My Coffee Pub had the opportunity to ask Brian Gumm, owner of Ross Street Roasters, a few questions to understand his coffee journey and what motivates him in his craft. We greatly appreciate Brian taking the time to give us a glimpse into his mind and tell us about his coffee story. Enjoy.
MCP: When did you start drinking coffee? Did you always drink black coffee?
Brian: I started drinking coffee in my early 20s when I got into web app development. We had, like most corporate workplaces, terrible free office coffee. It was part of the morning ritual for my co-workers to congregate in our break area, drink coffee, and talk about nerd stuff: video games, web development, our customers, etc.
I don't recall if I drank coffee black in the first few years of drinking terrible office coffee, but about 5 years into my coffee drinking career, I started drinking better coffees and brewing at home with a French Press, and at that point drinking coffee black became part of the intentional broadening of my palette.
MCP: What is your favorite/best coffee memory/experience?
Brian: One of my favorite coffee drinking memories happened early last year at a great little Third Wave shop in Kansas City, called Second Best. They have a Slayer espresso machine, and they pulled a shot of a single origin Kenyan coffee off it, and it was one of those "light bulb"/"nothing will ever be the same" moments. The intense fruity acidity right up front blew me away.
The majority of my coffee drinking experience has been at home on manual brewing devices, and the very limited experiences I'd had with espresso were at chain cafes with sub-par, dark-roasted coffees. So this experience was almost more than my brain could process, I just hadn't experienced anything like it before! But it was great. I loved the coffee and have been convinced that espresso is a whole world within coffee that I need to spend more time with, both as a drinker and a roaster.
MCP: Who influenced you the most in your coffee journey?
Brian: As a coffee drinker, I'd have to say my wife (who is not a coffee drinker) influenced me early on when she bought me a French Press and good coffee as a gift in my mid-20s. I've not looked back once I was put on that journey.
As a roaster, there are two people that come to mind as huge influences. My family lived in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for four years during grad school, before moving back to our home state of Iowa. While in Virginia, I became aware of an energetic home-roasting community in our small city of Harrisonburg. One of those people was our church pastor, who has a side business, Phil's Just Java, where he buys green coffee from importers and re-selling small quantities to home roasters. When we moved back home to Iowa, to the small rural community where my wife grew up, there was no good coffee to be found anywhere close. So I decided it was time to start roasting at home myself.
The second person who has influenced me as a roaster is Troy Lucas, owner of Lucas Roasting Co. in Broadway, VA (in the process of relocating to New Hampshire). I didn't know him personally while we lived in Virginia, but I drank a lot of his coffee when we did and we had a few mutual friends. After we'd moved back to Iowa, I'd started roasting, and began the process of starting the company, I reached out to Troy with a few questions. When he realized that I was serious about going "all in" as a roaster, he was gracious with his time and wisdom. We've since become good roaster buddies, and we hang out whenever I get back to Virginia. His guidance and reflections on his own experience has been invaluable.
MCP: Did you ever see yourself becoming a coffee professional? What did you think you would be doing instead?
Brian: I didn't see myself becoming a coffee professional of any sort until I started home-roasting. I fell in love with roasting immediately, and it only took a few months of home-roasting to realize that this could be a potential profession and a small business/entrepreneurial opportunity for me.
Through my 20s I worked in software, then went to grad school for four years, thinking I'd go into some kind of church work or conflict resolution/peacebuilding work (which I was studying). I've been working in online education for the past four years since grad school, so the coffee roasting business was somewhat of a complete surprise and a big professional twist in my career. But I've loved it so much, I know I've found my home, professionally. I can easily see myself working in coffee for the rest of my professional life.
MCP: What are your favorite coffee origins, varietals, processes, flavor characteristics?
Brian: For the last 6 months or so, I've been in love with natural process Ethiopians. I had two natural process Ethiopian Yirgacheffes late last year and early this year, and their aromatics just blew me away. Even the green coffee before it was roasted smelled like a bowl of Fruit Loops cereal! Similar story with the washed SL-28 variety from Kenyan producers. So the lighter, fruiter area of the flavor wheel is where I've been hanging out a lot lately.
But I also really love the "browner" sections of the wheel, too. When sugary sweetness emerges further in the roast development, particularly with washed Central American coffees, that makes my palette happy, too.
I guess it's hard to say I have a permanent "favorite," because I feel like the flavor journey for specialty coffee is, for all practical purposes, endless. There are so many factors at play that affect flavor, you can spend a lifetime discovering new ones. So I suppose the journey is my favorite part of specialty coffee.
MCP: How did you get into coffee roasting?
After we'd lived in a "coffee snob" hub in Virginia for four years, with local artisan roasters both commercial and home/hobby based, we moved back to a small Iowa farm town where there was no good coffee to be found anywhere close. So I leveraged what I'd learned from my friend at Phil's Just Java as well as the rich body of information online (especially on Sweet Maria's website) and started roasting on a popcorn popper. I did that for a month and wanted a larger batch size, so I moved up to the "heat gun/bread machine" method and roasted that way for a year and a half as a hobbyist.
So in early 2015, I decided it was time to take the plunge and turn the hobby into a formal business. I sought out a silent partner/investor, formed the LLC, bought a coffee roaster, set up a temporary facility, got licensed by the state, and we were "official" in Sept. of 2015. Since then we've moved into our own permanent building while I've consistently been growing our wholesale and online retail customer base.
Being a business owner and a professional coffee roaster all in one has been so much fun. It hits both sides of my brain, the creative artisan side with becoming a specialty coffee roaster and the more analytical side with starting, running, and building a business. I've always been a fan of small businesses, and have worked for a handful of them in my professional life, so it feels great to be making a go of it myself as a founder/owner.
MCP: What type of roaster do you use? Do you do lab roasting and if so, what type of lab roaster do you use?
Brian: The roaster type we use is fluid bed, the Artisan 6M from Coffee Crafters, who are based out of Liberty Lake, WA. It has a 6 lb batch capacity. This shop-scale roaster has been a great machine to start our business on. For roast profiling we use Roastmaster, an iPad-based app with profiling and green coffee inventory management and cupping/scoring capabilities.
The Artisan has been a wonderful machine to start our business on, though if I had to do it all over again I would have bought a larger roaster right out of the gate. But having started roasting with a 1/4 cup batch size in a popcorn popper, and never having been a professional roaster or small business owner beforehand, it's incredibly difficult to gauge that so I have no regrets on the Artisan, and I'll keep it and probably use it for sample roasting and smaller batches as we continue to grow our business and have varying levels of batch size demands.
MCP: What does the coffee quality control process look like at Ross Street?
Brian: When we get new coffees in, I'll roast 2-3 sample batches of each one at various roast levels & profiles, based on what I'm trying to get out of each coffee for product development purposes. After I identify what I take to be the ideal roast profile for each coffee, I have way to set that profile as a template in Roastmaster. I've developed a set of general profiles over time that I'm able to apply to the new coffees (quicker roasts to emphasize acidity, longer roasts to emphasize sweetness, a "sweet middle" profile, etc.), but since each coffee is different and responds differently in the roaster, I'll move from the general profiles to a coffee- & roast-specific profile. So from then on I'm able to easily roast each coffee to spec, ensuring product consistency across batches.
I, of course, continue to have flexibility on roast profiles, though. If I have a higher-volume wholesale customer (say, a coffee shop) that likes a particular coffee at a different roast level than my profile, I can customize for them. That's the nice thing about having a smaller roaster.
MCP: What is the most exciting part of the roasting process for you?
Brian: Getting new coffees in is exciting but also a little anxiety-producing. At this stage of our business, I cycle coffees approximately every 4 months or so. I inevitably develop favorites myself, and so do my customers. So when new coffees come in, there's a lot of work involved on my end before customers ever taste the new stuff. And then I have to see how they like it. We just introduced a new set of three coffees, and so far the feedback from customers has been positive, even more positive than last time. So that's a huge relief and a joy for me to see our new coffees making people happy. Obviously, the goal is to keep repeating that.
MCP: What do you think the future of craft coffee is, and what would you like to see change in the coffee industry?
Brian: Since I'm a relative newcomer to craft/specialty coffee, I don't have particularly strong opinions on the future of our industry or what should change. I know equity across the supply chain, across societies that have vast gaps in wealth equality, is a huge issue. Climate change is going to continue to have a huge impact on growing regions and the economics of coffee, so that's another important issue. Balancing craft/art with these more global trade/social justice issues is something I'm energized by, intellectually and practically in business, so I'll keep paying attention: doing my homework and trying to respond accordingly and intentionally in my business practices.
MCP: What, in your mind, is the most compelling reason for people to take their coffee drinking seriously?
Brian: I like to say in my sales pitches that "Coffee is all about relationships." The hands of many humans across the world are all over the single cup of coffee that we drink in the morning (or afternoon, or at night), and relationships amongst fellow human beings matter. Coffee is also, significantly, about our relationship with the earth, so agricultural practices matter.
In specialty coffee, we have an interesting story to tell about why Good Coffee matters, not just on the quality merits of the coffee itself (though that is very important), but also how as specialty coffee roasters and consumers in North American, we're stewarding our relationships back to origin.
Coffee is a journey, coffee is about relationships, and (good) coffee is delicious. Those are the reasons I take the whole venture seriously, and I hope others do, too.