Ah, December. Although this means the farm stand closes for the season, it's still a hectic, busy time for us, just like everyone else. It's seemed especially busy recently, as I've been working away from the farm a bit.
Working away is an unfortunate fact of life on most family farms. I feel very blessed that I've been able to be home, full time, for about two and a half years now (wow!). And although money is always tighter both around the holidays and winter in general, I have some ideas to expand winter sales and have been working hard to set the online store up, so I wasn't actively looking to do anything else. Instead, it was more a matter of helping out a fellow local food provider, and a chance to learn a lot.
Awhile back, in one of the group, monthly emails from Happy Mug coffee, Matt Shay (owner) asked if anyone would be interested in helping him out a bit. I let him know that I'd love to learn more about his coffee, since I sell it but am not really very knowledgeable, and I was genuinely curious about the process. He replied he basically jut needed someone local to help run to the post office and such, but I told him to keep me in mind if things changed. It's been a busy December for him, and last week it worked out that he needed some help, and my schedule was clear.
A lot of what I was there to do was pretty routine stuff for any business...printing labels, packaging the product, boxing up some holiday gift assortments, and helping to send online orders out by mail. But up until this point, Happy Mug Coffee has been a one-man show. Even as I was doing things like weighing green coffee and putting it into a bag, or putting labels on bags of coffee, Matt would be close by, and he is absolutely a wealth of knowledge. He's also passionate about responsibly grown and traded coffees and freely shares his knowledge about the coffee trade in general, and the respective farms and coops behind particular varieties of coffee he sells. We also drank, not surprisingly, a LOT of different kinds of coffee together. If he tried a new variation on the roasting process of a bean, we'd try it. Or we would try a couple in succession so he could help illustrate differences about what he does. In many regards, it was like a wine tasting, where you are trying to pick out certain notes. While it was no surprise to me to learn that beans that grow in different places can taste differently, by tasting it was amazing to be able to sample for myself how the area of the world a bean is grown in profoundly affects the flavor. Coffee grown on Pacific islands, in places like New Guinea, have low acidity because of the volcanic rock in the soil. Coffee grown in Asia (places like India or Yemen) tends to be bitter and have lots of undertones of herbs and spices, possibly because they are grown in close proximity. African coffees often have notes of citrus or blueberry, but absolutely not in the way a flavored coffee does.
I also learned about the roasting process, and even roasted a batch or two myself! This is not nearly as impressive as it sounds, because Matt has a state-of-the-art roaster that has an amazing digital panel. He can set up profiles of things he roasts often, so it can be set to operate itself! The temperatures are digitally controlled, so if it is a standard coffee, you just measure out the amount you want, pick the matching profile on the screen, pour the coffee in the hopper, pull the lever to send it to the roasting chamber, and make sure the lever goes back and starts the timer. Then, it will roast and dump the finished coffee, you don't have to do anything else! The part that takes knowledge (and taste testing!) is setting up the profiles in the first place. Many roasters aren't nearly this automated. In most places, it is actually roasted by ear to an extent, because the beans make popping sounds (like Rice Krispies or popcorn) at certain, key times of the roast. He even talked me through an entire roast, just so I could see, hear and smell just what was going on. It was fascinating and I'm very thankful to have been asked.
I was amazed at how committed to freshness Matt is. If you walk upstairs to where Happy Mug is (above King's Building Supply in Tidioute), you can't just grab a bag of coffee. There are no prepackaged bags laying about, just small bins with freshly roasted coffees (I would be shocked if any contain coffees roasted more than a week prior). Coffee is roasted in small batches, often just a few pounds at a time, to order. In Matt's opinion, if your coffee is more than about three weeks old, it's time to replace it with something fresh!
I was also amazed at how much business he does selling green (unroasted) coffee beans. I know that homebrewing your own beer or wine is becoming increasingly popular, but I was simply unaware of the homeroasting trend. Apparently, there aren't a lot of places where you can order just a pound or two of green coffee beans (it is imported in sack weighing over 100 lbs), and even fewer who sell organic, fair trade beans to boot, so Happy Mug ships all over the nation. It was really neat to check out all the different bulap bags, from many countries all over the world. Sometimes it was just easiest for Matt to tell me to look for something (a purple stripe or a picture of a cow) rather than trying to decipher the foreign language on the bag.
It was really neat to be able to sample a ton of different coffees. He gets in some amazing stuff...one bag was such a special, hand-picked coffee, that the name of the owner of the estate was on the bag, and only six bags of it exist in the whole world. I wish I could tell you I loved it, but although a tomato-like taste is supposed to be the sign of a great coffee, I just couldn't really appreciate it. Not my favorite at all! I also got to sample some Blue Mountain, which is apparently the BMW of all coffee...a highly recognizable, upper echelon brand name (after the region in which it grows). And costs something ridiculous like $30 per pound. Most Blue Mountain coffee is a blend, so it is more affordable, but those blends are actually 90% of cheaper coffee and only 10% good stuff, making it pretty impossible to pick out the flavor of the actual Blue Mountain. I was fortunate to be sipping a cup of 100% Blue Mountain, and that was a coffee I'd gladly have another cup of!
At the end of the day, I also got home to bring home a bag of something. I woke up last week with the Morning Blend, which I've been told all the cool kids are drinking because it's Happy Mug's coffee of the month. Dan's new favorite is the Extroverted Tanzania, which I enjoy as well.
It seems Happy Mug's Christmas rush is over, so I'm home baking cookies to go with all this great coffee. I'm looking forward to going back sometime in the not-too-distant future as well, as we've talked about my managing the business if Matt wants to get out of town for a few days. It's a huge responsibility to be trusted with something like that, but I'm hoping I'm up to it. And so thankful to have had the wonderful experiences of roasting and tasting and, most importantly, learning more about great local food!
You can visit Happy Mug online at www.happymugcoffee.com...but please be patient if you're ordering as the website is being completely redone and will hopefully be fully functional in the very near future.