Roaster Spotlight: Elm Coffee Roasters — Part 2

As we teased last week, we recently had the opportunity to sit down with Brendan Mullally, founder of Elm Coffee Roasters, to chat about coffee, roasting, and running a business. We already provided a rundown of Elm last week, so without further adieu, check it out!

What led you to roasting?

I worked in coffee for about ten years before I started Elm, and I had no roasting experience! It was all front house management, training, all that kind of stuff. As to why, honestly it was just the flexibility in choosing what we want to serve. I did a lot of multi-roaster shops while I was managing, and it was never consistently what I wanted from coffee. The ability to determine what we serve was a huge part of it, ethical sourcing was a huge part of it, paying good prices was a huge part of it. I've worked in coffee since I was about 14 in Seattle, then Santa Fe, then New York. I had no roasting experience when I decided to open up a roaster! I hired someone to help.

You talked a little about ethical sourcing, that’s important to us when determining roasting partners. Do you have a core philosophy surrounding this?

I wouldn’t say it’s a philosophy, but more of a practical approach, which is work with importers I know are paying good prices, not just to the producers but to the pickers as well. There’s only a few, I would say. You know, asking for the information on the prices the pay to the producer, not everyone will do that, but some will. Some will give it to you in a price that doesn’t make sense, so being able to ask them to make that make sense to you is important.

Would you say that getting into roasting shifted your view of the countries you source from, or the other way around, that you chose those countries based on your understanding of them?

I would say the former. When I was just buying roasted coffee I, for one thing I don’t think my palate was as developed. After we started roasting coffee, if anything for logistics, we’ve narrowed our focus to Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Honduras, simply because if there’s more transparency in those places the price to quality ratio is a lot higher.

I ask because it’s interesting how the politics of different regions affect the ability to purchase from them. When we write about regions, the instinct could be to avoid conversations on transparency and politics, but it’s also kind of impossible.

I agree, and transparency is not something that just happens. Even though we try to do that, sometimes it’s not successful. That has a lot to do with politics.

Everything else aside, when you look at quality of beans, what do you look for?

First is nothing wrong with it. That’s the thing I learned first. 99.8% of coffees you can cut out immediately because they're agey, or fermenty, all sorts of things can go wrong with coffee. After that, something that’s a little more fruit forward with interesting characteristics. Sweet, clean, then we roast it to highlight the fruit. We’re pretty light, but I wouldn’t say we’re on the super light end of the spectrum. We try to have acidity and balance. That was the weirdest thing, picking coffee that’s clean was the weirdest and hardest part.

What do you think was hardest when it comes to the business or art of roasting coffee?

I would say from the business side, just getting started. I had no business experience. I wrote a business plan and showed it to a friend who who’s an entrepreneur and he said it was terrible, so I had to tear it up and write another 60 page plan. I learned how to make projections, all that stuff. I asked 15 different institutions for financing, it just took a long time. It took 2 years to open.

On the roasting side, learning to cup well took a while. Especially sample roasts. I thought I had a pretty good palate when I was doing barista training, but, mine’s not even that great, our roaster John has a great palate. It’s just something you have to keep doing constantly.

The last part was people management, that was hard to learn.

What do you think the biggest ongoing challenge is?

Well distinguishing yourself. There’s a lot of roasters these days. Roasting well, light roasting coffee is very hard. The window is extremely small, if it’s too light its sour and vegetal. We don’t particularly like roasty flavors in our coffee, so we don’t like to go that far. If anything we’ll edge a little more roasty if we can’t find that sweet spot.

But otherwise, inventory control is hard, can’t buy too much, can’t buy too little. If we buy too little, prices go up, if we buy too much it gets agey.

Was your initial setup similar to what you have now?

This is what we had when we started! I hired my friend to help start the roasting program. He helped set up everything, taught me how to roast, everything.

Do you have a favorite roast that you’ve done?

That’s hard to say. I would say now, maybe just because we have it, I would say the Ethiopia Worka Sakaro is probably the nicest Ethiopian coffee we’ve bought in a long time. It’s extremely good. It’s really floral and fruity but not too bright, a big body.

What would be your biggest piece of advice for amateur roasters looking to go pro?

Man, hmm, know your market. Who you’re selling to. Don’t roast too light, don’t underdevelop the coffee. Have fun. It’s going to be really hard, but have fun. Harder than you think it’ll be, times 1000, but have fun. Don’t forget why you started in the first place.

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