Heck of a cup of joe

Coffee business has challenges alongside perks: local roasters

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on December 11, 2015

Pallets in the cool-but-dry storage room at Jumping Bean Coffee Company’s production facility are stacked with burlap sacks.

Each sack weighs in at just over 70 kilograms, marked with the name of a distant country: Columbia, Ethiopia, Peru, Guatemala.

They hold the one agricultural product essential to the business of the local coffee roaster.

Whether it’s Jumping Bean’s Light House Roast, Deep Water Dark, or the popular East Coast Roast, they all begin with the “green beans” inside these bags — ordered through a Toronto-based broker and shipped to the Paradise location.

“I generally start in the mornings roasting lighter coffees, just to get the roaster warmed up, before we get into the darker stuff,” said Grant Abbott, the manager of the facility, who works most days alongside two other staff, covering packaging and logistics.

On the main floor — the bean storage is an offshoot — there are several pieces of machinery, but the floor is dominated by the 10- or 12-foot-tall roaster.

Abbott selects the required beans from storage. When the machine is prepped, the beans are scooped into the main hopper, sucked up a pipe and dropped into the spinning drum of the roaster. They are exposed to temperatures of at least 426 degrees Fahrenheit, tossed for an even distribution of heat and then dumped out into a circular catchment area, stirred to cool. Each step is controlled by Abbott using a control panel on the machine.

“If your roaster goes down — I mean, luckily, I’m an engineer and I can pretty well get myself out of any corner, to some degree. But it’s extremely, extremely difficult managing the equipment and maintenance and understanding what goes wrong, what can go wrong,” said Jeff LeDrew, Jumping Bean’s CEO.  

He suggests coffee roasting for retail is not for the easily frustrated.

Jumping Bean had its start in 2000-04, when LeDrew was working out of his house in a tech position. He was home-roasting small batches of coffee as a hobby at the time, creating blends. He joined the Rotary Club to do a little networking, deciding to make small batches for the group, then a fundraiser “Rotary Roast.”

The business emerged from there and grew. It now boasts a retail franchise; product listed with stores including Sobeys, Costco, Belbin’s, Colemans, Powell’s Supermarket and Co-op; plus use of a mainland-marketable EcoRoast process, producing 85 per cent less CO2 emissions when compared to traditional roasting.

Like olive oil or wine, coffee as a product comes with a rich culture, LeDrew said, explaining producers can go as deep as they choose into that world. That means courses in coffee chemistry, a how-to on proper tastings and education on the various notes of the coffee regions and single-suppliers, as set out in the accepted “coffee tasting wheel.”

But the realities of business still apply and, he said, shipping costs remain a constant focus.

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“Really, everybody is in that small, custom-batch market except for Jumping Bean,” said Curtis Burns, owner-operator for the Flat Earth Coffee Company, based in Shoal Bay, Fogo Island, when asked about in-province roasts.

Burns is newer to the game and not geared up for commercial distribution, but he said his business encounters the challenge of shipping logistics and import-export costs.

“If you have to take them off their main route (on the Trans-Canada Highway), which is called a ‘beyond point’ — I’m a beyond point, I’m beyond their main route — and they charge me almost double,” he said of Fogo Island shipments.

He has managed to work with companies already shipping to and from the island to bring costs down, while focusing in the past year on establishing a shop on Fogo Island and a related canteen service on the provincial ferry.

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The owner and operator of the Trinity Coffee Company, Ian White, said he hit up against the same shipping challenges, working his way through.

“I’m paying the bills and making a little bit of money,” he said of his business.

Trinity Coffee has found space with some independent retailers.

“The (St. John’s) Farmers’ Market has been huge for us,” he added, touting it as a great place to introduce new products and food-related start-ups, given you can directly pitch and get feedback from so many customers on a single day.

The Trinity Coffee Company, first and foremost, supplies White’s restaurant and accommodations in that community, inspiring the Trinity Merchantile Blend.

“It’s not as simple as just turning on a switch,” he said of the roasting business, noting there is the cost of the roaster (he has the one formerly used by Auntie Crae’s), installation, finding a bean broker, permits and the propane feed or other heating source required.

And, as always, it comes back to the beans.

“I’m in business with a lot of other people, but I’m also in business with Mother Nature,” he said, explaining certain coffee blends may be hard to source when a poor crop limits the bean supply.

But the local roasters claim a fresh roast will come out the best of brews.

Editor’s note: The Telegram made several attempts to connect with the owner of Brewed Awakenings in Corner Brook for this story, but received no response as of press time.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com