Saturday, June 13, 2009
The Front Porch Coffee & The Girl Who Keeps Me Awake All Morning
Nearly every morning of the business week I begin my day at the Front Porch Cafe in Nags Head with a large cup of coffee. This singular event provides enough energy to propel me through the lunch hour without falling asleep at my desk. On many days, driving past the Nags Head store one notices the peculiar scent of coffee being roasted. And that is how the Front Porch rolls...they source only green Arabica coffee beans from all over the world, roast them at the Nags Head location, and turn them into delightful blends or single bean brews. You can buy the product "to go", or by the bag either ground or with whole-roasted beans.
My wife and I toured a coffee plantation in Queensland, Australia back in 2007. In 2008, Paul Manning, the owner/founder of the Front Porch came to our Rotary club and explained the various aspects of coffee; from sourcing the beans, the differences in flavors, roasting, and other aspects of making good coffee. In addition, he introduced many of us to the concept of Fair Trade and sustainable/environmental growth practices that directly benefit the coffee farmers in what are relatively poor countries, as well as the overall environment.
To me, the blending and crafting of coffee was a lot like wine making. The roaster has to balance complexities such as bitterness, acidity, strong and mild flavors, the characteristics of each type of bean, the length of time the beans are roasted, and how long they are left to evolve after roasting. Not only must she (and yes, I'm getting there) create different varieties of coffee that taste good, each specialty house blend needs to deliver the same consistent flavor over time. The "Ashley's Indonesian Blend" should taste the same on Monday as it does on Friday, and in 2009 as it did in 2008.
Enter Ashley Barnes, a 30 year old surfer, culinary school graduate, and the roaster/blender behind the great tasting Front Porch Coffee. Ashley hails from Key West, Florida, which right off the bat makes her a typical Outer Banks resident. She is a passionate surfer, and has traveled the world chasing waves as well as coffee plantations.
Ashley came to the Outer Banks 6.5 years ago, after graduating from Johnson & Wales in Norfolk, Virginia wih a degree in Culinary Arts. She left Key West in 2000. Before landing a part-time job with the Front Porch in 2003, she worked as a chef at the Blue Point Bar & Grill in Duck, NC. She is now te full-time roaster/blender at the Front Porch.
From my perspective, those people in the fields of wine making, chocolate, high-end tobacco for cigars, and coffee require a super-sensitive palate and a knowledge of how flavors combine. All of the aforementioned products contain both single and blended raw materials. If using a single source (for example, all Columbian beans), Ashley still has to know the characteristics of that bean-how long to roast it, proper temperature, whether it needs to cure overnight--all to bring out the best attributes of the bean.
With blending, there is much more skill involved as she has to balance the differences in the beans and determine not only how to roast each component, but also the correct ratio for the blend. Ashley modestly admitted her Johnson & Wales education provided her the basic knowledge of flavors and scents and how they intermingle; but she would not admit that it takes a special talent and educated palate to do her job correctly. I disagree. It has to be difficult to blend several different and competing flavors, acidity and other attributes of the beans to create a smooth-tasting, balanced end product.
Here is a picture of the 15 kilo Diedrich Roaster used by the Front Porch. Its a hot, dirty job. It also takes some physicial strength (check out that muscle definition on Ashley's upper arm). You will often see Ashley hefting 50 lb bags of raw beans or toting heavy 5 gallon buckets, two at a time. Its not a job for the faint-hearted.
Before roasting, Ashley checks out each bag. One thing I learned from her is that the beans in any bag are not uniform in size. At first glance, this might not seem problematic, but a smaller bean is going to roast much faster than a larger bean, resulting a final product that would not be consistent. So, she has to sort them to some extent as well as check for other issues (for example, mold if the bags somehow got wet on their journey to the Outer Banks).
Each bean has two hulls, and in the process of roasting, the hulls will crack at different times and fall into a bin under the roaster. The beans are subjected to dry heat, which means that any foreign objects in the roast, such as a stray piece of burlap do not catch fire or burn and can be removed when the cooling process is complete.
Once the roaster is loaded with raw beans, Ashley inserts a plug (see above), much like a bung on a wine barrel. This closes the heat source. A series of levers and other assorted parts allow her to manipulate the temperature and the roasting technique. Each of the dozen or so beans they use from Indonesia, Kenya, Yemen, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, India, etc, etc, etc, require different roasting times, temperatures and techniques.
When the roasting is done, Ashley releases the beans into this hopper, where a combination of air flow and an aerator that literally swirls the beans helps them cool down.
Due to the limitations of my camera, the beans aren't actually moved as fast as the motion here indicates, what you see at the bottom right is the actual speed (and look) of the process. And man, it smells every bit as good as it looks!
At this juncture, Ashley may allow the beans to cure overnight. On some beans, this allows oils released in the roasting to rise to the surface of the bean, creating an oily texture that is very similar to the oily texture on dark Maduro cigar wrappers. On French roast, as well as Italian Espresso, dark, oily beans are what is used.
The end result is the 30-something varieties of coffee produced by the Front Porch.
Let me add one more aspect to this operation. Ashley and Paul have both traveled to many of the plantations from which they source their coffee. They work through organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance to insure several attributes of the end product; the farmer is compensated directly by the buyer and there is no "middle-man" cut. This is the Fair Trade aspect, and greatly raises the income received by the grower.
The Rainforest Alliance also requires the farmer use techniques, such as shade canopies utilizing native trees that not only help produce better coffee, but provides habitat for tropical species of birds and other animals--many of which migrate to the U.S. in the summer and are a vital part of our eco-system. Finally, since these farms are typically family owned, the Alliance brings in "teachers" to instruct the farmers how to eat better and provide healthy diets for themselves and their children. Malnutrition is a major issue in these countries, and more money flowing into the family from Fair Trade pricing doesn't automatically translate into educated growers. I learned all of this from interviewing Ashley, and it makes me even more motivated to buy my coffee here. It is certainly a concern of the Front Porch owners and staff, they believe in what they are doing in these underdeveloped countries and should be justifiably proud. One can have profits without exploitation.
When you take into consideration all of what goes into a cup of Front Porch coffee; the Fair Trade pricing, the skill in blending and roasting required of Ashley, and the benefits to the world economy and eco-system, a $2 cup of Java seems well worth the price. And, if that is not enough to convince you, the taste should!
I wrote this post for several reasons. The first is to demonstrate how locals are creating jobs and wealth as part of the New Economy. The Front Porch now has three locations, and ships coffee via internet and phone orders. A skilled job has been created--Ashley Barnes and her roasting is nothing short of having a winemaker in our presence. And the store has attracted both locals and visitors--the type of healthy balance we need to sustain a vibrant economy year round.
And finally, I think its important to showcase the very unique and intelligent individuals who are making the Outer Banks a better place to live. Next time you are in the Nags Head store and you see this young girl hauling a huge burlap bag, you'll know something about your neighbor!