Every other week, we'll be highlighting one of our featured roasters on the blog. Check back to get to know the roasters behind that cup of coffee you're drinking!
In Chicago, the scene is heating up with roasters and cafes. A little over a year ago, Bow Truss Coffee Roasters threw open their doors and they haven't looked back since. With a group of seasoned professionals and an admirable aesthetic in the cafe, the roasting company is poised to not only open their third cafe, but also to invest in additional roasting equipment. To sustain such growth, there has to be a great product behind it. We sat down with Roastmaster Dennis Jackson and co-founder Phil Tadros to discuss the company's roasting philosophy and growth.
Dennis has twelve years of roasting experience under his belt and in the specialty industry, that's quite a lot of time. He says he find himself in a very fortunate position: he not only roasts for Bow Truss, but he's also a certified SCAA instructor, Q Grader & even owns a business on the side that allows him to consult with roasters in Europe. Phil has a history with coffee shops and the social space, beginning from the tender, shop-owning age of 19. After opening many cozy shops, he decided to start a roasting company that would speak to his vision of coffee and growth.
On opening the cafe-roastery:
CK: After all the shops that you’ve opened, what made you decide to go for a roaster and not another standalone cafe?
Phil: I wanted to go to the source of the coffee. My first coffee shop [that I opened], I was 19 years old. I kind of stumbled into the world of cafes and fell in love with the cozy cafe experience. For me, I knew we sold a good product, we had a good environment, and I knew people liked hanging out in the atmospheres we created. I just didn’t have the opportunity to get a roaster to source. I really wanted to create a bigger brand, bigger company. So we just got lucky with a great team.
CK: It’s also control, too. You can control how much coffee to roast, what you want the coffee to be like.
Phil: Yeah, the quality control is amazing. I’m super impressed with everybody and really lucky to be working with them.
CK: I think there’s a lot of competition [in Chicago], but thankfully, not everyone is roasting the same way.
Phil: I love the competition. The specialty industry is 3% of the whole coffee industry. There’s plenty of room for way more coffee to be better out there. The general public doesn’t even know they have the option. So, we’re just getting started. People say that there are tons of roasters now? There’s going to be way more. And there should be way more. I encourage people to do it.
On working in the coffee industry for over a decade:
CK: Roasting philosophy in three words:
Dennis: Best possible roast
CK: It sounds like you have a lot of experience- 12 years in the industry?
Dennis: I started home roasting in the early 90s. I started home brewing and I loved it. During the time I was home brewing, I was thinking about opening a coffee shop- I didn’t know anything about coffee. I visited a friend of mine in the college town I went to, to talk about a coffee shop. And we started discussing roasting. I don’t know how to describe it- I was kind of blown away by it. So I went and bought a home roaster- just an air roaster- can’t really profile it. But I wanted to learn about coffee and the regions and such. I was trying to look for an apprenticeship, because I really wanted to do this. It took about 2 and half and 3 years to find an apprenticeship.
CK: I bet watching the specialty coffee industry just grow- being in the industry and watching it explode in the last decade- has been really interesting. Have you seen anything that’s super exciting for you?
Dennis: When I first started in the industry, it was difficult for people to get to Africa or even Central America. And now it’s almost standard, as far as the trade model goes. Direct trade has been happening for a long, long time by some of the bigger commercial companies. But, I think, for the specialty market being so small, it was difficult for us to get over to different countries and have it shipped over here. It’s exciting that there are farmers who are willing to work with small roasters like us who can only buy 20 bags at a time. Everybody still uses brokers. But I think the brokers are more connected to the farmers. And I know my brokers, I’ve been working with them for 10 plus years and they know exactly what I’m looking for and what I expect from them. It’s a pleasant experience. That’s what’s exciting. The chain’s getting smaller but people are still using the brokers. Everybody talks about direct trade. But the reason for the model is that you get the consistency you want. Not only the consistency, but [making sure] it’s sustainable, of course.
CK: Do you think there’s ever going to be a time when we won’t need brokers?
CK: You think they’re that important to have?
Dennis: Yeah, because otherwise, small coffee roasters that are even smaller than us [have troubles]. It’s so difficult to get one or two bags from origin via direct trade. The price to get it shipped over here doubles or triples the price of the coffee.. and then the customers aren’t willing to pay for it. There will always be a middle man. And I don’t think they’re hurting. I’m seeing more green brokers popping up, actually, more geared toward specialty coffee. We would be considered a small specialty coffee roaster. There’s actually small specialty coffee brokers. They only bring in so much coffee. It’s usually a little more expensive, but generally it’s worth it, because they do such a wonderful job with small lots.
CK: You mentioned teaching- you’re a Q grader, too, right? Do you think getting certifications and constant learning, do you think that’s important in maintaining a professional reputation?
Dennis: I don’t know if the certification itself is. I think going out and teaching- it’s kind of nice, because I’ve been able to teach in different countries. I’ve been over in Kenya and Tanzania. and the wonderful thing is, and I also administer the Q- I’m an assistant instructor and I’m working on getting my instructor’s license. But when I go there, the sample roasters in Tanzania and Kenya, and I think Uganda- they have more than 10 barrels- like 12 barrels. And they will sample all 12 barrels. I was sampling and working with this guy. And I learned so much just working with him. He doesn’t know much about the specialty coffee industry or anything like that- he just knows about sample roasting. Through teaching, I always continue to learn. But yes, being involved and to keep learning is essential. Because once you stop and you think you know it, things change. I mean, we’re learning a lot about coffee, we’re making leaps and bounds like we’ve never seen. Seriously, though, in my lifetime, we’ll never know anything about coffee. It’s too vast; it’s too huge.
On working with new equipment and watching Bow Truss grow…
CK: What have been the most difficult parts of working on a brand-new roaster?
Dennis: It’s brand new. Generally, people like their roasters, because they’re been modified in some way. Like old Probats. When you have a new one installed, they literally come in and set it down. They don’t tell you anything or give you examples. You have to really start and learn what the roaster is capable of. We had issues with gas flow, we had issues with air flow, we had issues with the roaster being set up wrong. It’s still a challenge to roast, because I have to manipulate it, literally almost every day. I have to change settings on the afterburner and the machine. And I think most roasters do, but I think I spend a little more time trying to fine tune this thing the best I can. It’s kind of difficult working with a new roaster that’s just been installed, because it’s like a new house. It’s got to settle into its space. It makes creaks and noises- it just takes a little bit. When a roaster has been in its space for a while, you get used to it a little easier.
CK: What have you thought about Bow Truss’ growth in the past year or so?
Dennis: It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve worked at a lot of places and countries. I know several coffee roasters over the years. To see growth like this is pretty phenomenal. We’re going to have to get another roaster (machine) pretty soon. We just got some more accounts. We’re probably at closer to 85% by October. And considering we opened in June of last year. It’s been amazing. It’s tough to kind of forecast- make sure we have enough coffee for that.
CK: Anything you’d like to add?
Dennis: We don’t really roast to a specific style. We really do try and find what’s best for the coffee. Not for me, necessarily or not for a barista. What’s best for the coffee as a whole. What does this coffee justice. I don’t want to roast it super light so I just get the lemon tones. I don’t want to roast it super dark to not getting any of those tones out of there. We have very light coffees and we have medium coffees, but it’s because we’re roasting for the coffee instead of for what our palate and what we like.
CK: You’re adjusting to the coffee itself, but also keeping in mind that others are drinking it.
Dennis: We try and give the coffee everything that it’s capable of instead of just one aspect of it. I think that’s where the trend is going right now. Roast super light, get the real acidic tones, but then I find the cup goes flat as it cools. We try and do the coffee justice instead of roast a specific style.
Thank you, Bow Truss, for taking time out to chat with us. If you're in the search for the "best possible roast," browse the Bow Truss coffee selection!