To tell you the truth, up until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t drink coffee. I hated how it made me feel and the aftertaste wasn’t appealing to me based on the quality of coffee I was drinking at the time. Green tea was my hot beverage of choice. Then came nitro cold brew coffee. I loved the smooth, rich taste of taste. To be completely transparent, I was in awe of the science of nitro brew. I loved the process. That’s always been a part of me. The process. Sometimes it seems to be more important than the end result. So I have no problem with things that take a long time as long as that process is interesting and engaging. I started buying more “high end” specialty coffee - notably whole beans from the brilliant Twin Cities based roastery, Dogwood Coffee. The quality of the cold brew from “the good stuff” was game-changing. Soon I was spending my downtime endlessly researching the science of coffee. Everything from grind size, extraction rates, and brew water temperature. I quickly moved into manual pour methods (Chemex, V60, Clever Dripper, etc.) and started spending more time (and money) on perfecting the “perfect” brew - a futile endeavor - but a fun one nonetheless.
For me, control is essential. Control in what I create and what I consume. Probably not a trait worth bragging about, but it is what it is. I was able to control the variables given to me in order to brew a great cup of coffee. But there was something missing. I was only in control of that last step in the process. Taking a product that someone else sourced and roasted. For the most part, the process was satisfying. The thrill of using my knowledge and their product to produce a really great cup of coffee for myself. Even more enjoyable, was crafting something for others. But there was something missing. A big part of the process was out of my control. Don’t get me wrong, I was consuming amazing coffee from some of the best roasters in the country (Brandywine, Onyx, Intelligentsia, Spyhouse, etc.), but I needed to have control of that crucial step. I had no idea what was involved in roasting green coffee. I never really even thought about it until a coworker mentioned roasting on an air popcorn popper in his garage. This seemed so exciting and such a great way to have even further control over the coffee process. I jumped in head first. I started, as so many coffee geeks do, with the Nostalgia Electric Popcorn Popper. At first it was awful. The coffee was scorched and I got chaff in my eyes constantly! I devised a way to stir the coffee in the hot cavity of the popper using three chopsticks held together with electrical tape. It helped me control the rate of the roast by stirring faster or slower. It didn’t take long to realize I could not produce the quality of coffee I desired using this DIY method - enter the Behmor Coffee Roaster. I was able to convince my wife that spending $350 on a glorified toaster oven with a rotating wire drum was a fiscally responsible idea - even more so since I was able to use a Bed Bath & Beyond 20% coupon to buy it! The Behmor came the day before we were leaving for a family vacation and it absolutely killed me to not be able to get a roast in before the trip. It sat there, unutilized while we swam in chlorine spiked water and dodged tornados at Wisconsin Dells for four days with the kids. All the while, I spent every minute of the free time researching coffee roasting techniques and tips. Upon our return, I spent a good deal of quality time, in the garage, learning to perfect the roasting process within the limitations of my new roaster. The coffee produced was good, some of it was actually really good. I did a few blind cuppings with my coffee and some from a favorite roasters and the results were eye opening. I then started sharing roasted samples with coworkers and friends who all gave me incredibly positive feedback - which, by nature, I was skeptical of. Although after further discussions, I was able verify that they were indeed not just being nice and legitimately loved my coffee. Maybe I could really do this. My hypothesis that a knowledge of cooking skills and the ability to develop flavors by experimenting played a major role in my roasting abilities were starting to bear fruit. I was able to adjust the limited variables to produce something that tasted the way I wanted it to. However, there were too many limitations with the Behmor and I started to explore the next step.
A Real Roaster
With an unlimited budget, the solution to my problem would have been easy - but when is an unlimited budget ever actual reality? I’m in the Twin Cities area, so the logical choice in a professional coffee roasting machine would be a Mill City Roaster. However, the $7k+ starting price was pretty much out of the question given the early stages of my coffee endeavor. I did take the time to tour Mill City Roasters, over lunch one day, since they are right down the road from my day job in Minneapolis. It was really hard leaving there knowing I probably would not be ready to purchase a 1kg roaster when the new batch was ready to ship in March - although I did go through numerous unrealistic scenarios in my head for days. My next option was a roaster I read about a few months ago, but the availability of it has been extremely limited since it was introduced in 2016 - the Aillio Bullet R1. The Bullet is a smaller footprint 1kg roaster with some seriously impressive features; namely being able to connect it to a computer to save and duplicate roast profiles. Most importantly, it was within my budget! Miraculously, a batch of machines just became available for sale and I was able to grab one before they sold out within a few hours. So now, it’s on! My head is spinning, plans are in motion and my coffee roasting business is becoming a reality.
Music has always been a big part of my life. Listening to music - consuming it, not playing it unfortunately (that’s why I’ve had kids, to push them into learning to play music because I never got my act together and learned). I knew I wanted music to play a roll in my adventure in coffee roasting and it wasn’t long before I thought of a way to combine the two. One of my favorite bands, Still Corners - a duo from London and Texas - followed me on Instagram and I noticed that Greg would often like or comment on my many coffee photos. Ahead of a recent show of theirs in town, I worked on roasting a blend of coffee I called “Cuckoo” named after an incredible song from their first album. I presented the coffee to Greg after the show as a gift and he raved about it. At that point, Cuckoo was just going to be a specific blend amongst other single origins and blends - but the name just stuck. In trying to rationalize it, I thought the name could serve a dual purpose - to tie into music and to quantify this crazy idea of starting a business with no real business acumen. I have more ideas about how to incorporate my love of music into the company, but I’m going to keep those to myself until they can be fleshed out. For now, Cuckoo is going to be a small, micro batch coffee roastery that seeks out amazing coffee origins and explores new ways to produce unusual blends and special edition offerings. I’m going to limit the scope to what I can manage. I feel like I have a unique advantage in having the knowledge and skill to roast some amazing coffee AND be able to handle all of my own design, packaging, marketing and social media because of my background in the advertising industry for the past 20+ years. I hope this is the start of something that will become special to people, something seen as an artisan indulgence, that is within reach - simply great coffee you can feel good about drinking.