Hello, Harrison here.
As a relatively new addition to the Wesley Andrews team, I’ve been exposed firsthand to just how much goes into the process of bringing high quality, sustainable coffee to even a small, neighborhood-oriented shop. That depth of info is coming to me slowly as I learn the in’s-and-out’s of barista work, but I’ve also been privy to those conversations and teachings in roastery backrooms, around cupping tables, and with my elbows on the cafe bar. The process of learning from people who have walked the walk is an arduous educational slope, but learning all of this without any real guides to go off of is another thing entirely. I wanted a chance to sit down and hear about how the team went from no direction at all, to sourcing sustainable coffees and roasting them with as much care as they deserved. And so, this is where we got to—a roundtable discussion between Sam, our director of Coffee, and Johan and Jared, our two co-founders. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Johan Okay so where do we begin?
Sam Yeah, which bit technically counts as the beginning?
Jared I think it started when we got into contact with Mill City Roasters, but I feel like I wanna describe some of how we got into tasting as a general hobby. Cause like, it’s a weird hobby to most people I think. *laughs*
Johan No that’s fair. The place that comes to mind for me when you say that is Golden Leaf Tobacco.
Jared Same. And Verdant Tea.
Sam That place keeps coming up a lot in these conversations.
Johan It was such a good place! That’s why. It was one of the only places in town that was super transparent about tea sourcing at the time—and the vibes were there, so we just wanted to hang around for a long time and keep re-steeping tea.
Jared It’s wild how far down the rabbit hole we went there.
Johan Well the teas had such intricate tasting notes, and we’d tasted stuff before from working at Teavana, but these were...real—they were flavors that were pulled from a leaf, rather than one inserted into one. And when you tasted it, there was an awesome moment of connection.
Jared Mostly we were just having a good time doing it. I remember you’d take a puff of a tobacco blend from Golden, find something in the palate, and then pass it off to see if I could find the same thing, or something similar.
Sam That’s the best way to do it.
Harrison Though this was way more recent than the time you’re referencing at Verdant, I was really surprised how much fun I had when we sat through a tea tasting together the other week. I was never an enthusiast regarding tasting notes or anything like that, but trying to imagine a scene where the tea’s palate made sense was really fun. It was like trying to create a sense of sight out of my sense of taste.
Jared If you let yourself go through that imaginative exercise, it’s surprising how enjoyable it can be. It’s a game of sorts.
Johan So like you said Jared, we were mostly just having a lot of fun.
Sam And coffee was another thing to enjoy, in that regard—another thing that brought people together to have that strangely intimate social time.
Jared Right—that’s what got us interested in doing coffee. And because with roasting, there was this whole other element to it. Roasters have the creative liberty to pull unique flavors out of green coffee beans, and they can take the flavors in a few different directions depending on their roasting preference.
Johan We had a chance to actually be a part of expressing those flavors, the creative outlet was enticing.
Jared Right, and so—that brings us back to Mill City Roasters.
Sam Didn’t you basically like, cold-call them?
Johan Yeah, essentially. *laughs*
Jared Well, we had ordered a Hottop Roaster and were poking around YouTube, trying to figure out how to start. It became clear really fast that this wasn’t something we could do on our own. It was just a really wide world and we had no idea what we were doing.
Johan So we started looking into roasters, and we came across this Mill City company. They were a small team at this point; really new. Nobody had a ton of info on who they were, and their machines didn’t have a lot of street credit. This was 2015. But they were from Minneapolis too, so I called them.
The name of the guy who answered was Steve Green. So I’m like, ‘hi, my name’s Johan—my friend and I want to start roasting,’ ya know? I tell him about our idea: farmer specific coffee offerings, single origin—I pitch him with what he’d probably heard a hundred times from people like me. And I’m just like, ‘uhh, how do we…do that?’ This was where we were at. *laughs*
Jared Turns out, this guy’s the owner of the whole company—and a really technically savvy engineer. Like, I think he was designing 3D-printers, or something like that? Not positive about that, I guess—but regardless, he started the whole company on his own, basically. So he knew a thing or two, and we knew no things whatsoever.
Johan He was so cool about the whole thing, too. Way beyond cool, actually. He told me to return the Hottop and just come over to their roasting space—work with them directly. Once we had the cash-flow to invest in our own machine, we’d buy one. So we did.
Jared And been roasting on Mill City’s stuff ever since. Stand by them 100%. Steve was so good to us. He taught us all the basics and theory, and even though he wasn’t much of a roaster himself, he knew the avenues we should pursue in order to further our knowledge once we desired to learn the things beyond his capacity. We really wouldn’t have gotten far without them.
Johan So yeah, that’s the beginning of the story in a sense. Nowadays the coffee program has grown. It’s become a lot more than just me and Jared. Sam and Andrew really head things up in the current era.
Sam I think that transition has been really natural, too. Since I came aboard right before the shop opened up, I didn’t see the very beginning of that learning process, but I just kinda jumped in and wanted to learn.
Jared And back when the cafe was just opening, we were all still at the very beginning of learning all of this—me and Johan showed the roasting stuff we learned to Sam and Andrew, and in turn, they taught us how to barista, because we’d never done it.
Sam Right—and the only real experience I had to offer was buying Dogwood beans and making pour-overs at my house, so I would call that barista training program...unofficial. *laughs*
Johan Lucky for us, though, you were super willing to dive into all the specialty stuff on the coffee side when we really got going. Once our roasting practice had settled into a good rhythm, I was getting somewhat wrapped up in the tea world again, so it was incredible to have somebody who was willing to commit to the coffee rabbit-hole.
Sam I think the big turning point was when you told me you’d met this guy from Torch on your tea expedition to China.
Johan Who knew it would’ve become as big of a shift for us as it did?
Sam The Torch Coffee team offered us a barista exchange program of sorts. One of their team members would come to Minneapolis and work with us; one of us would get a shot to go to Pu’er to study with them and do some work.
Jared And since you had helped us with a bunch of our design work, as well as push the coffee program into a new, more distinct direction, it only made sense that we send you.
Sam Hey, all I did was raise my hand when you asked.
Harrison So it was like this weird, pseudo-internship/study abroad opportunity, but for coffee?
Sam Yep, kind of all those things wrapped into one. Joel from Torch met me at the airport when I landed. He really took me under his wing, introducing me to Marty—the founder of Torch—once we arrived in Pu’er. He and the team had moved to China from the States, and had been putting down roots, learning the local dialect, and pursuing coffee as a means for cultural connection and relationship building. By the time I met them, they had been living there for like, four years or something like that.
So basically I was doing a lot of marketing and design work for them while I was there, every once and again I was behind the bar for them, and in exchange I got to take a bunch of their courses and study in their coffee lab. Torch has two levels—the first floor is the actual cafe, and then upstairs they have a whole lab and classroom setup.
The first week I arrived I was thrown into a processing class with their team. They didn’t own any coffee farms at the time, but they would buy all their cherries from local farmers, and then they’d take the cherries and begin processing from there. So really, they were hands-on from the very early stages of the bean’s development.
Jared When you messaged us about that, we were pretty blown away. That sort of proximity to coffee growers just isn’t really a thing in America—and especially in the Midwest, we had no chance of having that intimate a relationship with our sourcing.
Sam Yeah, Torch is a really special place. And sure, they do live in a convenient locale for connecting with people, but they put in an absurd amount of time and effort to energize the coffee culture in Yunnan—they really don’t take their blessings for granted. We look up to them a ton—and I’m really grateful I got to work with them for a while.
Harrison And you got your Q Grader certification while you were there too, right?
Sam Well, I was essentially just cupping coffee with them everyday for five months, and that experience kind of accidentally prepared me to take the Q course. When I was offered to take the exam, I figured I might as well give it a shot. But I don’t know that I expected to pass or anything at all. Whatever the outcome of the exam, I was just really thankful for being able to come to China. It taught me way more than just coffee know-how, and I was super lucky to have Joel and Marty as mentors.
Jared We were really stoked when you passed, though.
Johan It was like you'd been through an actual anime training arc while you were away!
Harrison Proud parents. *laughs*
Jared And then when you came back to Minnesota, you moved into a position that didn’t really exist for us yet, and became the leader of the whole coffee program.
Sam I guess so. But it’s still a very team-wide collaboration.
Johan Which is the thing that still makes me excited to try out the new coffees that you’re sourcing from farms out of Ethiopia and elsewhere. It feels like all of us have really distinct perspectives, coming from deep coffee culture, or in my case, the tea world. We try to source a variety so that all of our palate offer something to the cupping experience, and it keeps things interesting.
Sam Well, and working with Andrew on getting each roast to pull out the unique aspects of everything has really been a fun push-and-pull.
Jared Originally I was roasting before I handed it over to Andrew, and I thought I totally understood the finer details of everything we were doing—but then when I took over for him last month while he was on paternity leave, I was in the roastery with him as he explained his process, and I just realized that he had blown the door wide open and really tuned the nuance that we go for. He had gone way further than I had, and I imagine his pursuit of the craft was another variable that was keeping everybody on their toes and ensuring things kept pushing towards growth and improvement.
Sam For sure. Like I said: a very team-wide collaboration.
Johan You think that’s enough? Too much?
Jared I think that feels like a pretty good intro to how it happened—at least to me.
Sam Yeah maybe this whole discussion was really boring. *laughs*
Johan People seem to like hearing about these sorts of things, right?
Harrison I guess we’ll find out. *laughs*