Halfwit Coffee Roasters

The Making of the 2017 Dallas-Fort Worth Regional AeroPress Competition

Halfwit Coffee
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Written by Eli Ramirez

 

It might be a little odd reading about a Texas-based coffee event on a Chicago-based company’s website but, it will all make sense with some backstory. My name is Eli, I currently work for Halfwit Coffee Roasters as the Director of Wholesale but I got my start in coffee when I lived in Texas. I lived down there for 4 years while going to college and as soon as I got there, I found my way into the coffee scene. At the end of my career in Texas, after competing in the U.S. National AeroPress Competition, I got together with some coworkers to hold our own grassroots AeroPress event. To keep it brief, the event was a massive success. It was very clear that the Dallas-Fort Worth community, while growing, was in desperate need for an event other than a latte art throwdown. After just over 200 people showed up and the 4 hour competition was over, we crowned an amazing champion and knew that we had created something special.

The intent of this article is to explain how we (me and one other person) turned a local coffee brewing competition into an actual World AeroPress Championship sanctioned event and how you can do it, too! I will go step by step through the process of planning, organizing, and executing a successful and inclusive AeroPress event.

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Step One:

Form your team! This most likely has already happened if you’ve even decided to host an event but your team is one of the most important factors that contribute to your overall success. Make sure every person has a very specific job and areas that they are in charge of for the entire planning process. For example: I was in charge of sending all of the sponsorship related emails while Ben (my partner in crime) was in charge of everything dealing with the venue and the provided libations. This gave us a very clear path on who does what so each task was handled as quickly and efficiently as possible.
 

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Plan your vision and plan your ‘why’.

Step Two:

Plan your vision and plan your ‘why’. After decided the logistics of running an event, it is incredibly important to think about how your ideal event would go down. I’d recommend, at all time, aiming to run a safe and inclusive event that is inviting to all types of people. If you are ever curious, head over to Acaia’s website and download their Code of Conduct. We chose to adopt this form and run our event under its guidelines. Our vision was to make it known that we had a zero tolerance policy when it came to harassment or discrimination of any kind. We made this point clear in our emails and when we finally decided to announce the event. After this, think about why you are holding this event. What sparked it in the first place? What does your coffee community need? Why do you think they need your event? Are you helping or hurting your community? Our ‘why’ mostly revolved around the love that Ben and I share for the DFW coffee scene. We wanted to make sure one of our own had the opportunity to represent the community on the national stage in September and be proud that they were doing it.
 

Step Three:

Venue, date, and time. This is when you really need to sit down with a calendar and plan when and where the event going to happen. How many people are you expecting to attend? Will the event space be big enough for everyone? Will all of your attendees get to fully see the brewing area? These are just some things to consider when picking a venue. We chose to hold our event on a Friday night, not Saturday, to not interfere with anyone’s religious obligations on Sunday. We also held the event at a brand new cafe: Communion Neighborhood Cafe. We wanted them to get the right exposure before they opened for real to help them build hype around their own cafe concept. We were able to help out some amazing Texas coffee people while also having an amazing and beautiful venue for our event. Once you have a place, pick your date and time!


Step Four:

Sponsorship. This can be tricky. People get nervous about asking other people for free things but just remember that coffee and coffee equipment companies get these requests all the time. It is your job to be honest and open about your event. Introduce yourself, explain what your event is, explain why you’re running this event, explain your ethos of inclusivity and how you plan to properly hold a truly welcoming event. You need to give a company a reason why they should spend their time and money on your event other than the mere fact that you are having an event. As a wholesale director, I deal with these kinds of requests quite often. Anyone can say “Hi I do this and we have an event can I have free coffee?” but I then have no incentive to help other than knowing you’ve planned an event. Always include your reason why you think your event is helping your community and especially why you’d benefit from the help of the company you are contacting.

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It is your job to be honest and open about your event.


Step Five:

Hire a graphic designer. Incase you were wondering, Ben and I have zero design experience and we had to come to terms that if we made a poster, it most likely would’ve been awful. There is a huge upside to holding these events that most people don’t realize- you get to support your friends! We were lucky enough to get to know an amazing, local graphic designer over the past few years and when we approached her with this idea, she was all-in right away. We basically just gave her all of the auxiliary information (date, time, place, name of event, and yes there will be beer) and let her do the rest. We gave her 100% complete creative freedom from start to finish. All we did was tell her when we needed it by (we gave her 2 months to finish it) and talked about price. This is our list of what we needed: multiple files (sizes and types) of the poster, a modified poster for a Snapchat filter, a file to upload to instagram, and a file to give to the t-shirt printing company. Since she was a friend, she named her price and we said yes. One quick note on this process: Ben and I both agreed that is was absolutely necessary to give Kris our complete trust with this project because we believe that people function at their best when they can be as creative as they want and truly take something into their own hands.
 

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if you are true to your vision and just want to give as much as possible to your community, the community will give back

After you’ve done all of this, you are about half way there! Your team has been assembled, your vision is becoming reality, you have an awesome venue, you’ve sent out at least 50 sponsorship emails, and your design is underway. This is the point where Ben and I could take a breath, only so our nerves could then creep back in and we could question everything. I vividly remember thinking to myself that no one was going to come and no one was going to sponsor us, making our event a complete flop. Just remember, if you are true to your vision and just want to give as much as possible to your community, the community will give back.


Stay tuned for second half of list coming soon!

Tasting Coffee

Halfwit Coffee
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Written by Andreas Willhoff
 


I’ll admit it: flavor notes can be intimidating. At their best they can help someone find the perfect coffee, but at their worst they can put up a barrier between the roaster and the consumer. The barista often acts as a liaison between the two, but if you’re buying coffee from a grocery store or roaster’s website, the flavor notes are all you have.

It happens to me all the time. I look at a bag of coffee that says it has flavors of cherries, and I think, “I like cherries.” But when I finally get around to tasting that coffee, I taste no cherries. Did I brew it wrong? Maybe my palate isn’t as good as the roaster’s? Or is it my equipment? The truth is, any number of things can get in the way of tasting those specific notes. It can be anything from your grinder, to the age of the coffee, to the chemistry of the water used. Whatever the cause, it often leads to one of two conclusions: I don’t know what I’m doing, OR they’re just making this stuff up.

Either way, it’s not good. So, in order to help bridge the gap, I would like to offer some tips. Having a better understanding of both how to taste coffee and how to use flavor notes to your benefit will help make the process of buying coffee easier.

 

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Flavor notes are very heavily based on personal experience.

  1. Due to the timeline from the crop harvest to the launch of a new coffee at your local roaster, flavor notes often have to come from the very first sample batch of a coffee. These are much smaller batches, and some of the flavors that come out of them are less present when moved to a larger production batch. Additionally, the flavor notes are usually not changed as the green coffee ages, meaning those notes can be outdated. Though the specific notes might change, the basic idea of that coffee should remain.

  2. Flavor notes are very heavily based on personal experience. Flavor and aroma are tied to memory, so a lot of these notes come from the roaster’s life experience. Don’t feel bad if you don’t taste orange blossom or panela in a particular coffee. If you’ve never tasted an orange blossom, don’t expect to taste it in coffee. You may taste something completely different based on your experience.

  3. Instead, focus on the basic experience. Every time I taste something, I taste for the same three things. Acidity, sweetness, and bitterness. Learning to taste for these flavor components will train your palate. Once you have those three notes, you can throw mouthfeel into the mix. How the coffee coats your tongue plays a big role in the flavors you perceive.

  4. Deconstruct the notes on the bag to simpler categories. Move any notes of lemon, apple, grape, peach, or blueberry to the broader category of FRUIT. Orange blossom could probably be moved to FLORAL. The broader the category, the easier it is to detect.

  5. When you do taste a specific flavor (and believe, me you will) don’t worry about it aligning with the notes on the bag. The fact that you taste something is exciting!

  6. Don’t worry if you never taste a specific flavor. In the end it’s about whether or not you like the coffee. Does it taste good to you? Yes? Great!

     
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Learning to taste for these flavor components will train your palate.

 

Just like wine and whiskey fanatics, fans of coffee like to wax poetic about their drink of
choice. This often includes a complete breakdown of the entire tasting experience, which is fine. And while we as an industry always try to communicate these things clearly to you, our excitement for this complex beverage sometimes gets the better of us, so please forgive us if we get a little esoteric in our descriptions. I hope these tips help you navigate the murky waters of tasting coffee, and ideally improve your experience. We want to bring you into our circle, not keep you out.

 


Mr. Hu and Chinese Coffee

Halfwit Coffee

Written by Eli Ramirez

 

Just a month ago, I left the country embarking on a week long journey through rural China in preparation for the United States Barista Championship. I would spend my trip touring the coffee farms of China, meeting the farmer responsible for growing the coffee I was using, and soaking up every bit of culture that I could. Going into this, I had very little knowledge of China; I don’t speak the language, and I was not very familiar with the geography, or the culture and customs.

During my preparation for the trip, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the fact that I’d actually be in China. I had a million questions running through my head. What if one of my three flights doesn’t connect? What if I somehow get completely lost and have no way to communicate with anyone? What if one of the vaccination shots I got before going doesn’t work and I get sick? This was my first trip to origin as well as the farthest away from home I’d ever been. I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to actually be there until I stepped off my final plane in Pu’er and met Tim, my partner for the entirety of the trip. The moment I stepped out of the plane (because yes, I only got mildly lost and I did find my gates) was the moment everything seemed to come together. I was immediately surrounded by endless forest-covered mountains and beautiful, ornately decorated buildings. The air seemed different and the sun seemed brighter. I was completely immersed into a new world of culture, food, coffee and people, and I was so excited to take in everything I could.

Landing in Pu’er was step one to getting to the farm I’d be staying at, step two being the five hour drive southwest to a town called Menglian, about ten miles east of the Myanmar border. During every part of the drive, it seemed like we were at the top of a mountain, and in every direction were endless hills, mountains, tea fields, rice terraces, and massive plantations. It looked like a patchwork quilt was laid over every surface - each new thing growing was segmented into square fields, bunched up right next to each other. I knew that I was heading to rural south China but I had always imagined China as a bustling, cosmopolitan, big city focused place with big businesses and even bigger skyscrapers. The China that I was experiencing seemed so small and intimate. The food we were eating with so fresh and thoughtfully prepared but best of all, the people that I was meeting were so generous and warm. I had to remember that my job here was to learn as much about their coffee as possible, while also having the trip of a lifetime.

Chinese coffee has an interesting story. Since the 50’s, Nestle has been opening plants all around the Yunnan area, which is basically all of southern China. A huge majority of tea and rice farmers are also growing coffee, to be sold to Nestle. Nestle will strike agreements with these farmers to buy their entire lot of coffee for a lump sum, regardless of quality, to be turned straight into instant coffee. In the mid 90’s, the Chinese government realized that they were missing out on huge profits from coffee growing, so they decided to put a larger emphasis on growing coffee but then selling it internally to stimulate their own economy. In 2000, a man named Mr. Hu was hired to consult multiple coffee cooperatives in the area on how to run efficiently but also how to grow healthy, delicious coffee.  I had the honor of staying with him at his house, on one of his farms. Mr. Hu has been farming in China for almost 40 years, starting out as a tea growing consultant before making his way to coffee growing. In 2003, after an intense frost hit his region and wiped out the coffee cooperative that he was working for, he decided to start his own.

Today, Mr. Hu owns and runs seven farms in Menglian, four that produce commercial grade coffee and three that produce specialty grade. Mr. Hu, a botanist at heart, is someone who fully understands the hardships of being a farmer and how to run a successful business. Over the years, he has formed an incredibly efficient chain of command to run this complex operation, with himself at the top. He employs seven different farm managers, each one living on their respective farm and overseeing the day to day operations. Each of these managers then hire and employ pickers and processors, people whose job it is to specifically make sure only the ripest coffee cherries are being picked every day while also ensuring that the processing conditions are clean and organized. With this chain of command, Mr. Hu is able to have a hand in everything that happens at each of his farms, while also letting his employees know that he trusts them enough to act and work independently. However, it is not uncommon for him to get involved in the personal issues of the pickers that work multiple levels under him. He makes it known that he is there to help with work and personal issues at anytime, because the well-being of his employees mean business will run smoothly.

Being able to live at Mr. Hu’s house for five days allowed me to get an amazing view into the life of Mr. Hu and his business. Every morning at sunrise we would sit on his porch and chat while Mr. Hu made multiple V60’s of coffee from his various farms. We would walk around his property while he watered his plants and fed his flocks of animals. He would inspect his coffee trees to see how they were doing while checking in on his coffee tree nursery, another army of coffee tree babies waiting to be planted in his fields. Taking the day in one step at a time allowed him to divide and conquer, ensuring that every cog in his business ran smoothly. Throughout the trip we tasted coffee, picked coffee cherries, processed coffee, toured his coffee farms, roasted coffee, cupped coffee, and lived within the rhythm of his life. Though our days were consistently filled with activity, I found myself taking pauses just to marvel at and contemplate how complex this chain of events is. Before this trip it was difficult to conceptualize how many hands it really took for coffee to grow, get processed, get shipped, and get to Chicago.

While overwhelming to experience coffee in a new way, I found the process of gaining insight into this end of the coffee chain exhilarating. It is easy to assume that I knew how processing works and that I knew how coffee gets all the way to us, but this trip taught me that I, in reality, didn’t know anything about that. As I walked through the chain of coffee growing and processing, I was relearning what coffee is and what coffee means to hundreds of families in the Yunnan Province. Being able to see the amount of time and care Mr. Hu put into this coffee was priceless because every hour seemed to include another eye-opening experience. This came in the form of tasting a coffee cherry for the first time, or hand sorting cherry shells during the dry milling phase of processing. I was finally realizing just how much effort gets poured into growing coffee. The amount of effort is rivaled only by the sheer amount of time this takes, literal decades spent building this empire of coffee, all run by Mr. Hu. These years were spent building a community of coffee farmers, all looking towards him for farm advice and how to run a successful business.

I spent my week in China absorbing everything around me that I was experiencing for the very first time. This trip was seven days full of new adventures that fundamentally changed who I am and how I see my industry. I went into this not knowing what was going to happen and I came out with a renewed sense of being and belonging, feeling more grounded and attached to this profession than ever. All the incredible elements of this trip have changed the way I see coffee.

In the next installment of this blog series, I will go in depth into the processing methods at one of Mr. Hu’s and how they change the flavor of his coffee.

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Guatemala: Finca Rosario de Fátima

Andrea Otte
The lush and mostly liquid landscape of Finca Rosario de Fátima. March 20, 2017

The lush and mostly liquid landscape of Finca Rosario de Fátima. March 20, 2017

By Andrea Otte, Director of Coffee

 

Chipi chipi, the word in Spanish for the slow, misty rains that fall in the northern part of Guatemala for nine months out of the year, is predictably coating the windshield of our van as we arrive in Cobán. The dense, orchid-strewn forests of the Alta Verapaz department, of which Cobán is the capital, lie in a tropical valley surrounded by mountains. These mountains, many of which are dormant (or not so dormant) volcanos, trap the ocean winds from the surrounding coasts and create a unique microclimate of cool, moist air. On our way to visit Finca Rosario de Fátima, by way of a few wrong turns, we get a tour of the surrounding town and its people, who are busy going about their late afternoon as we make our seventh left. Men in rubber boots and muddy jeans stand in the back of pickup trucks on their way home from work, many of them coming from the farms and mills that we have just arrived to visit. Kids with the same types of garish plastic backpacks I see in my neighborhood in Chicago shuffle home from school on skinny sidewalks. After giving up entirely on our handheld technology, we finally arrive at the gates of Fátima with the last hour of sunlight hustling us out of the van.

Coffee farming in Guatemala has been around for over 140 years. Towards the end of the 19th century, German immigrants migrated to the Alta Verapaz region and established the first coffee plantations, with a small but prosperous population thriving up until the second World War. Prior to WWII, Germans immigrants owned approximately 80% of all arable land in Cobán (1). However, during the war the Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico, under pressure from the United States, kidnapped and shipped over 4000 Guatemalan Germans to internment camps in Texas. Following the end of the war some returned to Cobán, but the population never rebounded to its former numbers.

Joerg Sterkel, the son of Jens Sterkel, is a member of one of these German families who have continued the family business since the 19th century. In addition to owning Finca Rosario de Fátima, a coffee Halfwit has been purchasing for three years, the Sterkel family also founded what is now the oldest coffee exporting company in Guatemala, the Camec Corporation. With dwindling commercial export numbers in recent decades, Camec recently merged operations with our partners at TG Lab, consciously shifting to a new specialty emphasis. This combination of quality expertise and international logistics has helped drive growth - TG has seen 500% this year alone - and Joerg himself now runs operational logistics for both companies out of the TG offices in Guatemala City.

Despite the family pedigree, the business of running a coffee farm in Cobán (or anywhere) has never been easy, and may be more difficult now than ever before in the age of global warming. As we confirmed during our damp walk through the fields, Fátima receives four meters of rain per year, more than twice the national average. Being both cool and wet can be a challenge for fighting certain types of plant diseases, and it also makes drying coffee an issue, since there is little sun and a constant risk of rainfall. To combat this, the farm has taken an unorthodox approach. For one, because of the frequent cloud cover, they have very few shade trees, to allow their plants to soak up as much sun as possible. They space their coffee trees out much wider than normal so there are ventilation gaps between rows, which helps to prevent the spread of disease. The trees themselves are an impressive 35-60 years old, mostly Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuaí. Due to all of this, they also fertilize differently, using smaller, more frequent applications and timing them using soil analysis.

Josué Morales (left), our partner at TG Lab, stands with Don Carlos, the manager of Fátima, in front of the farm’s tiny onsite mill.

Josué Morales (left), our partner at TG Lab, stands with Don Carlos, the manager of Fátima, in front of the farm’s tiny onsite mill.

Fátima’s processing style was set up only a few years ago, during the coffee leaf rust crisis that many are still recovering from. TG worked with Don Carlos, the farm manager, to set up this system to their specific microclimate conditions. With fifty years of experience working at Fátima, a respectable length by any measure, Don Carlos is able to identify the healthiest and most productive areas of the farm, cordoning off those that need additional care, and providing a lot-by-lot approach to farm management. By sending samples throughout harvest to TG, the lab provides cupping analysis and technical consulting throughout the year, constantly evaluating the effectiveness of their processing, fertilization, and picking methods. You can see the results when you look around the farm - the trees are a deep, glossy green, with beautiful old growth rings at their trunks and healthy undergrowth.

Lichen-covered trunk of one of the farm’s 60-year old Bourbon trees.

Lichen-covered trunk of one of the farm’s 60-year old Bourbon trees.

It may surprise some readers that all of this goes into a coffee that has been used exclusively as a blender for Halfwit for the past two years. When in season, it is the primary component in our Triforce blend, and a supporting component in our Moonbat blend. We chose it because of its smooth texture, its approachable milk chocolate and caramel sweetness, and its consistency both in the roaster and as a brewed coffee. Finding coffees that have been well processed, are balanced but unique, and won’t break the bank is the holy grail of coffee sourcing. And that’s why we have invested in this relationship so strongly, because every year it has been a bulwark of quality and stability. Visiting only confirmed what we already suspected - a well managed, well loved, and beautiful farm that produces coffee that reflects exactly that.

Truth be told, while we cherish the opportunity to visit our friends and partners at origin, to get our boots dirty (or, in my case, my all-black sneakers that have now gone to shoe heaven) the majority of the work selecting coffees happens in the cupping lab. Tasting this year’s best lots with Josué and the team at TG, I can report with full confidence that this is the best harvest I’ve seen in three years. I look forward to combining the tasting, testing, and experimenting in our roastery with the work done by our partners at origin. Needless to say, we have much to look forward to from Guatemala, this season and many years to come.

Finca Rosario de Fátima. Photo courtesy of InterAmerican Coffee

Finca Rosario de Fátima. Photo courtesy of InterAmerican Coffee