A Field Trip to Millerton
We couldn't truly bridge the gap between the country and the city without interchange of ideas between our New York City cafes and the farmhouse roasting operations upstate in Millerton. We recently sent a field trip of lead baristas, including Liz Dean, from the big city up to Dutchess County to get some hands-on education in what it takes to bring amazing coffee to Hudson Valley, New York City, and beyond. Here are Liz's impressions from our farm.
Most of us who live in cities are far removed from the processes that go into producing what we consume, thanks in part to globalization and the industrialization of agriculture. While that’s widely considered an important and integral part of our societal development, this disconnect also creates a chasm in terms of understanding where and how our food—and in this case, our coffee—comes from. Which means, ultimately, that it can be hard to fully appreciate how much time, energy and love go into producing the cup of coffee you order in the morning and sip, bleary-eyed, as you set out for work.
In order to try and close the gap for our customers, a team of Irving Farm’s lead baristas—myself included—headed out to the farm where we roast our coffee, in Millerton, New York, just an easy two-hour train ride from the city. The purpose of our trip was to connect—or really, to reconnect—our work as baristas, to the work that goes into producing the coffee we serve.
We departed early from Grand Central Terminal—stopping for coffee at our location there, amid the rush of morning commuters, stern in their suits, and the hordes of teenaged European tourists all in matching T-shirts—and arrived at the expansive greenery of the Hudson Valley countryside.
Our roastmaster Clyde Miller greeted us at the train station in his pickup and drove us out to the farm. The actual roasting facilities are inside a renovated barn, and from the outside you’d have no idea what kind of wizardry and science was happening within those walls.
At the farm, Dan Streetman gave us a brief talk on the four phases of roasting, explaining how each of the phases affected the coffee physically and chemically in the process, and how they would affect the way the coffee ultimately tasted.
One of Dan’s jobs at Irving Farm is to select the coffees Irving Farm buys and roasts. He gets sent bags of sample coffees from all over the world, and he conducts small “sample” roasts to determine whether the coffee is something we’d like to carry. Dan let us choose from these bags of samples so that we would have a chance to roast coffee on our own, using the sample roaster.
I selected a bag of coffee from Yemen, only because I’d never had Yemeni coffee before. Some of the other baristas selected their sample coffee based on varietal, or processing style. Dan showed us how to roast on the sample roasters: how to let air in and out of the roaster to either quicken or slow the speed of roasting, and how to adjust the flame in order to control the temperature.
Much like in cooking or baking, there is an important balance between time and temperature—and there’s a line at which something becomes “overdone” and, regardless of the quality to begin with, not nearly as tasty as it could’ve been. Nearly all of Irving Farm’s coffees are roasted to the “sugar browning” phase, or what’s commonly considered a “medium roast”. Quite a few coffees in the world—and many that are used for espresso—make it all the way past “second crack” into the dry distillation phase (where it’s then considered a “dark roast”), and it’s in that territory that not very good coffee can be masked by the darkness of the roast, and where quality coffee can easily lose its more subtle flavors. When Dan and Clyde develop profiles for the coffees we roast, they find the right combination of measurements of time and temperature in order to draw out and produce a particular coffee’s best qualities. A lot of our coffees are light to medium roasts because they’ve found that those roasts are best at highlighting a coffee’s most outstanding features. The process is both an art and a science of precision.
Under Dan’s instructions, I monitored my little sample coffee carefully, checking the color of the beans with a long-handled spoon—listening for the “first crack”, almost like the sound of popcorn popping—and let it roast a little longer before quickly dumping it out to cool. Cooling is an important part of the process—once the coffee reaches its desired roast, it’s important to stop the roasting process at that point immediately. The whole process doesn’t take much more than 10 minutes, but it feels like a lot of work.
And yet, meanwhile, just steps away from me, Clyde goes about his business for the day, filling orders for the stores and for our wholesale accounts, roasting much larger quantities of coffee in the big Diedrich roaster and checking the process carefully on the computer, using data plotted out as a line graph to indicate the coffee’s roast profile. Later, Dan and Clyde will conduct cuppings to taste the coffees they’ve roasted in order to ensure consistency and quality.
The painstaking level of detail that goes into every step of this process is staggering. At the end of the day, holding a small bag of only a few ounces of coffee that I’d roasted felt like an accomplishment, and so to glance around the barn at the 100lb bags of coffee waiting to be roasted, or the huge bins of freshly roasted coffee, or the retail bags awaiting shipment, really drove home just how much energy and time went into the process of making coffee.
The next morning at work, I watched the caramel-colored drip of espresso into a cup and marveled at how small it seemed, how little there was to show for how much had gone into its production. It was kind of grounding, really, to be so aware of the fact that the coffee I held in my hand was simply the final step in a long process of changing hands, and of changing forms… from farm, to farm, to cup.
Having the chance to really experience this process firsthand lends a kind of beauty and honor to what otherwise seems like an ordinary ritual of having a cup of coffee in the morning before you start your day.