Thoughts on the annual Roasters Guild Retreat by Mark Inman
On August 16th, over 200 people descended on Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington to take part in the 12th annual Roasters Guild Retreat. Over the three-day event, members participated in numerous seminars and hands-on skill building workshops while working with a team to see if they could win the challenge of producing the best tasting coffee during the event. Twelve teams entered, one walked out victorious. I was one of those team members. Here is my story.
The Roasters Guild is an official trade guild of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) which consists of specialty roasters dedicated to the craft of roasting quality coffee and promoting quality as the principle standard for success. This year’s challenge “So You Think You Can Roast,” pushed teams to create the highest quality coffee using a selection of coffees from Brazil. Teams were provided with five coffees from different regions of Brazil, which featured various processing methods (2 Pulped Naturals, a Natural, a Fully Washed and a Robusta). Teams were given two days to evaluate each coffee to see how they could create a final product that would garner the highest score by a panel of judges.
Our team, the Flaming Sacks, decided that the best plan of attack was to screen out the Peaberries (small round beans that are naturally occurring mutation – and, known for higher, crisper acidity). Our strategy was to stand out by being just a touch brighter and cleaner than the coffees submitted by others. This meant that our team had to hand sort (bean by bean) all of the Peaberries out of one of the coffees. In the end, we sorted over 100 lbs. of coffee to yield just over four pounds of Peaberries.
The annual challenge, in my opinion, is the heart and soul of the event. Roasters of different experience levels and company sizes are organized into teams. Each team usually comes up with a humorous name (Robusta Move, Hario Speedwagon, The Flaming Sacks, The Crack Shots) and then work together to come up with a coffee and roasting philosophy. These teams eat meals together, attend various seminars together, and work on their coffees together. Attendees only mingle outside their team during breaks and during evening events.
Sometimes, the group dynamic works well, with roasters being encouraged to lead in areas they normally don’t in their jobs- roasting on a different type of machine, leading a cupping discussion, identifying/sorting defects, or cleaning coffee, for example. In some cases, the group dynamic can be stressful. At times, there can be one or two people vying for control and focusing on showing how much more they know than you. Other times you can get a group whose focus on winning at all costs, more than teaching. And then, there are the challenges of learning or working as a team. This year, it appeared that the groups worked very well together with the right mix of commitment, good-natured ribbing of other teams, and a focus on teaching and learning from teammates.
During the weekend, the teams have access to a high quality lab area for cupping and evaluation, a roasting tent containing numerous brands of batch coffee roasters and sample roasters, various brewing devices and espresso machines. The entire set up was more state-of-the-art than most roasters have in their own facilities and it was equally impressive that this setup was portable moving to and from the retreat site each year. Most roasters take months to set up a stripped down version of this setup in their own warehouses.
Educational courses ranged from subjects such as, Basics of Coffee Processing, Essentials of Inventory Management, and Profile Roasting Practices. In between courses, the teams would work on their submissions to the challenge by blending, sorting, roasting, and cupping. For our team, each course was an opportunity to spread out our green beans to sort Peaberries from flat beans into empty water glasses. The audible “plink, plink, plink,” could be heard by many as the course continued. This drew glances from other teams who were curious if our theory would actually work, or if we could even find enough Peaberries before the submission deadline.
Each team had set times to sample roast their coffees or roast for final submission. The temperature was hovering in the high 90’s, making roasting and cooling quite a challenge as the tent was located outdoors. This temperature challenge offered a wonderful learning opportunity for those who do not normally deal with large temperature swings in their own roasting plants. Coffees tended to roast much faster, forcing the roaster to ease up on their flame. Cooling, which is essential to stop the roasting process, proved to be difficult as the sweltering heat made cooling times much longer than the normally desirable 3-5 minutes.
Nights were filled with large group dinners, entertainment, bonfires — and lots and lots of craft beer. Each night a different company sponsored kegs of local microbrews for the evening’s libation. As a wine drinker, it has surprised me over the past years how many roasters seem to be obsessed with craft brewing. Many roasters work with microbrewers in their markets, either collaborating to make coffee-based bears or learning each other’s quality control, tasting and evaluation protocols.
I felt more confident than I ever had in past retreats with our team’s submission. Our coffee cupped clean, sweet and very bright with a very unique tangerine acidity, common with many fine coffees from El Salvador or Guatemala. Other teams seemed to be much more hesitant as they tasted their coffees before submission, which only added to our team’s bravado.
On the final night, the Roaster’s Guild Executive Council called up top three teams to stand up front. Our team, The Flaming Sacks, was one of those three. High five’s and bragging was abound as the teams stuck to each other waiting for the final announcement…
In third place….The Flaming Sacks!
It was as if the air was sucked out of the campfire area. Dumbfounded, we watched The Crack Shots jumping around, hugging each other and finally drinking champagne from the large Roaster’s Challenge trophy. Our disappointment quickly faded as the bonfire roared on and the kegs ran empty. It was another amazing retreat spent in paradise. What was not to love?