Located outside of large metropolitan areas like New York, Philadelphia and D.C., OQ Coffee Company opened its doors to the Highland Park community in New Jersey just a few years ago but has already signified a positive presence in the area. Their community oriented philosophy highlights the close-knit neighborhood they serve through outreaches to local highschools, artists, and musicians. Husband-and-wife team of Ben and Jessica Schellack are not only committed to growing their local community around specialty coffee but are also dedicated to raising awareness for the sustainability, transparency, and traceability in the coffee industry, which is evident in the loving labor poured into each of their quality coffees.
Sit back and get to know owner and roaster, Ben Schellack, as we chat about the cafe, his roasting process, and his personal journey in coffee, and then find out which of OQ's selections were handpicked as the coffees of the week (psst: free shipping!).
CK: How would you describe the specialty coffee scene in New Jersey? Is it pretty up and coming or has it been established for awhile?
Ben: It's definitely a new market for this area. One of the biggest challenges in doing wholesale in the area is that there are just very few cafes. There aren't many in New Jersey, even today, but the number is definitely growing. A lot of roasters have opened recently in New Jersey, but I would still say it's very young. And the people who are familiar with specialty coffee are so because they work in big cities like New York and Philadelphia. So you can drive a long ways here before you'll come across anything in specialty coffee.
CK: What would you like to see in the coffee industry going forward?
Ben: Personally, I would just love to see it become more common in New Jersey and people being generally more aware of different types of coffee and having more options out there. That would be my big thing. I'd like to see it expand more over the next few years with increased education. I still feel like the coffee industry, despite a lot of talk about traceability and transparency, has so much misinformation and just lack of awareness about where coffee comes from and how it's produced and what goes into a cup of coffee. So that would obviously follow from having more specialty coffees out there, and we're working very hard to see that grow as well.
CK: Can you describe any sourcing trips you've been on?
Ben: My first sourcing trip was to Haiti a few months after we opened. We've been buying from there ever since. Haiti, in the 1700s, was producing mass amounts of coffee, and ever since it's slowly declined in terms of export until 2000 when it altogether ceased. Then, a missionary organization partnered with a local agronomist and a US businessman to create a company that first worked on long-term food sustainability, which led to creating a coffee industry in this northern town in Haiti. I found about it and was really excited about this product. A few months after we opened I went down to visit their operation. Their quality has gone up; their consistency has improved, and they're probably the only sustainable coffee business I've come across in Haiti. Since then, I've been to Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and I'd love to go to Ethiopia.
In general our buying philosophy is to do one thing and do it really well before moving on. We started with the Eco Cafe in Haiti, then with a group of farmers and a micro loan company in Honduras, and last year in El Salvador, working with individual farms, and this year we are starting in Nicagarua. We try to get each of those relationships in a solid place before we move on and find new partners. Again, I'd love to go to Ethiopia, but we have four irons in the furnace to work with right now. Once we have those hammered out, we can move on.
CK: What are 3 words to describe your roasting style?
Ben: Carefully dialed in... We genuinely don't roast the coffee and just put it out there. We run it through a sample roaster that has air control and a really responsive heating element. We go through a couple roasts on that roaster to see what the coffee's capable of. We cup it, taste it in a few different ways. Then we put it on the production roaster and do test batches of it, 2-3 to start out. Then we cup it, taste it again, by full immersion, pour over, etc. We look at all our notes as a team and redo the roast based on the notes until we have one that highlights the best components of that coffee. By the time we actually start selling the coffee, we've usually had it for several weeks and have been through quite a few roasts on it.
Sometimes we'll get a roast that's 90% there, but it's still not quite what we're looking for. We want it to be perfect because we're buying coffee where it's already had so much labor put into it and so much care. We really want to make sure it comes out of our roaster tasting its absolute best.
CK: For someone new to your coffee, what would you recommend to try first?
Ben: I would probably ask some questions first since there are so many different preferences. For people who are new to specialty coffee, the main thing they're looking for is something smooth. and what I've discovered that word means is they don't want bitterness and they don't want sourness. So I would steer them towards something with a medium to heavy body and lots of chocolate. If it has acidity, it's really well integrated into the sweetness. I'd recommend to start with the Eco Cafe, which fits that description, or one of the sweeter coffees, like the dry process Ethiopian, which is really clean.
If someone is into specialty coffee, the coffees we've had from Nicaragua or the washed Ethiopian, like the one from Reko station, are both incredibly complex and interesting and genuinely delicious.
CK: How long have you personally been in coffee?
Ben: 7 years. I started at Starbucks, not liking coffee. And then I had a shot of espresso in New York at a cafe on the lower east side from a roaster in Colorado. Sadly you can't find them anywhere I know of in NY anymore. It was truly magnificent -- it was sweet, creamy, and just perfectly balanced and yet intense. It was one of those moments where everything in the whole cafe became sharper in my mind, and that moment has really impressed on me. So it's been a long quest to recreate that experience here in New Jersey, in a New Jersey way, recognizing we're not in New York but still trying to create really delicious and amazing coffee. But it was that shot that got me really into coffee.
I've been roasting for 4 years. We've got a San Francisco roaster for our production and then a Quest M3 for our sample roasting, which is a small batch roaster with an electric heating element that's really responsive and air controlled. The San Franciscan is a gas fired small batch roaster as well.
CK: Who is a roaster you particularly admire or any favorites out there?
Ben: It's a long, lonely place finding good coffee here sometimes. The last cup I had of another roaster was Square Mile, which a customer brought in for us to try. It was delicious, and everything I've ever had from them has been impressive. They're from England, so it's kinda hard to get their coffee out here. But that cup was perfect. They did a great job of accenting and integrating the sweetness and the acidity so that the cup came out tasting like fruit juice. A lot of times it can taste overly acidic because the sweetness isn't really highlighted or it can be really sweet but you lose the acidity. They did a really good job of integrating the two.
I've always loved Portland's Coava, but I haven't had it in awhile because they don't sell it in New Jersey. Only when I'm in New York can I enjoy it. I've always admired how they do a good job of both sourcing and roasting their coffee. I think their Guatemala is one of the better ones I've ever had, and the I really like the specific microlot where they source.
CK: You've mentioned that you're very involved in the local community. What kinds of things are you involved in?
Ben: We look for local artists, that goes from the high school level on up, who are serious about their art work. We try to use the cafe as a way for them to display their work and promote themselves. We're very much about promoting the arts in our community. We're also working on collaborating with a local high school. And since we're in a really small town, we want to present a lot of opportunities for the community to be involved with the cafe and with our coffee.
A huge thanks to Ben and OQ Coffee Company for sharing their passions and products with us. Kick off your summer adventures by trying something new, like one of the following OQ coffees with FREE SHIPPING for a limited time. Now that's the way to start a brand new month and a new week. Cheers!
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