, owner of Kopplin's coffee shop in St. Paul, and one of Paradise's few wholesale customers (they also supply Black Sheep in St. Paul). Kopplin says that while he's always sampling coffees from dozens of roasters, he buys from just a few.

Producing coffee is a relatively simple process, but dozens of variables affect the quality. First there is the varietal of the coffee plant, its health, and its growing conditions (soil, altitude, humidity, etc.). Then there's harvesting, which, if done properly, requires several pickings so that only ripe cherries are selected. The cherries are then processed to separate the coffee bean from the fruit and sorted to remove imperfections—a highly labor-intensive process. Often the beans are stored in hot, humid conditions before being shipped, which can take anywhere from two weeks to two months; for that reason, Miguel encourages farmers to ship their beans in vacuum-sealed packages versus traditional burlap sacs. The first step to roasting good coffee, Miguel says, is sourcing the best beans and buying only from growers who don't cut corners.

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