How to Buy Coffee Series - Step 1: Understanding Roast Levels

How to Buy Coffee Series

Step 1: Understanding Roast Levels

With so many coffee options out there, choosing what kind to buy can be an intimidating task. 
Do you like light, medium or dark roasts? Should you get a blend, or a single origin? If you get a single origin, what country should you pick? 
Luckily for you, it’s our job to know these things. We know way too much about coffee, and we genuinely like sharing what we know with other people. 
Let’s start with an overview of how roast levels work. 

Roast Levels

Roast levels are really tricky, as there’s no standardization among roasters. This means one person’s definition of “medium” could be drastically darker than someone else's. The best way around this is a little trial and error to find a roaster you trust and like. 

Typically, the lighter the roast, the more “origin” characteristics are preserved, and the darker the roast, the more “roasty” the coffee can taste. 

Think of it as a spectrum: On the lighter end, there will be more acidity and less bitterness.  Then, as it comes into a medium roast, more sugars are caramelized, but you can still taste the origin characteristics, although they won’t be quite as “bright.” On the darker end, the acidity is muted, and the bitterness increases. 

Once you’ve settled in on a roast profile, you should consider regions and what characteristics they typically have. We will go over that in our next blog post, so stay tuned! 

 

 

 

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Bozeman coffee roaster rebrands, opens new cafe

Natalie Van Dusen still remembers the epiphany she had while working as a barista during high school.

“I wanted to have a cafe one day because I loved making people happy,” Van Dusen said.

Several years later, while on a trip to South America, the 35-year-old again found herself face-to-face with her future. Traveling through Colombia, Van Dusen met a coffee farmer who showed her how to roast the green, raw beans over a fire.

“I was so excited,” she said. “It’s funny to look back on that and how it shaped my life.”

The experience led Van Dusen to open Little Red Wagon Coffee Roasters in Bozeman in 2013, a small operation located in the back of Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot. The business grew on the back of a grassroots effort that included long days at farmer’s markets, as well as Van Dusen’s self-described “bullheadedness,” but the California native still craved a cafe of her own.

“We always wanted a full cafe; we just had to decide where and how,” she said. “Spaces are challenging in Bozeman.”

After a thorough search, Van Dusen and new co-owner Deejay Newell located their dream spot: a corner building on the northeast side of town at the intersection of Cottonwood Street and Wallace Avenue.

As part of the transition, the owners decided to rebrand their business.

“While we adored our brand before, we had outgrown it,” Van Dusen said, adding that a copyright issue also prompted the change.

After a six-month build out, the combination cafe, roaster and distributor, Treeline Coffee Roasters, celebrated its grand opening over the weekend.

“It’s surreal,” Van Dusen said. “I took part of the day off yesterday and was like, ‘Oh my god, we did it.’”

The interior of the shop, centered around a large wood bar accented with repurposed tiles from the old Stylon building, Edison bulbs and photos of coffee plants, reflects Van Dusen and Newell’s “eclectic” aesthetic. Francis, Treeline’s San Franciscan roasting machine, which toasts beans in 6-pound batches, sits exposed in one corner. In another, packaging, scales and a printer mark the manufacturing and distributing side of the operation, all of which is done in-house.

The open layout is by design, and encourages customers to engage with the entire coffee-making process, Van Dusen said.

“We’re in the farm-to-table movement and coffee is right there. There’s so much information to share,” she said. “The whole coffee industry is changing and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

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The owners have kept many of the practices that made Little Red Wagon successful, including the connection to its farmers. Newell and an employee returned Friday from Colombia, where they spent time connecting with one of their suppliers — something the company tries to do at least once a year.

“It’s easy to forget that it’s a crop, but there really is a lot going on behind the scenes,” Van Dusen said. “Ultimately, it would be a goal to know all the farmers we get our coffee from. That’s a unique priority for us.”

The cafe offers a small-food menu, which includes waffles and ice cream, as well as a rentable mobile coffee and espresso bar. Treeline also ships coffee across the country through its monthly subscription service.

Bozeman has a handful of coffee roasting operations, but much like breweries, there is room for them all, Van Dusen said.

“There is a lot of latitude for being creative,” she said. “There is an opportunity for everyone to do it different.”

And at the end of the day, all the businesses want to offer a good product, Van Dusen added.

“Right now our goal is to make the best coffee we can,” she said. “We just love coffee and want to share it.”

What's in a Name?

Turns out a lot. It's an identifier, an identity, and can say a lot about your personality. I had a really hard time coming up with a name for my new coffee roasting endeavor 3 years ago. I finally landed on Little Red Wagon Coffee Roasters because I thought it was catchy, people were unlikely to forget it and it had a little personal backstory (it's a camp song...and in a former life, summer camp was my life).

However, if I'm being honest with myself, I always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the name. It had great nostalgia and people thought it was fun! But honestly, red isn't really my favorite color and everyone always wanted me to paint everything we built bright red (like a wagon!). And it was a mouthful! With long, often screwed up, web and email addresses. But it was our name...and we loved it.

Last year when planning our growth strategy we took the plunge to TM our name. Turns out, no can do. This was tough for us to hear, but created the opportunity for us to step back and really reflect on the company we'd been building. Who are we? What do we want to be when we grow up? Surprisingly, those questions were easy for us to answer. As you know, we are coffee lovers, but we are also adventurers, travelers and outdoor enthusiasts. Our company was built on the idea that your coffee should fuel you to do the things you love, and we have gone to great lengths to explore creative and innovative coffee solutions that make for an unforgettable coffee experience for all of life’s adventures. 

We needed a name that reflected this. Interestingly enough, this time finding a name wasn't so hard.  I've always been enchanted by the treeline at dusk, when the trees are a silhouette against the grayish blue sky. One day while describing this visual to Deejay, it occurred to me that this could be a great name! And there it was, right before us. It's taken us a while to embrace the change (we understand if it takes you a minute too), but we are thrilled with what's come of it. 

Stacy, our incredible designer, has taken this beautiful Treeline drawing from our friend Jasmine Lily, and created awesome logos!

New packaging is on it's way and will be hitting the shelves this month! 

 

As a throw back to our first retail space, our new roastery will be fondly referred to as Treeline Roasting Room. We can't wait to share a cup of coffee with you there later this summer! See you soon! -Natalie

FUELED BY LITTLE RED WAGON ABOARD THE CONDORITO!

The aim was to have an adventure of a lifetime. Lots of Gore Tex and down layers, six ice tools, five bags of Little Red Wagon coffee, four pairs of skis, three pairs of boots, a couple ropes, at least two bottles of wine on hand at all times, and one trusty van, the Condorito.

 For six weeks our team of three, myself, my husband Tucker and our partner in crime, Jeb, toured Chile and Argentina to climb and ski some of the world’s most beautiful and iconic volcanoes. This part of northern Patagonia was as awe inspiring as our wildest dreams.  The Chilean side of the Andes is a mosaic of verdant valleys and ravines, dotted by araucarias (I preferred to call them Doctor Seuss pines). Swiss-like pastoral ranches cling to hillsides cross-cut by rivers roaring down from the Andes’ majestic summits. The Argentine side of the range has a sky so big it contends with Montana’s, vast plateaus of high desert and sage, indigo lakes that twist and turn around mountainsides and forests of larch straight from The Lord of the Rings.

The timing of our trip was to hit spring in the Andes (our September/October = their March/April) believing we might find some perfect "corn" snow for skiing, what we didn’t factor in was the fact that Chile has one of the largest temporal rainforests in the world and that Condorito, in all his glory, was still just a 1989 rear-wheel drive Mitsubishi van with no snow tires. So, our corn skiing dreams turned into a lot of car-camping below snow line, looong approaches but soft snow and spring powder conditions up high. What’s the saying again? April showers brings… high altitude powder skiing on volcanoes?! 

 The routine thus became, drive to one of Chile or Argentina’s rad mountain towns such as Pucón, Las Trancas, San Martin de los Andes, Bariloche, etc., post up at a café and read the weather as well as we possibly could via various internet sites, gear up on supplies, plan our route to the base of a peak, camp in the rain, drink lots of wine to forget about camping in the rain, alpine start with lots of LRW, climb to snow level, put on skis or crampons, climb some more, climb some more, stand on top of a big volcano, sometimes in a cloud, then ski six to ten thousand feet of vert back down to the car with a big fat smile, stuff our faces with empanadas and drink some more wine or one of the many tasty craft beers that both countries has to offer. REPEAT.  Out of all our ski adventures from the steep chutes of Cerro Catedral to the impressive Volcán Lanín, the two days that struck me the most were our ascent on Cerro Tronador and our descent of Volcán Villarica.

After driving for two days straight, mostly on dirt roads, we reached the base of the Tronador in a high alpine valley braided by glacial rivers. On the road up we had to check-in at an obscure outpost with a rather boastful gentleman of the Argentine National Guard, who very bluntly told us we would die if we tried to climb and ski the mountain in its current condition, “the trail is not maintained” he said, “bad storms are predicted… give me your passport numbers, if you don’t come back in three days, we’ll assume you died and send someone to look for you, but no promises.”  So with that warm welcome we made camp, went through our normal routine and woke up to clear, bluebird skies and an excellent weather window for a rapid two-day ascent. Thank you weatherman Jeb!  Tronador is Spanish for “The Thunderer” and it lived up to its name, shedding school-bus-size pieces of ice off its many seracs 24/7.  Every hour on the hour thunder claps of falling ice reverberated through the forest and echoed off the rock walls as we climbed. I was reminded of how small we were in this large landscape, with no other humans as far as the eye can see. While we weren’t able to capture the summit of Tronador due to impending weather (beware of the Patagonian winds!) we made it high up on the glacier and shared our ski down with a clan of curious Andean condors, diving and soaring just feet above our heads. This mountain did not want to be conquered, it was as wild as the condor’s wing span and I felt deeply satisfied that it was nice enough to share a short but sweet 48 hours with us.

In contrast to the little known Cerro Tronador, Volcán Villarica is likely the most famous volcano in South America. Its perfect conical top and snowy flanks fall straight down into Pucón, the Lake Tahoe of Chile. Pucón is complete with lake front shopping, trendy espresso bars, dirtbag climbing shops, and microbreweries catering to every type of tourist out there from ski bunny to hard core mountaineer. Pucón also has a stoplight on its main street that is not for traffic, it’s for predicting the volcano’s eruptions. When we entered Pucón, the light had just switched from red to yellow and while there was no legit sign, it was apparently illegal to summit due to the danger.  Once again, the three amigos could not be stopped. We rallied Condorito to the base on a beautiful blue sky morning with fresh snow blanketing the peak. No smoke was rising, no lava was to be seen, people were snow shoeing around the base… of course it was safe to summit.  5,000 feet later we stood on top under blue skies, gusty winds, and looked down into the gurgling belly of a very active volcano spurting liquid orange magma into the sky.  It was like my sixth grade science fair experiment… BUT REAL!  Without being overly hasty we took a summit selfie and started the most epic descent of perfect corn skiing, Yes corn! Our dream had come true!  The clincher is that the Chilean Carabineros (Federal Police) were waiting for us in the parking lot… Wah waah waaaah. They managed to confiscate our celebratory beers that we had left cooling in the snow but luckily we got away with a warning and nothing more.  To not end the day on such a bittersweet note, we found one of area’s many incredible hot springs to soak our worries away and cheers to another successful mountain mission. 

Upon our departure from Santiago as I boarded the plane home to America, I could only help but think of Pedro de Valdivia, one of the first Spanish explorers that came to this region when he described it as “no better land, luxurious forests, and proud mountains… so tall they make the Alps seem like pygmies.” Chile, or Chilli, in the native Aymara means “where the land ends” but for us it was where the adventure began.

COFFEE HUNTING IN COLOMBIA

In 2008, I took a life changing journey to South America. It didn't necessarily seem that profound at the time. I mean, it was an adventure for sure. I was traveling by motorcycle with a life long friend though Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. I'd never ridden a motorcycle before (except for in the parking lot to get my license) and I don't speak much Spanish, but if you know me, you know I'm always up for an adventure. 

What I didn't appreciate at the time was on that trip, in the small town of Salento, Colombia, when I stumbled upon my first coffee farmer who not only showed me all the amazing things about growing coffee but how to roast it in his small outdoor kitchen, it was the beginning of the next chapter in my life.

Fast forward to today. Little Red Wagon has been in operation for 2+ years and what started as a coffee drinking obsession turned hobby roaster, is now my full time job. In October I was able to return to Colombia for the first time since my incredible encounter in 2008. You can imagine my excitement.

Little of this return resembled my first visit. I didn't have to navigate unchartered territory, figure out the local currency or fix flat tires. Instead, I felt a remarkable familiarity withColombia's coffee growing region - the expansive mountain views and twisty, turny roads, the warm hospitality of the locals and the tasty cuisine.

Another major difference from my earlier journey through Colombia is that this time I was not there as a traveler, but as a business woman. One of the small businesses I was particularly interested in visiting was Traviesa. I was graciously hosted by Mauricio and Adriana, the founders of Traviesa Coffee. In Colombia, there are two distinct coffee harvests. “Traviesa” is the word that refers to the smaller, second harvest. Mauricio and Adriana chose this name for their business because this harvest cycle is unique to Colombia’s coffee-growing climate.

Mauricio and Adriana welcomed us into their home, took us to many farms throughout the region and even facilitated a tour of Cenecafe, a world class coffee research facility where scientists search for solutions to coffee disease and help develop agricultural practices for Colombian coffee farmers.  Finally, Mauricio organized a cupping where we tasted almost 50 different coffees. I know some of you think I'm a little nutty when I insist that every coffees tastes different and many of you can tell the difference between coffee from different countries, but it's pretty cool to be able to taste such distinctive differences between not only nearby farms, but varietals and plots from within a single farm.

At the end of the week in Colombia I'd settled on three distinct and special coffees to bring back to Bozeman. But stay tuned because in future seasons the Wagon will bring you additional coffees from Colombia, a region that never ceases to impress and continuously produces many excellent coffees.

Now, let me introduce you to the three new Colombian coffees Little Red Wagon is no offering:


REGIONAL SAMARIA

Mauricio's family has owned and operated this farm for over 80 years. Upon arrival I was welcomed with coffee and an array of exotic fruits from the property. Then, one of the coolest things happened. I was invited to plant the Wagon’s very own Geisha tree--the acclaimedcoffee varietal that lives up to its reputation (...more on that later). Following the planting, I put on a basket and was taught how to pick ripe coffee cherries and spent some time doing so. The cherries were then placed in the tolva where the fruit was removed and I saw just how much (read: little) coffee I picked. It was a startling realization of the amount of that work goes into a cup of coffee. To put it into perspective, with a dozen pickers working for about 30 minutes, there were probably enough beans to fill one retail grocery store bag. Another way to look at it is, a coffee tree produces about a pound of roasted coffee annually. Americans consume about 400 million cups of coffee per day.

Regional Samaria’s coffee has tasting notes of red apple, orange, and wine, with a pleasant sweetness and good body.

CAFE DE MUJER FROM LA PAZ FARM

La Paz is a beautiful seven acre farm on steep hillsides in Chinchiná, Caldas region owned and operated by Angelica Escobar. Angelica is a vibrant, energetic and proud farmer who employs mostly women from her community and playfully comments, "and a few men for balance!" Picking coffee is extremely hard work and these women are meticulous and impressive and take great care to ensure that quality is preserved every step of the way. Angelica's passion, dedication and drive shined through as she showed us the farm and explained the processing methods she prefers. She has even built her own coffee roaster in order to test her product at the farm. In addition to all of this, Angelica also maintains a part time job on the side to help make ends meet and send her daughters to college. La Paz farm keeps natural forest coverage in order to protect the water sources, a key factor in the coffee quality production process.  I've decided to buy this coffee not only because it's high quality and delicious, but because I believe in Cafe La Paz and feel strongly about supporting women in the coffee community.

 

Cafe de Mujer has notes of sweet fruits, honey, cocoa and nuts.

 

FINCA MANANTIALES DEL FRONTINO

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Lastly, some of you may have heard, but we finally did it and bought a small quantity of Geisha coffee. Geisha (or gesha - there’s some debate) is a varietal originally from Ethiopia that made its way to Costa Rica in the 1950’s. At that time, this unique coffee was planted amongst the rest of the trees and was not treated with special care and therefore it’s special character went unnoticed.

In 2004, however, it garnered acclaim on a cupping table in Panama when it was “discovered” for its unique and incredible tasting notes after a farmer had separated out the geisha varietal, planted it at a much higher elevation and processed it with great care. Since then, this beautiful coffee has become increasingly popular amongst the specialty coffee geeks of the world and sells for pretty penny.

Finding our first Geisha offering for the Wagon was great fun. It involved a bouncy 45-minute trip in the back of a red jeep up winding dirt roads to get to Finca Manantiales Del Frontino, located in Municipality Caicedonia Valle del Cauca. Once there, an impressive team had prepared a tasting of their six distinct varietals in both brewed form and as coffee cherries right off the shrub so we could tastes their unique attributes at the plant level.

We then explored the farm’s 170 hectares of coffee shrubs, 17 ha in the highest elevation section being devoted specifically to Geisha, and learned about the extreme care and planning that goes into planting, harvesting, and processing in order to preserve the excellence of the Geisha varietal. I couldn't help but bring a little bit home just in time to offer as a special treat for the holidays.

 Finca Manantiales Del Frontino is a sweet, balanced, floral and fruity coffee with a clean finish.