Coffee Roasting Operation Launched out of Actual Brewing Company
We first learned about the Actual Brewing Company about a year ago and found out they had plans to start brewing beer in a warehouse out by the airport with an eye on an eventual Downtown brewpub location. Not only are those plans all still moving forward, but the business plan also expanded to include coffee roasting in the mix under the name of the Actual Roastery.
We spoke recently with Actual’s chief coffee roaster Jason Montgomery to find out more. Our full Q&A is below:
Q: First, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background as it relates to coffee?
A: The earliest I remember drinking coffee was back when I was a junior in the Battelle Science program at Fort Hayes Metro High School here in Columbus. We had a student lounge that always had a pot of coffee going and we’d sit in class and pound coffee while we learned the finer points of calculus, physics, computer science, and chemistry. Back then it was more about caffeine delivery and I required a lot of powdered creamer and heaps of sugar… gross.
Through college I’d spend many evenings out at places around Columbus like Insomnia, Arabica, The Blue Danube, or Hound Dogs and study and hang out with friends and consume copious amounts of coffee. This was before there were coffee shops on every corner so the concept that coffee quality was a thing wasn’t even on my radar – coffee was good but it wasn’t exceptional. After I graduated from high school I started working at a software company and was in school full time studying electronics engineering. Coffee is what got me through each day alert and motivated to spend more time up late with my obsessions building software and hacking computers.
Fast forward many years later to around 2005 when I learned I could roast small batches (about 1/4 pound) of coffee in an old modified $5 pop corn popper acquired from the thrift store. I did the math and thought “Wow, I can save some money and just roast my own coffee.” – a simple math equation that had nothing to do with flavor at the time. What I didn’t expect was to find that the cups of coffee I had been buying out were basically stale beans that didn’t have anywhere near the depth and richness of the coffee I was roasting and brewing at home. It was good… really good. Cranking out 1/4 pound batches of coffee was not nearly enough capacity for my personal consumption so I looked into buying my own five pound coffee roaster because I really wanted to share it with others as well. They were surprisingly expensive, so in 2006, with a little research, I hacked together a one pound coffee roaster out of other things – a West Bend Stir Crazy pop corn popper combined with a Sunpentown Turbo Oven, a temperature probe, and a timer, and about 5 trips to Lowe’s. For a little less than $100 I was up and running and really happy with the results – and I occasionally would give out coffee I roasted but didn’t have the capacity to consider selling it.
I started sinking money into all kinds of different brewing contraptions when I started chasing that perfect cup of coffee. I learned that there were many things that went into a cup – from geographical location, how they farmed and processed the coffee, seasonality, roasting techniques and levels, to grinding and brewing standards – including the importance of water quality, temperature, extraction time and weighing every single part of the process from brew to cup. If any one of these steps is subpar the output will be subpar… garbage-in garbage out. I bought drip machines, vacuum pots, french presses, aero-presses, espresso machines, Chemex, pour-overs, scales, automatic and hand grinders and the results have been exceptional.
Q: So then what eventually drew you to opening a coffee roastery in collaboration with Actual Brewing?
A: Fred Lee and I were working together at our day jobs and became really good friends a few years ago. I used to crash at his place some weekends. He really got me into beer and taught me the basics of brewing. I’d watch Fred, Rob, and Max brew and on occasion I’d help them out with menial tasks. I remember brewing my first batch of beer on this really scorching day in July 2011 in German Village on what is now the Actual Brewing pilot system. Fred and I would often work on projects together – converting chest freezers to kegerators, building micro-controlled brew stands among other things – it was a real bromance. I watched Fred, Rob, and Max’s passion for brewing beer develop and gain all kinds of momentum and turn into this amazing company that I really believed in. These guys were motivated, incredibly knowledgeable about beer, and had this drive and passion that was contagious and their beer shows it.
One day we were sitting around drinking beers and I was conveying how delicious freshly roasted coffee is but they hadn’t actually ever experience it so I made a comment “I’m goanna buy a coffee roaster!” and Fred said – “DO IT.”
That was pretty much it. I purchased a roaster and had it shipped and we had it up and running in a week. They welcomed coffee into the fold under the Actual brand and we share space, ideas, equipment and this massive brain trust – it’s really great to be able to have all these resources available – but even with those resources available I knew I couldn’t make the coffee happen by myself. They were in the business of making beer, coffee was my gig. At the time I was thinking “I’m a single dad with so many kids and a few jobs and my life wasn’t going to get any less busy how am I going to make this work.” I needed someone I trusted who knew coffee well, who would care about the quality of our products and could not only put up with this really interesting group of people but also fit in – it was a pretty tall order. I tapped Jen Ryan to help me get the coffee operational and I am not disappointed.
Q: Would you say there are similar themes between brewing beer and roasting coffee?
A: Definitely. Beer comes in many different styles from light lagers, amber colored to the dark stouts. The difference in colors and some of the flavors in these beers is a result of roasting malts and/or barley. This heating process triggers a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction which is most noticed by changes to the color, smell, and flavor. It’s the same kind of chemical reaction when you see during the browning of the crust when baking bread, not unlike caramelization – a slightly different chemical reaction that can have similar result on color and flavor. Not dissimilar to beer, roasting coffee causes the Milliard reaction changing the chemical structure, color, and flavor of the bean.
Roasting malts and barley influence the color and flavor in beer just as the roast level of coffee affects the final coffee beverage in very significant ways. Higher quality coffees favor a lighter roast because the natural flavors present in the bean are more desirable to some – those interesting flavors exist naturally in the bean at a lighter roast. If you roast darker, the Milliard reaction changes the chemical structure itself and creates some more common roasty flavors arguably destroying what made that high quality bean unique to begin with. Though, one could argue that a higher quality bean roasted darker would still taste better than a lower quality bean roasted at the same level…and they’re probably not wrong.
Part of the art of roasting coffee is trying to find that sweet spot where a particular coffee makes the most impact on your taste buds in the most pleasant of ways – essentially us roasters are saying, “Trust me, I know how this roasted coffee bean from this farm tastes best.” The really cool thing about life is that everyone is different – what we believe to be the most delicious roast level for a particular bean may be different than another roasters perfect level… and the customer may have a completely different perspective as well and really all of that is that’s okay with me.
As an aside, a common follow-up question we typically get is if we also roast the barley and malts for our beer. The answer right now is no but I hope to be able to experiment with this in the future – we’ll see.
Q: What type of beans are you utilizing in your roasts and where are you sourcing them?
A: Actual Roastery focuses on mico-lots of single origin coffee. Essentially, this means the green coffee beans come from one farm and is not a blend of coffee from different farms. It doesn’t mean I won’t do a blend or don’t like blends, but I’ve had my mind blown with the single origin coffee over the years so I favor it. This means Actual’s coffee offering is constantly changing in really good ways since the farm from one batch to the next might be different.
It’s also important to make sure the farmers are getting their fair share of the money for their delicious product instead of some distributor in the middle. Whether that’s through Fair Trade or Farm Gate or other similar programs – most of the coffee I buy comes from these programs when available. I’m also currently reaching out directly to farmers I’ve been introduced to in Central America as well so I hope to be able to work directly with some coffee farms when it makes sense.
Jen and I just put on an event at Actual Brewing that featured four different coffee from different farms in Central America. All the coffee was a hit and we sold out pretty fast. The response and support was very encouraging to see, so keep an eye out for similar events in the future. Today I received a shipment of African coffee from farms in Burundi, Rwanda, and Kenya. I’m really excited to use some of it in the 12 hour cold drip system as well as cold press coffee with plans to bottle for the spring & summer. I’m also finalizing orders for Indonesian and other Central American coffee as well so keep an eye out for these on the shelf.
Q: Personally, what do you think makes the perfect type of coffee?
A: I love hand-grinding my coffee and making a pour-over. I’m pretty busy so this coffee ritual forces me slow down and relax for a minute in the morning before the daily rush. With the pour-over I get to interact more with the brewing process and can really tell a lot about a coffee through this process before even tasting it.
Q: Where are you currently selling coffee so that our readers are able to try it out?
A: Actual Brewing just soft launched coffee in both Hill’s Market Downtown and the original Worthington location, and at Weiland’s Gourmet Market. We are talking with other retail outlets and grocers and plan to be available in more stores soon. We have even provided coffee services at demos, private events, public events and also sell beans out of the brewery. People love to stop by to pick up orders and take a first hand look at our operation.
Q: Any other big plans on the horizon for Actual?
A: Actual Brewing has signed a lease on a Downtown building on Main Street next to Zettler Hardware. This will become not only a Brew Pub, but also a Cafe and Roastery. We’re working with our architect now and will start the build out soon. We’re also looking to quadruple our roast capacity in the next month so that is pretty exciting news as well.
More information can be found online at www.actualbrewing.com.
Photos by Jen Ryan.
From March 17th to March 23rd, Columbus Underground is celebrating Coffee Week! Throughout the week, we’ll be taking a look at various coffee shops, roasters, brands, businesses and the people that contribute to this rapidly growing local movement. Coffee Week 2013 is sponsored by Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea, providing handcrafted coffee to Columbus, OH since 1991. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter for more information.