Coffee roasting has long been big business in Omaha.
In 1879, Omahans William A. Paxton and Benjamin Gallagher started a wholesale business that by the turn of the century became known throughout the West for its groceries. One of those products was a coffee brand called “Butternut.”
Though the building that once housed that well-known brand was consumed by fire in 2004, its destruction roughly coincided with a new era of coffee roasting in the Omaha area.
“There has been an incredible number of changes in the 10 years that I have been in this business,” said John Larsen, president of Pear's Gourmet, which roasts coffee for consumers nationwide.
“Coffee has been a growing industry year over year,” said Terry Herr, vice president of field operations at LaRue Coffee & Roasterie.
This year LaRue will service 12,000 clients in 13 states, from convenience stores to business offices. The company also does private-label roasting and packaging for 60 coffee and vending companies.
One of the changes driving the coffee trend, Larsen said, is that people are drinking coffee made from a different species of coffee bean.
Prior to the age of luxury coffeehouses, people drank Robusta coffee. Robusta coffee beans come from plants that can be grown at low altitudes and produce more beans per acre planted than Arabica coffee.
“Starbucks really was a game-changer for us,” Larsen said. “You used to never hear the term Arabica coffee. It was a lot more Robusta.”
Arabica coffee beans must grow at higher elevations in cool, subtropical climates and need a lot of moisture, rich soil, shade and sun. The Arabica beans can be damaged by cold temperatures or poor handling.
Arabica, according to coffee roasters, is a better quality coffee, and people are interested in quality.
“Commodity coffee is like the craft breweries of 10 years ago,” said Chris Smith, owner of Beansmith Coffee. “I think people are looking for the best experience for the buck.”
Commodity coffee refers to the way coffee is traded. The popular term is “fair trade.” Fair trade guarantees coffee growers a set price prior to harvest, as opposed to the more traditional method of setting a price at the end of growing season based on yield.
“There's some countries where coffee farmers will make a dollar a day, on a good day of picking coffee,” Herr said. “That may not be much, but that is their livelihood.”
Fair trade has led to more privately negotiated deals with coffee co-ops around the world. These privately negotiated deals mean that local roasters get a better chance of bringing quality product to the consumers.
Smith, for example, currently sells a very limited quantity of a coffee called Taza Dorada No. 1.
“It's from the Olmedo, Loja region of Equador,” he said. “It won the Taza Dorada No. 1 award. It's a once-a-year award given to the best coffee out of Ecuador. It's pretty honorable to get this coffee.”
How unique is the coffee? Coffee distribution is measured in container loads. A container is about 234 bags of 150 pounds each, for approximately 40,000 pounds in a container. Ecuador annually exports a total of 100 containers of coffee beans. Colombia, by contrast, exports 32,000 containers.
“We were super-excited, even though we got such a small allotment. It's pretty special to us,” Smith said.
Smith, and Beansmith manager of roasting Nick Tabor, both stressed that roasting coffee is a delicate art.
“We are looking to bring in a really high quality of coffee. We want to make it what it can be,” Tabor said.
It starts with the packaging. Larsen and Smith both advocated the Grain Pro bags that are now being used to package coffees, especially Arabica coffees.
“That's a plastic bag that goes inside the burlap sack,” Smith said. “That makes a difference in the freshness of the coffee when it arrives to us, and in how fresh the coffee stays every step along this process.
“When we open the bags of green coffee, it almost smells like fresh-cut grass,” Smith said.
The green coffee is roasted for about 12 minutes, which Smith said is the ideal time to bring out the best in coffees.
Each person's taste in coffee is unique. Herr said he likes the customization available with Arabica coffee.
“If someone comes in and says, 'We like Starbucks Café Verona, we can cup the coffee and grade it, and we can make a blend that is similar to Café Verona that our customers will like,” Herr said. “We ask our customers some questions to qualify what their needs are. We want to know if they like a particular strength, a particular mouth feel or a particular taste.”
“We're pretty big sticklers on detail,” Tabor said. “We want people to have a complete (coffee-drinking) experience, but that has to come in a balanced way. If the coffee is polarized, meaning it could be too light or too dark, the taste could be too acidic or too tart.”
The specialty roasters in the Omaha area know that although there are many factors involved in roasting coffee, they agree on one factor related to drinking it.
“Have fun, enjoy coffee,” Herr said. “We hear the stories of how someone bought a pound of coffee, and they were able to make some memories while drinking it. It allows them to sit down and relax for a while.”