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.
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.
Miguel hunts around the warehouse to find samples of imperfect beans. They're much scarcer than at, say, the "Big Four" coffee roasters (Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee), which buy about half the world's annual coffee production and are notorious for focusing on quantity, not quality. He spreads a handful of beans on a table and sorts them like a beader, picking out those with barely visible misshapes, milling nicks, and coffee-borer bites. I sample one of the "quakers," a defective bean that failed to properly roast, which tastes like popcorn hull and burnt cardboard. The more of these in the mix, Miguel says, the worse the flavor.
One of the reasons for so much poor coffee is that most beans are sold on the commodities market, where prices are based on the volatile supply of low-grade beans. When farmers can't demand higher prices, there's no incentive for better quality. Another problem, Aaron says, is that most farmers don't drink coffee. By that he means that most haven't tasted much coffee besides their own and that of their neighbors, and they have little experience evaluating their product.
In recent years, though, more demanding consumer tastes and increasing awareness of the social and environmental issues surrounding coffee production have helped grow the specialty market. The next step to improving coffee, Miguel says, is for roasters like himself to develop direct relationships with farmers, and, as he's trying to do, encourage them to grow more heirloom varietals and process the beans more carefully.
Slurped side-by-side at the cupping table, one of Paradise's Panamanian brews has bright, acidic notes; a Brazilian variety is nutty, mellow; one from Sumatra is almost vegetal. "How much coffee do you guys drink?" I ask. Miguel laughs. "I don't drink that much, but I taste a lot," he says. "I've been in this business 10 years and I still don't have a tolerance for caffeine." His lanky frame seems to twitch just a little.
Miguel explains that the $300-a-pound price tag on his R. Miguel "Nectar" coffee is tied to its labor-intensive processing. As the coffee cherries are dried, they have to be raked about every 15 minutes for the first 24 to 48 hours. Then workers spend hours hand-sorting each batch before it's air-freighted to Miguel, who roasts it and then re-sorts it himself.
I slurp a spoonful of the Nectar, and it definitely has a more complex flavor than the others, with citrus notes, smoky tones, and a dozen other flavors. The coffee's most noticeable difference is its smooth finish—as soon as I swallow, there's a pleasantly light, clean aftertaste. But would I pay $6 a serving to drink this at home, versus 35 cents for the others?
Just then, the timer goes off on the roaster, and Miguel dashes over to push a few buttons. The beans spatter into a bin below—tat-tat-tat-tat-tat—like coins from a slot machine.courtesy of Paradise Roasters