On 4 Years of Roasting

On 4 Years of Roasting
May 29, 2019 Summit Coffee
In Blog

Four years ago, on a Sunday morning sometime after sunrise but before breakfast, Tim, Evan and I congregated over the future of Summit and had no idea what to expect. Evan flipped on our new roasting machine, a 2,000-pound gamble, and we were either going to enter the next level of the coffee business, or go out of business.

“The Next Adventure,” we called it. We made T-shirts, we snapped photos, we sold it to our customers, we sold it to our staff, we sold it to each other. Here the three of us stood, a combined 0 hours of roasting experience between us, doing everything together because the newness of it all outweighed the monotony. We stood over the scale, scooping from a cup 20 pounds of green coffee, watching it tick up 12 ounces at a time. (Note: in hindsight, not sure why it took us a few months to “invest” in a scoop. Just stay with me.)

And as the machine warmed up, the deep churning of the cast iron steel and metal bearings turned a bit squeaky. Just warming up, we tell each other, that this must be what roasting machines sound like. The gentle squeaks got more aggressively squeaky, however, and then oh my God there are shards of metal coming off the machine and I am pretty sure this isn’t normal and the future of our business is literally crumbling.

Evan flipped off our new roasting machine, our 2,000-pound gamble that was now a little less new and with a little less metal.

The three of us stood there, quiet and confused and probably hungry and definitely concerned and, for at least a few moments, stuck in the purgatory between where we’ve been and where we intended to be. In 17 years of running a business, we were familiar with trying new things, jumping into opportunities well before we were “experts.” But this felt different. The magnitude of it all, the hype of “The Next Adventure,” the investment — it all carried a weight that we hadn’t, until this Sunday morning now long after sunrise and still before breakfast, felt.

Evan assessed that the drum of the roasting machine, which turns like a clothes dryer and holds the coffee as it cooks, had shifted somewhere between the warehouse in Reno and the warehouse in Cornelius. The three of us, all six hands, grabbed the drum and pushed it back, to stop the grinding and calm our anxieties. Evan flipped (back) on the roasting machine, and there (again) was the deep churning. The squeaking never came, and so when the temperature probe hit our target 400 degrees, we dropped in our first batch of green coffee.

We high fived as Evan took control of the controls, waiting to rev the gas at 90 seconds as we mapped out. After three seconds, a coffee bean fell out of the machine. No one said anything. Then a few more beans, then a few dozen, then a few pounds … you get the picture. Twenty pounds of coffee, roasted somewhere between 3 and 30 seconds, was now twenty pounds of coffee, somewhere on the floor.

As the story goes, Evan MacGyver’d his way around our black-and-gold roasting machine, and by attempt three we had successfully turned green coffee into brown coffee and we were off to the races.

Four years later, here we are. In 48 months we’ve roasted just under 200,000 pounds of coffee. Summit Coffee was available in 2 cafes in 2015, and is available in 112 places in 2019. We aspired to be organic in 2015; in 2019, our roastery is one of two that’s certified organic in the Charlotte area. In 2015, we employed 25 people and now we employee around 60. In 2015, we split that first 20-pound coffee batch into brown kraft bags, stickered them with grey labels and launched a new brand. In 2019, our printed bags are in Whole Foods stores showcasing our new brand colors.

Our coffee has gone from “wow, we did it” –> “well, this isn’t as good as we thought –> “ok, this is pretty good” –> “hm, I remember this coffee being better” –> “for real, our coffee is really good.” And that’s where we are, proudly operating and representing a Summit that’s gone from little train that could into coffee brand that will.

Along the way, people have come and gone — we’ve had multiple production assistants, educators, cupping assistants, etc. But there’s been one real constant: Evan. Of the nearly 200,000 pounds of coffee that have left our back door since 2015, Evan has roasted more than 80% of it. He also has sourced it and profiled it; cupped it and brewed it; packaged it and delivered it and shipped it. No one deserves to celebrate this trip around the sun more than Evan, who emerged so clearly as the person-in-charge on that fateful first Sunday and has remained in charge every Sunday since.

And then there’s you. If you’re reading this blog, 800 words into it, chances are you’ve had at least one cup from the 200,000 pounds. From the three of us that stood over the scale on May 31, 2015, and the dozen people in the roastery today, and the dozens more who’ve served Summit since — thanks. We wouldn’t have made it four years without many people, but especially you.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the story, the journey, and most of all, the coffee. We certainly have.

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