One Hot Mess – by Chris Fraser

What happens when a large group of coffee roasters get together at a resort, far from the heat of their every day work, and far from any kind of large thriving city? Could the weekend be filled with crazy stories of people streaking through the woods with coffee mugs in hand, and silly rituals around a small roaster late into the night? I didn’t know what to expect at the 12th Annual Roasters Guild Retreat, but I was hoping it would be a nice balance of learning and having a bit of fun with fellow roasters. The retreat and the Guild are a part of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, who are dedicated to the craft of roasting quality coffee. Seeing as how I am new to the roasting game, this was a great chance for me to jump in with my trier, learn, drink lots of coffee (as usual) and call myself a Roaster.

I put my sunglasses on, got into my car and headed for the US border. It was a great drive, and I was able to check out some great Portland coffee roasters and a little record shop along the way.  In no time, I was at the Skamania Lodge. I settled into my room and after receiving the first time attendees tour it was time for our first cupping. I hadn’t eaten much during my drive so wondered if doing a cupping – where you can literally consume about 5 cups of coffee in one sitting – was a good idea.

Walking into the main room I was taken aback. At home in the Ethical Bean lab the process of cupping is very polite, quiet, and civilized. This was quite the opposite. I had imagined there might be smartly dressed men handing out clipboards and silver spoons – where were they? Why were we all not quietly lined up in an orderly fashion at a designated table? Why was plastic sheeting all over the floor? Why was everyone talking so loud? How could I hear the sweet symphony that is a delicately balanced cup of coffee through all this noise?

My thoughts were broken by the words “okay you can start at any time.” I quickly discovered that some people at my table knew exactly what they were doing, and were very focused on the task at hand. Others, however, didn’t know what was going on or what to do. I went around the table focusing on the coffee, trying to not clang my spoon against the many others flying around, trying to block out the guy at the table talking so loud he could be heard by everyone in the whole room. My first thought so far… what a hot mess!

The cupping that night ended with one simple statement: “alright people, let’s clean up.  Remember the roasting challenge is not about winning, it’s about learning.”

The weekend included a competition where roasting teams would work together to roast the best-tasting coffee out of all of the participants, so the next morning I met up for breakfast with my roasting challenge team, the Endothermics. My team was made up of both veterans and people like me, new to the industry. We ate all of our meals together for rest of the weekend, chatting about coffee, discussing topics brought up in class, and sharing stories. This is where I heard the statement again: “the roasting challenge is not about winning, it’s about learning”. Sure, this was a statement I could get behind. After all, this is why I came to the retreat. Then again, why could we not win and learn at the same time? Hmmm?

After a class on the shelf life of coffee and round table discussions on craft markets, sustainability, and cupping vs tasting, my team and I were out in the roasting tent. The roasting tent is a large tent lined with about a dozen shiny new coffee roasters. This is where the competition began, and this is where we all wanted to be.  As roasters, this is what we do – where we are our most passionate. This where we got serious.  As a team, we roasted and took notes. We cupped our coffee with a quiet respect, and then had lively discussions about the flavour and balance of the coffee.

The question is did I learn anything? Yes I did. I was also able to stay up late one night skipping a much needed long slumber. I got to run solo with a pretty little Probat Roaster, and had fun doing it. I can say that it was not the best roast, but I learned from it.

Did my team win? No. The Endothermics came right in the middle of the pack at 7th. I would say that for most of the people on the team, including me, it was about winning and learning and making friends.

To my team: ‘til next year I raise a cup of coffee (or a glass of home brewed Coffee Stout). Cheers.

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