Every few weeks, we get a chance to sit down with one of our roasters and talk to them about their job, roasting company, and general outlook on the specialty coffee industry. Each roaster has a different set of experiences shaping their preferred roast profiles and Barefoot Coffee's roastmaster David Johnson is a prime example.
Located in sunny San Jose, California and in operation for a decade, Barefoot Coffee is recognized as an innovator in the specialty coffee industry. Barefoot also follows a Direct Trade model, where they commit to paying their producers "at least 25% more than Fair Trade price and ensure they are treated fairly." With six years of roasting at Barefoot and two years of sourcing green coffee under his belt, David is hitting his stride.
David first began in the coffee industry at the ripe age of 15, bussing tables at a cafe-art house, a style that was popular at the time. He eventually began training as a barista. As he tells it, "We were all these really cool 20-something baristas, we listened to cool music." Before being hired at Barefoot, David was managing a fine-dining restaurant. There, he was able to get "a really grand appreciation for the finer things," including wine tastings and palate development. His desire to learn more about coffee led to his application at Barefoot and his position in the production area, bagging coffee.
Eventually, David moved up the ladder, but not until he learned all the other positions, including being a barista. The background knowledge is still a core of Barefoot's training philosophy today.
On his beginning...
David: If I'm going to roast coffee at some point, you've got to pay your dues. The renaissance, as far as I learned in coffee, began. So much of what's being done nowadays, was happening then. I'm talking about grinding to order, milk texturing. That meant, immediately, barista training. I had to get barista certified. That's when I was realizing of all the things that I thought I knew, I didn't. Second-wave coffee. If someone wants to join us to be a roaster, either a) Come from a really great job that you're roasting already or b) If you want to be eventually be a roaster, you've got to work in production and bag coffee. That's an integral step to learning everything about this. It's something we still practice as far as that goes. Each of the steps of the way up—setting up cuppings, doing some of QC, or doing espresso tasting—you're pulling shots over there after you've been barista trained. All of those are necessary steps before you start sample roasting. You don't have a real understanding about what you're doing until you have that base.
CK: It definitely helps to know how your coffee is going to be used afterward. If you don't have experience, then you're not going to know.
David: I was constantly cupping the coffee. Constant repetition, you start to develop and identify what these fruity notes are, and start to distinguish between malic acidity and stone fruit and citric acidity. That's apple vs peach. That took a few years. It didn't come easily.
CK: Roasting philosophy in three words:
David: Development, sugars browning (sorry, that's one word, I'm cheating), and balance. I mention sugars browning, because that's pretty much how I was trained here. Getting the sugars browning and getting a nice sweetness in the cup. That goes hand in hand with the development thing; they're all inherently the same idea. But the thing is, what we're seeing today (and I'm susceptible to this, too, when I'm experimenting with roast), is getting enough development. You see a lot of light-roasted coffee with not a lot of development. Ultimately, as the coffee cools, it does't hold its integrity, that's a sign that it wasn't fully developed.
CK: You compared roasting to how a coffee cooled. Is that how you like to drink your coffee now?
David: I'll be honest with you—I like my coffee hot, but I think it can deceive you. How good a coffee is it? Your tongue can only perceive so much at that temperature. It's the classic case of that coffee cup you have on your desk. You swear, you tell yourself you need coffee, you take one sip, but you're so overwhelmed by all your work that you don't get to taste again for a half hour. Development's important; it changes with every coffee. That's the caramelization of sugars. If I can create that cradle of sweetness, then I can have my aromatic, my fruity notes, my complexity. I use the sugars browning analogy, but it's the basis of the whole thing. It's important, though, otherwise the coffee's only going to taste good hot. Ultimately, it's about finding the balance- you want to have a good balance of sweetness, a nice acidity, body or mouthfeel.
CK: If you have to describe your perfect cup of coffee & tasting notes, what would it be?
David: A coffee that is well balanced with a lot of complex acidity, piquant, snappy liveliness, with nice sweet mid tones that lead you into a well-rounded body. Doesn't have to be a full body, but the finish obviously needs to be good.
On his sourcing trips...
CK: Do you have a standout memory from one of your recent trips?
David: Literally walking through and holding yellow bourbon and biting into the cherry, there's nothing that tops that. We got to visit a lot of farmers, mills- dry and wet mills- I love it. None of these farms are ever near cities. Two to four to eight hours away. And then you're getting into the back of a truck, holding for another 30–40 minutes, because we're talking about all the good coffees at higher elevation. Your butt's sore. It's no joke. Don't let anyone tell you differently. We give these workers as much as we can- we pay 30–40% above Fair Trade as part of our Direct Trade policy. The strict standards that we have, the blood red cherry, obviously they're not all ripe at the same time, [the pickers are] going back several times. It's laborious, you know. You should've seen my basket. I swore that I was diligent, but I had green ones in there, lots of twigs. I had maybe a quarter of what the guy I was with had.
On the specialty coffee industry...
CK: What do you think the challenges are facing the industry today?
David: My roots are in customer service. And obviously, roasting has allowed me to be behind the scenes. For me, it's the pretentious attitude. It doesn't allow us to be ambassadors. We have to take into account that not everyone knows about the intricacies of brewing. Maybe that initial visit into your coffee shop, you don't hit them with a bunch of stuff like this is how you process coffee, etc. Just let them enjoy the experience. If you're successful in what you do, they'll come back. Removing the pretentiousness and acting like we're know-it-alls. Pull back the curtain—showing everyone that you can do this, too. All you need is certain things- good grinder, nice filtered water and some patience. We need to continue to be ambassadors for coffee.
CK: Is there anything you'd like to add?
David: The fact that we at the Roaster's Guild and the SCAA are learning more about [coffee] scientifically every day. It gets me excited. I'm enjoying the changes that I've seen. I hope it's less pretentious. Like I said, we're the ambassadors. Not to remark with petulance and snobby attitudes. Asking the right questions: what their misgivings are, what they've been misinformed about, or what they don't know. That way, you really invite the two-way conversation. Gets someone to really open up and be honest about it. Fostering that relationship. "Relationship" is a big word for me- what we do at origin, i visit my friends, these coffee producers. They've decide to basically go above and beyond how they prepare & process the coffee—and we're willing to pay them above and beyond. That's probably my favorite part—building relationships in the specialty industry.
Thank you, Barefoot & David, for taking a moment to chat with us. Green coffee mill photo courtesy of Barefoot Coffee. Barefoot cafe, roastery, and portrait photos taken by Caroline of Coeur de La Photography.