Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell of Equator Coffees and Tea got into the coffee business fifteen years ago with two retail coffee shops in San Francisco and Oakland. After three years of rising with the sun, they decided it was time to switch gears. They wanted to have more control over the roasting process and be transparent about the way it was done--something that wasn't happening in the industry at the time. Today, Equator Coffees and Teas has a 50-acre farm in the highlands of Volcan, Panama that they've lovingly named Finca Sofia. Finca translates to "farm" and Sofia to "wisdom," something both women knew they'd need a great deal of to pull off their most recent venture. On the farm, they're raising coffee trees and building worker housing for the farmers. It happens to be the highest farm in Central America--not something that's common for coffee growers because altitude doesn't always bode well for coffee crops. But Russell and McDonnell have never been ones to follow a crowd. They're risk-takers, innovators, and patient observers. And once you've tasted Equator's coffee, it becomes quite clear it has all paid off in the end.
Founders Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell
With Finca Sofia, the folks at Equator are learning how to produce coffee from the ground up, literally. There are currently around 25,000 trees—but no fruit. That's right. The trees take five years to yield any fruit, so the company has about two more years to go until they see a yield. But both women know that the hard work and waiting will eventually pay off: "It's our contribution to perpetuity," McDonnell explains. And with the farm they're taking a step back and really coming full circle. They've worked the retail side of the business, they've done the roasting, and now they're able to see the impact that the farmer and the land has on the entire process. It's a big, exciting step.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the roasting plant and meet the team, see the facility, and do a cupping to learn about the nuances of roast and flavor.
Equator Coffee's San Rafael Roastery
Equator has three roasters at the San Rafael plant: One Loring Smart Roaster, one San Franciscan, and one little Petrocini for smaller batches. Whenever possible and appropriate for the batch size, they fire up the Loring as it uses 80% less energy than other roasters of its size and capacity. What I didn't realize was that each batch is computerized and programmed to achieve the perfect roast. This is also useful because if, after a tasting, they decide to tweak the roasting time to achieve a different flavor, they can go back and do so easily. It was more scientific and precise than I'd expected. And I suppose it'd have to be to achieve the incredible nuances of flavor that you find with each bag of Equator coffee.
After seeing the roasters in action, David Pohl, the green coffee buyer and co-manager of Sofia Finca led a coffee cupping. Pohl explained that they like to do 2-4 cuppings a day to taste for flavor variations and consistency. And they always try to have a purpose for the cuppings, whether it's tasting all Sumatras or Indonesian coffees.
How to Set-Up a Coffee Cupping:
1) Grind the coffee and divide equally into cups.
2) Blind label each coffee (Pohl used the back of business cards).
3) Smell the dry coffee to get an initial impression.
4) Mix wet: pour hot water over the grinds and skim the top to get rid of the foam.
5) Sample from each glass using a spoon. Sip quickly. Dip spoon in hot water in between samples.
David Pohl (bottom right) Leading a Coffee Cupping
After the cupping, we went around the table and talked about the four samples. Listening to McDonnell talk about flavors is like listening to a chef talk about subtleties in spices or ingredients. She captures the smallest nuances and can speak at length about them--words like cedar, oak, bright, citrus, and berry fluttered around the table. When we were finished, the Rwanda Komera was the overwhelming favorite with notes of orange and vanilla.
The world of coffee is changing quickly and, for a company that's been around for fifteen years, it must be difficult at times to keep up. But both McDonnell and Russell are excited about the constant changes. Micro lots and small platform brewing are ultimately all good for the industry because they're attracting a new and different kind of interest. And Third-wave coffee is getting more and more attention as audiences become more receptive to specialty roasters and elevated prices. And Equator's continuing to grow along with the best of them, slowly but surely and steadily.
There are certainly challenges, like training the staff at cafes that carry Equator coffee to make a proper cup and maintain certain standards. As they grow, this is tough. But since they're adamant about expanding slowly and maintaining relationships with everyone in the process, from the farmer to the owners of the cafes carrying their beans, I have a feeling only good things are to come.
Get Some: Equator has an ever-changing list of fabulous micro lots for sale on their website.
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(Images: Megan Gordon)