There's a lot happening right now for Borealis Coffee!
Starting with the big news: we will be relocating the roastery to Riverside this summer! The funky old mill that's been the home of Borealis for the last two years will always hold a special place in our hearts as our starting place, but we've found an amazing new space that we couldn't resist.
The whole operation will move to the former Riverside train depot. An extensive buildout is underway to combine the roasting area with a cafe and simple kitchen area. We will have an espresso counter, pour over bar, iced coffee (flash, Nitro, and cold brewed), along with simple pastries, baked goods, and other snacks.
Our membership at Hope and Main, the food business incubator in Warren, RI, has helped forge some relationships with great local bakers and food producers we will be offering. We intend to offer primarily locally sourced products with gluten-free and vegan options will be available.
Follow our progress through Facebook and Instagram. @borealiscoffee
May 22, 12:00 - 4:00 p.m. : "Meet Your Maker" Farmer's Market at Hope and Main (691 Main St, Warren).
June 5 at 5:30 - 8:00 p.m. PVDFest at Flipp Salon with LEVEL Exchange (38 Transit St, PVD)
As the summer kicks off, we will be at the Attleboro Farmers Market in Capron Park on Saturdays from 9-1 (June - October). There is also a weekly market at Hope and Main on Sundays from 10-2 (691 Main St, Warren, RI).
The early Spring coffees have landed! I am pleased to announce the arrival of 4 new coffees to our line up from a new importer. We have always been happy with the coffees we sell, but it's fun to mix it up a little bit and see what else is out there. Sourcing coffees can be exhausting when you scroll through literally hundreds of different farms, lots, estates, or regional options for EACH coffee producing country.
I've found some great coffees.
First: the Ethiopian Ennaria Limmu is a mad man! It's scored at 92 points and has bright notes up front, with great peachy and caramel tones, cooling off to a lovely floral bouquet.
The Java Sunda Hejo "Mahoni" coffee is a washed Indonesian coffee that I bought as an experimental replacement component for the Three Phase Espresso, but also something that stands out as an exceptional coffee on its own.
A new Colombian regional blend has arrived and will transition out the RFA Excelso that has been the Team Crafty Signature Roast for the last several months. It has more sweetness and acidity than its predecessor, but withholds those nutty and chocolate notes that make Team Crafty such a hit.
The KBQB coop coffee is sold out, so I replaced it with another Fair Trade Organic coop coffee from Sumatra. The Ketiari Coop has a classic Sumatran profile with big body, tobacco, and great earthy notes.
There are also some other great coffees that I want to start toying around with to develop a House Blend (name TBD...).
If you don't already, follow us on Facebook and Instagram! @borealiscoffee
I love football. I love Legos. And obviously, I love coffee. As I sit here playing with my Legos waiting for kickoff drinking coffee, I wanted to offer all of you a chance to win something by means of a contest or something like that. Since I'm not a lawyer and I am a little terrified of any potential consequences for having a contest that may be seen as gambling, I decided to just offer a 21% discount for today only.
If you follow Borealis Coffee on social media (Instagram or twitter @borealiscoffee) or on FaceBook, then you will have probably seen that I have a promo code "PIGSKIN" for 21% off your entire order.
I'm making room for some new coffees that should arrive next week, but in the mean time: poke around the website and find some delicious coffees. Just don't forget that promo code at checkout!
Thanks for visiting!
The thousands of miles long supply chain from grower to roaster has quality assurance at every step ensuring that when you open your little bag, you’ve got a homogenous, harmonious little family of happy beans, who you will, of course, ritualistically grind and drown.
The process of sorting beans is a mix of purpose-built machinery and a lot of manual labor. Much of this sorting for quality and size is achieved by industrial air sorters and sieves but a lot of sorting for defects is still done by hand. Generally this involves workers lining up on either side of a conveyer belt removing troublemakers as they process by.
On arrival to Borealis, beans need to be evaluated. Looking for consistent density, color, and size, as well as checking for defective beans. Otherwise, you could have some perfectly roasted beans, but with other larger or denser ones not quite there. Smaller ones would be slightly burnt, and like your childhood dreams would be destined to express themselves with overwhelming bitterness when you are drinking.
The bad beans are all known by aliases, like any proper crime syndicate. Floaters, pales, full blacks, half blacks, stinkers, each of them can escape attention. The tolerances are quite unforgiving; one bad bean really can spoil the batch. The reasons for the defects are varied. Some are of natural causes like insect damage, or simply immature or overripe beans or fallen cherries being picked. Others are errors in process; exposure to moisture or heat at the wrong times, or overstaying their welcome in one stage of the process for too long.
The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) grades coffee based on the allowances for these defects. Even the very worst grade of coffee, off grade, which hopefully you’ve never had, only allows 86 defects in 300 gram. That’s 86 defects in about 2000 beans. The tolerances for exchange/premium coffee grades, like what Borealis purchases, are far more rigorous, with no more than 23 defects allowed.
That doesn’t mean the dozen or so allowable defects make it into your cup. One of the small advantages of small-batch roasting is that roasting five pounds or so at a time means fewer places to escape attention before going in the hopper. There’s one last QA pass, and that’s Brian, looking for the bad bean. Next to the roaster atop Brian’s red tool chest sits a small jar, proudly displaying what didn’t make it past the last gatekeeper: black beans, insect damaged beans, husks and even a couple decent sized twigs.
There are also two slightly larger reject containers, weighing in at 150 lbs each. Destined for the Team Crafty Columbian blend, Brian received two bags of beans with an unacceptable error rate; a black bean or two staring up from the burlap. It’s all being rejected. Larger roasters might offset a bad batch by diluting it into larger batches of better beans for roasting, while pursuing a heavy discount from their supplier, but this isn’t something that’s feasible or desirable for Borealis Coffee Roasters.
Beyond the principle of paying for a certain level of quality and expecting it, bad beans would ruin Brian’s coffee and his reputation. He has the appropriate underdog suspicion that in the vast coffee industry, at some point in the supply chain someone figured the little guy “might not know better.” With great finality the two clamps marked “Reject” attest that at Borealis, this is not true. When you are appreciating a good cup, appreciate what went into it, as well as what didn’t.
Analog coffee is still very much alive. You may have felt it in modest ways, in the plunging of your press, or the lazy circling with your kettle for pour-over, or the aeropressing of… well, you can appreciate the point. I certainly get it when hand grinding beans, in the crunch and explosion of smell. In the end, coffee still gets down and dirty and roasting is no different, though of course the stakes are higher, and the nose has to be better.
Coffee has taken on somewhat of a lab aesthetic over the years, right down to the interior design of some coffee shops. More importantly, it has the more rigorous process to go along with it. The benefits of being more scientific with every element of coffee production are well known, right down to why it’s better to weigh your beans at home, rather than scoop them. That said, simply relying on numbers for something you taste has its limits. Happily there’s still lots of feel involved in perhaps the most rewarding aspects of the process.
Watching Brian roast is a mix of numbers and feel; on the one hand there are logs, on the other scribbles. There are digital read outs, but also mechanical levers to be nudged. All the while, like any good roaster, there’s a lot of listening, smelling and tasting. Suppliers may offer ideal temperature profile line graphs recommended for the beans they send over, but roasting is not done on paper; there are many variables that complicate the process of roasting, and no setup perfectly matches that clean ideal. Roasting in a warehouse on a humid summer day is not the same as on a cold dry winter night, and the humidity of the beans aren’t identical either. Machinery is moody, and your first batch is not the same as your last.
Developing a feel to compensate for these factors is crucial. To some extent, Brian threw his lot in with relying on feel for roasting when he elected to purchase his not perfectly youthful Probat. He readily admits he has still got a lot to learn with the idiosyncrasies of a machine best characterized by advice on maintenance he got from the very experienced head roaster at Equal Exchange: “don’t be afraid to use a hammer.” This isn’t to say the machine is crude, it’s a gorgeous beast of invincible, timeless design. Probat has been making coffee roasters for around 150 years, and in keeping with the reputation of German engineering, they are well respected, long-lived and widely used. Brian's is especially pretty, with gorgeous patinas on wood and brass, contrasting against the bright orange metal body panels. A partially-occluded burnt porthole gives us crucial glimpses of the beans as they spin inside so you can watch the color develop. It thrums insistently but with ease.
While many modern roasters are automated and come with a monitor which can be used to program roasting profiles: precisely dictating temperature through every second of the roast, Brian’s Probat requires and rewards constant attention by its human dance partner. Its roasting thermometer is a digital barnacle spitting out accurate bean mass temperatures, but otherwise at times the thing has the feel of an impressively engineered steam engine. Brian has a big orange ship of heavy cast iron and steel, and it doesn’t respond to steering immediately, so he has to anticipate to hit his temperatures target. As needed he makes early minor adjustments instead of any major course corrections later on that might affect flavor. In addition to regulating the heat via gas, hitting his desired roasting profiles comes down to controlling airflow, sometimes as simple as opening the door to mix some cold air in. It’s reactive, but it isn’t haphazard.
The whole process becomes very focused at first crack: the point when the beans have lost so much of their moisture to roasting that they begin to audibly crack. While the entire process of roasting is of course important, this stage is essential. The two to three minutes after first crack are where the flavor really develops. If you come into it hot, the beans will finish roasting in too short a period of time and never really develop any sophisticated flavor, too cold, and you never get there.
When we get close to first crack, Brian ceases to be chatty, and moves from a casual seated posture into a power stance, legs spread, moving frenetically as necessary. Brian pulls the trier (a little scoop that catches beans in the roasting chamber) repeatedly during this part of the roast, waiting for the fullest expression of flavor without going a second further into the badlands of burning. “Searching for the white whale” he says, of the elusive perfect roast. He speaks fondly of the times he has caught a glimpse of the perfect roast, which most recently was with a batch of single-origin Sulawesi. If you’re smart enough to be on subscription, you can attest this was uncommonly delicious.
This isn’t some new-age communion with machine though. Feel is paired with the reproducibility of record keeping, and to continue with the oceanic theme, Brian says “we’re going to need a bigger binder.” Brian keeps good notes of all of his roasts, so that he knows what works, and what doesn’t. Logs chart both the mechanics of what went on during each roast, when he introduced air, as well as the temperatures at each interval. They also note the characteristics of the results when cupping, which are often far from the snooty notes you may have seen on a bag of beans. Here it’s about using an internal language, whatever conveys a desired flavor he got when nailing a roast such that he can smell for it next time works. Sometimes the internal poetry is inscrutable. One note reads “makes me want to say ‘damn!”
There’s more than just professional pride and his desire for perfection at stake here, although they quite clearly are driving him through his 13 hour roasting days. There’s also his personal cup. It’s the chef's prerogative. He of course took some extra of that Sulawesi, and more recently a Costa Rican for his personal stash. It’s not always good though. He drank through pounds of bad decaf he refused to sell in a practice of admirable penitence for a bad roast.
As frenetic as the process can be, there’s one final sensory experience. At the end of a long day of roasting, the machine is turned off. Brian all of a sudden is alone, in an eerie quiet space, absent the thrumming and rolling of his orange companion.
About the Author: Alastair Cairns is a known loiterer at farmers markets. When not managing accessibility services for the deaf and hard of hearing, he is also a freelance writer. He has written on e-sports for gaming publications, canoeing for outdoor magazines like Adirondack Life, and writes for Providence Monthly and The Bay about things that are tasty in Rhode Island and the people that make them. This article was brought to you by broken pekoe Assam, as well as a lot of Borealis Nicaraguan and Sulawesi.