The Coffee Roasters: Meet the people behind the beans

click to enlarge ROAST BEAST: Buddy Brew roaster Phillip Holstein listens for "the first crack." - TODD BATES
Todd Bates
ROAST BEAST: Buddy Brew roaster Phillip Holstein listens for "the first crack."

It’s been called “the best part of wakin’ up.” But for Tampa Bay’s coffee roasters, there’s so much more to coffee than meets the mouth.
These folks really know their beans: where they come from, what kind of soil and altitude they’re grown in, and how each kind of bean is harvested.

“I compare coffee to wine,” says Buddy Brew roaster Phillip Holstein. “Each roast has a specific roast profile, not unlike wine. And regionally speaking there’s a terroir.”

What Holstein means is that each bean, just like a wine grape, has a flavor that changes based on a multitude of factors, from elevation to temperature to soil.

Beans arrive at local roasters from the “Bean Belt,” the region between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn where the bulk of coffee plants are grown and harvested. There are single-origin roasts (using just one kind of bean) and blends (combinations of beans not unlike blended wine varieties). Beans are roasted till they crack, called “the first crack”; if the roasting continues past that point, that’s the dividing line between a medium or a dark blend. The longer the roast, the darker the bean, and the less acidic the flavor. 

The beans are then released into an aerated grate to cool. Once they’ve rested awhile, allowing their oils to surface, the beans are bagged and eventually arrive in your cup as brewed coffee.

Ybor City’s Naviera Coffee Mills is the oldest local coffee roaster. Spanish immigrant Carlos Menendez opened the business in 1921, roasting by night and rolling cigars by day. Beans were delivered daily door-to-door via bicycle. The same family still roasts at Naviera today, serving café con leche from their Seventh Avenue El Molino Coffee Shop/roastery (though they couldn’t be reached for comment on this story).

The people that roast pay close attention to everything that happens during each batch.

“It’s a craft as much as it is a job,” says Mazzaro’s owner and roaster Kurt Cuccaro.

The baristas who work for these roasters are craftspeople, too, some of them having been in the business for more than a decade.

Outside of making a good cup of coffee, some roasters are expanding rapidly in hopes of bringing their product to a wider audience (think Starbucks).

“We want to create a big coffee company out of St. Petersburg,” says Kahwa Coffee owner Raphael Perrier. “We want St. Petersburg to be nationally recognized for coffee. There’s a market for food, for arts, and culture right here.”

The ambition to be the next great local coffee roaster has created a healthy sense of competition (a turf war if you like). Luckily, there’s plenty of demand to go around. And since chain roasters like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are limited in the varieties of beans they can use, due to the sheer amount needed to meet their demand, they can’t compete with the locals, who can work with specialty beans from smaller producers like Burundi and India as well as the Big Bean purveyors like Brazil. Our local coffee roasters are comparable to craft beermakers, brewing up their creations in small batches.

In short, local coffee roasters are making coffee blends you won’t find anywhere else. And because they’re roasting closer to home, beans are fresher and the oils (the stuff that makes coffee smell so good) are more potent.

Creative Loafing visited with three leading local roasters — Mazzaro’s Italian Market, Buddy Brew, and Kahwa Coffee — to get the inside scoop on what makes their roasts good to the last drop.

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