After learning about Lorie Obra’s covert “Drunken Coffee” project in our roaster interview last week, biscotti’s Spidey Sense was tingling off the charts when we learned our assignment this week was to interview Josh Kelly, co-founder of Higher Ground Roasters. Perhaps we’d be served from very special brownies as we cupped some of Higher Ground’s award-winning roasts?
Josh laughed. It’s not that kind of ‘Higher,’ he explained. We wondered if the true meaning of the name had more to do with the fact that Higher Ground roasts exclusively Fair Trade, shade grown, organic coffees of specialty grade. You know, that moral high ground that comes from using only naturally grown coffee (without the use of harsh chemicals and fertilizers) that is grown under the forest canopy, allowing farmers to preserve ancient forests and natural habitat. That, and the fact that since Higher Ground only roasts Fair Trade coffees, the independent farmers they’re working with are ensured fair compensation for their harvests.
Without question, Josh told us, we believe the future of specialty coffee lies in relationships with independent farmers, verified by third party certification. At Higher Ground, every cup of our hand-roasted coffee is a vote for responsible trade and sustainability.
Wow. We felt a tinge of inadequacy at hearing that. Our concerns are sometimes limited to whether the barista is going to get our drink right.
Actually though, that’s not how we got our name, Josh revealed. When Higher Ground first began roasting, co-founder Alex Varner owned an old, beat-up truck with no radio or a/c. When he drove around, he was always singing to himself….”Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder. Co-founder Glenn Smith and the rest of the team all agreed it would be a great name for our new coffee roasting business. While it’s since become a popular coffee shop name, Higher Ground Roasters were first!
Let’s not go any further without mentioning that Higher Ground won ROAST magazine’s Micro Roaster of the Year award in 2008 !! That’s a pretty amazing accolade for a company just turning eight years old this July. Said Josh – When I was still a barista at the local shop and had my view of coffee radically expanded after reading "Uncommon Grounds: The History Of Coffee And How It Transformed Our World" by Mark Pendergrast, I decided to apply myself to learning coffee in all its details from then on. I like to view the amazing recognition we received from ROAST magazine as an extension of that commitment.
We asked Josh if he could explain a little of what makes Higher Ground’s roasting unique. He explained how coffee roasting requires him to use all his senses. From the feel of the green coffee and the sound of the beans going through their aggressive first crack, to the hay-like scent as they begin to release moisture and the wonderfully sweet aroma of the sugars caramelizing soon after. Of course, there’s also the appearance of oils beading on the surface of a full city roast and the countless taste samples of the coffee at all levels of roast. Our coffees are grown with extraordinary care and have a pinnacle of taste that can only be achieved when all those sensory tools are used in the roasting process…..Biscotti?....Biscotti, you there? Snap out of it!
We apologized for completely becoming hypnotized with our own Willy Wonka-like coffee factory fantasy. We rebounded by asking Josh where his beans come from. Higher Ground, located in a quaint Alabama town thirty minutes east of Birmingham, has relationships with eleven different farming cooperatives around the world. The coffee he was drinking during our interview was the Bolivian CELCCAR Caranavi. It’s grown in the Yungas region of Bolivia and produces a cup that is well balanced, clean, and floral with a syrupy sweet pecan aroma, and nutty elements as well.
We relapsed into hypnosis briefly. After snapping ourselves out of it this time, we asked Josh what his favorite part of being a coffee roaster is. He explained how he loves being the active link between the exotic jungles and wonderful peoples that grow the coffee, and the shops where Higher Grounds’ coffees are brewed and enjoyed by the masses.
Speaking of links, we’ve got three great ones below to some of Higher Grounds’ top rated roasts – so check them out!