Meet the Specialty and Small Batch Roasters that Keep Us Caffeinated
I’ve long said that coffee is the last vice they’ll tear out of my cold, dead hands. I’ve tried to quit coffee in the past, caught up in some cleanse or other, only to realize that my first hot cup in the morning is the only thing keeping my soul alive. As one Lucky Peach writer wrote after attempting a week without coffee: “I was not myself. My mind was not working like it should. My memory wasn’t as sharp. I had more than my usual trouble sleeping. Worst of all, I felt a deep and intensifying gloom.” Which is to say, coffee is life. No wonder, as humans’ dependence and love for the bean spans thousands—possibly millions—of years of evolutionary history. Luckily, Sonoma County is home to many life-giving specialty coffee roasters. Whether they focus on small-batch, organic, fair trade, single origin (the coffee beans are all from the same location), or all of the above, one thing’s for certain: The four local businesses profiled here are working hard to make sure that we have access to high-quality beans from all over the world. I, for one, must thank them. Without their products, I would wither into a despairing facsimile of myself.
Taylor Maid Farms
Rob Daly, Taylor Maid’s CEO, is excited about the company’s future. A visit to Colombian coffee farms and new cafes in Sonoma County are on the horizon. On a Wednesday afternoon in
September, the self-described “shy” leader stands in the midst of Taylor Maid’s roasting facility at the Barlow in Sebastopol. Employees buzz around him, packaging coffee into distinctive, refillable silver cans, testing blends in the lab, and prepping green organic beans for Roastmaster Coalmine Spindle —he and his apprentices roast up to 2,000 pounds of coffee a day and about 340,000 pounds a year. Today, Coalmine monitors the progress on water-processed decaf beans freshly poured into a Loring Smart Roast, a smokeless roaster manufactured in Santa Rosa (Chris Martin, the founder of Taylor Maid also helped found Loring). The pioneering coffee company was the first to use the energy-wise roasters, which have since become an industry standard adopted by Blue Bottle Coffee and Equator Coffees & Teas among others.
Coalmine has worked for Taylor Maid for 14 years. “I appreciate the culture here,” he says, soft-spoken in a cap and gray apron. “The community is the thrust behind this business…and it’s good coffee.” A few years back, he even had the opportunity, along with Daly and other employees, to travel to Nicaragua, where they visited the villages that grow and process beans for Taylor Maid. During the visit, they also installed a concrete floor at a house in the village. It was a chance to see, firsthand, where the beans came from and their impacts on the environment and local economies.
“We’ll buy an entire crop from one village,” says Daly. “I wouldn’t be here if these farmers didn’t deliver amazing coffee. This is local community with a global connection.”
Last July, Taylor Maid was purchased by InHouse Ventures, the first acquisition by the Healdsburg-based investment firm. Chris Martin, who started roasting coffee in 1993 in an old barn in Occidental, left to pursue other interests, and Daly, the general manager, officially took the lead. He’s enthusiastic about the new development. “InHouse’s focus is regenerative with an awareness of carbon footprints,” he says.
For now, InHouse plans to maintain the company’s deeply local ethos. At the same time, Daly says, it’s all about paying farmers a fair trade price of $3 dollars a pound, minimizing environmental impacts in the roasting and delivery process and getting coffee out to local customers.
“If you don’t support the farmer and the community, then what are you doing?”
Sunshine Organic Coffee Roasters
Mike Doherty, owner of Sunshine Organic Coffee Roasters, grew up in Santa Rosa in the ‘70s. But as an adult, he’s made his life in the more kickback environs of West County.
“Forestville is a gem of a town; for me, it’s old Sonoma County,” Doherty says as we walk from the company headquarters in an old wine production building up to the Roasters cafe on the town’s quirky main street. Doherty points out Backyard restaurant (yes, they serve Sunshine coffee) next door, and Cannetti Roadhouse Italiana across the street. “Everyone works together here,” he says.
That laid-back community vibe is just the way Doherty, a surfer and family man, likes it; It’s what got him into the coffee business. After working as a barista at the coffee hut (now a Roasters outpost) at Andy’s Produce Market, he realized that he loved working for and with local coffee fans. In 2005, he partnered with a roastmaster and another partner (they’ve since left the company), purchased a vintage Italian-made Officine Vittoria drum convection roaster and got to work. Now the company has 18 employees, including nine full-timers. The vintage roaster is still going strong.
Slow and steady expansion wins the race, says Doherty.
“We like that,” he says. “We don’t want to overwork ourselves.” “I’ve never enjoyed stress, anxiety, or deadlines.”
After procuring cups of strong, hot Roaster’s blend coffee from the cafe, where I admire the surfboards hanging from the ceiling, we head back down to the company headquarters to watch Roastmaster Tyler Ericksen roast specialty-grade Arabica beans. These will go into one of Sunshine’s blends—they don’t do single origin even though it’s apparently de rigueur in most coffee circles.
“We shy away from small lots or micro-lots,” says Ericksen. “By blending we’re able to come up with a consistent product.” The organic beans are sourced from Atlantic Specialty Coffee out of the Port of Oakland. Ericksen roasts about 100 pounds an hour.
Ericksen has worked for the company since 2007. He’s speaks eloquently about coffee harvesting, the grading and sorting process and roast profiles (the best way to roast to beans for optimal flavor). Roasting isn’t a challenge, he says. Ensuring that the coffee is sourced ethically, from farmers who are paid a fair wage and use sustainable farming practices—that’s where the coordination, research, and trust in your coffee broker comes in.
Doherty readily admits that Ericksen is the roasting expert, while he cultivates the underlying support system. “I’m trying to be the little guy with the employees who stick around,” says Doherty. So far, so good.
Retrograde Coffee Roasters
“It’s surreal to wake up and see a machine this size in the kitchen,” says Danielle Connor as we walk through the cozy Santa Rosa apartment she shares with Casey Lanksi. She’s referring to a shiny, new roaster that takes up the area normally reserved for a dining room table. The roar of the machine fills the small space as it putters away on a light roast of single origin beans from Central America. Lanksi monitors the roasting progress using open-source software on a nearby laptop.
In 2014, the couple launched Retrograde Coffee Roasters, starting with pop-ups in Oakland, where they lived. After moving to Sonoma County in 2015, they expanded into local farmers’ markets and wholesale accounts, and took the leap out of day jobs and into life as full-time business owners. They’ve already made a name for themselves among coffee geeks. In fact, their Narino Finca Cochas was a gold medal winner at this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Grown by Columbian coffee farmer Tomas Alvarez, the coffee is lush and fruity. Retrograde skews towards single-origin seasonally driven beans. More recently, they expanded into blends, which allow for a year-round consistent product.
Like many people of their generation, Lanski and Connor (both are in their late 20s) care about where their food comes from. They extend this passion to customers and encourage people to engage in conversations over those morning coffee drinks. “People are used to coffee being one way,” says Connor. “We have to do a little more conversing and explanation about where it comes from and how to brew it at home.” The educational aspect is one of her favorite parts of the job.
Freshness is also a core tenet for Lanski who learned the coffee trade at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco. Perfecting the roast is important as well. “You can always find something to improve,” he says before measuring out a green Guatemala Peaberry—sourced from Coffee Shrub, a small batch coffee importer based in Oakland—into the roaster.
“Ultimately, we want to preserve the regional characteristics of the bean, and we want to find the sweet spot of the coffee.”
Bella Rosa Coffee Company
The word “disrupt” has been wildly overused of late, and yet it’s certainly one of the best ways to describe what Bella Rosa Coffee Company has done to the Sonoma County coffee scene since launching in 2012. Their distinctive, colorful, rose-embossed labels can be found on grocery shelves all over the county, taking up precious shelf space next to more established brands. Jon Bixler, who cofounded the company with his partner Cynthia Buck and family friend David Greenfield, says that it’s because, without a doubt, the way Bella Rosa roasts their beans is different from everything else out there. In fact, this is what drew him to invest in the company after being approached in 2011 by Greenfield, who had invented a proprietary coffee roaster after years of working for Graffeo Coffee.
“We jumped into this market largely because of what Dave’s machine had to offer,” says Bixler, sitting in his office in Bella Rosa’s 8,000-foot warehouse and roasting facility in an industrial zone and office park near the Sonoma County airport. The tables around us are covered in brown bags labeled by type of bean and roast, remnants of a 50-sample cupping from the previous day. In another room, Greenfield works at a computer, adjusting roasting profiles.
“We convection roast while everyone else conduction roasts,” says Bixler. What does that mean exactly? Well, instead of heating their organic, fair-trade and shade-grown beans with hot steam, they use hot air. Which means that the coffee is roasted at lower temperatures. A happy byproduct of the unique roasting method is a coffee low in chlorogenic acid—the chemical compound that causes bitterness in coffee, along with heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux.
“We kept getting customers saying ‘Coffee gives me a stomach ache and yours doesn’t—why?’” says Bixler. Demand for Bella Rosa is growing. For example, they now supply coffee to a private label in Los Angeles that promotes superfoods. The family-owned company has expanded to take up all 8,000 feet of their warehouse. Plus, a cafe on the premises serves iced coffees and lattes and offers a coffee bean refill station so that customers can recycle cans.
“We have some sizable irons in the fire, but our hearts are in our community,” says Bixler.
Headquartered in Petaluma, Acre has gained a reputation for cozy, upscale cafes and delicious, fresh-roasted coffee. All roasting occurs on a vintage Probat UG-22 roaster housed in a historic 1940s warehouse on Petaluma Blvd.
Eco-Delight Coffee Roasting
The owners at Eco-Delight Coffee Roasting, headquartered in Petaluma, are unique in that they have personal relationships with coffee growers in Latin America. They say they give the “utmost consideration to protecting and preserving the ecosystems of the habitats in growing regions where the coffees are sourced.”
Flying Goat Coffee
The Healdsburg-based roaster is known for delicious single origin coffees with enough caffeine to power you through a hard day of work (or play). They also do blends. The coffees are available in drip and espresso, and for take-home at three cafes in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa.
Petaluma Coffee and Tea
This roastery and cafe in downtown Petaluma is a true original. They’ve been around since 1989, roasting high-quality Arabic coffee beans in small batches.