By DILLON KATO
When Matt McQuilkin and Jim Chapman first told their friends that they would be opening a premium coffee roaster in Missoula in the midst of a weak economy, the reaction was almost universal: Are you crazy?
More than 18 months after opening the doors of Black Coffee Roasting Company, after developing coffee blends with beans from all over the world and distribution deals with more than a dozen local businesses, they can safely answer they are not.
“We believed that it would work out, but the has just been more than we could have ever suspected,” Chapman said.
Before starting BCRC, McQuilkin and Chapman worked together at the Good Food Store, but each had been mulling the idea of opening a roasting house in Missoula. They had independently gone so far as to enroll in the same coffee roasting course. McQuilkin said that when they told one another of their plans, teaming up seemed natural.
“The start-up costs were a little daunting, and we felt that it would be hard to both try to do this at the same time, so we spent about a year writing a business plan together,” he said.
After securing funding from Missoula Federal Credit Union, Black Coffee opened August 2010. It has remained fairly small, with only seven employees counting Chapman and McQuilkin.
But it was a small group that took coffee roasting seriously. They said it is like trying to solve a puzzle.
Consider it the America’s Test Kitchen of coffee. They roast each type of bean an average of 15 to 20 different ways, keeping track of every variable along the way, everything from the time and temperature to the volume of beans.
“So the difference between two types of coffee might come down to the heat curve,” McQuilkin said, “some coffee likes a little heat at the beginning of the roasting and then ramping it way up right at the end, as opposed to others that do better with a more regular temperature.”
Throughout much of the 1990s and the 2000s, Chapman and McQuilkin said, American coffee trended toward very dark roasting, with companies like Starbucks leading the way. In recent years drinkers have sought lighter roasts, which allows companies like BCRC to experiment more with flavors.
For Chapman, complex questions of flavor are nothing new having worked in the wine industry for several years.
“Coffee for Matt and I is like bread, it should be fresh, and when you buy really fresh bread you can instantly tell the difference,” he said.
Black Coffee puts the roast date on all of their coffee bags so that customers know how fresh their beans are.
But selling coffee directly to customers is only a part of their business; BCRC also has developed deals with coffee shops like Zoo City Brew and stores like Le Petit Outre to serve its coffee.
One of BCRC’s largest partnership deals is with the UC Market at the University of Montana.
Tyler Swank, an assistant manager at the Market who handles its buying, said the deal was a natural one.
“We find that stuff that’s made in Montana, or even better locally in Missoula, comes fresher and it will contain less preservatives. Sometimes we can get it at a better price, and all those things are good for students,” Swank said.
He said that the UC Market now goes through about 100 pounds of beans during an average school week, with 70 pounds of that being espresso. Now, the store cycles between serving the BCRC Mexico blend and a roast called Vinyl, created especially for The Market.
But BCRC’s gain was another Montana company’s loss.
“We lost a bit of Montana Coffee Traders, which we had used heavily before,” Swank said. “[W]e made a decision that we wanted to give another local company that was based here in Missoula a boost.”
Last fall, Black Coffee decided to add a special roast to its mix, paying for a batch of beans from El Salvador that had been given the coveted international Cup of Excellence award. Each year a Cup of Excellence competition is held in each of the membership countries of the Alliance of Coffee Excellence, where specially trained judges cup — the technical term for judging coffee — offerings from various farms around that nation. At the end, the top finishers are branded Cup of Excellence coffee, and are sold at a large premium to import companies from other nations.
Chapman said that demand for the Cup of Excellence coffee was high after BCRC teased its availability on Facebook, where it keeps fans up to date on the goings-on at the shop.
“It’s a specialty coffee sure, but it’s also limited, and one of the best in the world. People wanted it,” he said.
Jon Lewis, the Membership Liaison for Cup of Excellence, a four-person operation based in Missoula, said that, partly because of the premium price, most of the coffee ends up in the hands of small roasters like Black Coffee.
According to the International Coffee Organization, the United States uses almost 22,000 150-pound bags of coffee each year, more than any other single country. That means the average American drinks nine pounds worth of coffee beans annually. And those numbers have been steadily increasing.
Although only a fraction of that is high-end coffee like that roasted by BCRC, Lewis said that he hopes the movement of people caring about where the source of their food comes to mean more people discover that coffee is more than just something to get you up in the morning. It is small-batch roasters, he said, that are pioneering that shift.
“I think that a lot of the small roasters will only go up from here, introducing people to a new taste. Wine has paved the way, beer followed, and I think that coffee is the next great craft and artisan thing that people are going to discover,” Lewis said.
Chapman and McQuilkin agree. Where wine, they said, has a few hundred flavor indicators, coffee has 1,000.
And they plan to solve the puzzle of each and every one.