[T]here’s often a fear associated with collaboration. A fear that collaboration will force us to share our secrets. A fear that after working together, you’re going to steal my best practices and then, suddenly, I’m none the wiser.
Collaboration has the opposite effect on me. I believe that collaboration breeds innovation.
In the coffee industry, all parties are better served when the industry progresses, when remarkable things occur. If another coffee roaster creates outside the box—such as Counter Culture Coffee partnering with J. Crew on the Cortado shoe or Kickapoo Coffee Roasters releasing their very transparent minimum price guarantee—our entire industry is in the news. Specialty coffee is still so new to so many people that being creative, newsworthy, and fresh is a bonus.
The coffee industry is so dynamic, from farming, to brewing, and everywhere in between, that there’s an infinite number of things to learn. I operate my business in a way that forces us to innovate in order to sell coffee differently.
Another industry near and dear to my heart is the craft beer business. In so many ways, specialty coffee is following the trends of craft beer. Studying the beer industry gives me inspiration for innovation, and one thing the beer industry does very well is collaboration.
One great example is Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, who recently opened a second brewery location in Asheville, North Carolina (just a two-hour drive from our roastery in Davidson). Their Beer Camp series is rooted in collaborations with other brewing companies. I entered 2017 trying to mimic the fundamental belief that we stand more to gain by working with competitors (for lack of a better word) than we stand to lose by sharing our secrets and profits.
Why are beer companies excited to brew together, share a label, and share the attention, but coffee companies are hesitant to partner on roasting?
In 2017, Summit Coffee Roasters took on two collaboration projects. On a smaller scale, Summit teamed up with Greenville, South Carolina’s Methodical Coffee for a co-branded roast: Mixed Company. On a grander scale, Summit partnered with S&D Coffee and Tea, one of the largest private label roasters in the United States, to help them with a smaller-scale specialty project.
Will Shurtz, the roaster and co-owner of Methodical, and I shared enthusiasm in creating something unique to coffee. We’re both relatively green coffee roasters—Summit started its roasting operation in 2015, Methodical in 2016. And since we’re a mere 100 miles door-to-door, we find ourselves lobbying for some of the same wholesale accounts. But Will and I, and our teams as a whole, are learners. We want to converse and interact, cup and brew side by side, and leave the day knowing more about coffee.
Logistically, we knew a post-roast blend was our best option, so for starters we wanted to put everything on the table. Literally. Summit brought our five single-origin coffees, Will put four of his on the table, and we cupped everything together. Our party of five then spent an hour mixing and blending, then brewing on different devices, trying to nail down the right coffee.
The trick with good blending is to make something better than each of its parts, which is so hard to do. Our 50/50 solution, ultimately, added depth to our natural Ethiopian and added bright acidity to Methodical’s washed Colombian.
Out of this exercise came Mixed Company, and a working friendship. I learned plenty from Will, as a coffee roaster and as a coffee professional, and he learned plenty from us.
For our second project, S&D reached out to us to roast their coffee for the America’s Best Cold Brew competition at Coffee Fest. The company has access to tremendous coffee, and also has a super talented team. They do not, however, have a roasting machine or operation small enough to tackle this project.
S&D’s Steven Lim worked alongside Summit’s Evan Pollitt, our director of coffee, in each step of this project. Just as we would for our own profiles, Steven and Evan partnered to source the right coffee, then nail down its profile on our sample roaster, 300 grams at a time.
With Evan’s knowledge of coffee and the roast profile, and Steven’s engineering background, we then transferred the roast to a production machine and made tweaks along the way to give S&D exactly what they were looking for in their finished cold-brew product.
As I’ve written about in Fresh Cup, I’m a firm believer in making the jump from good to great; settling for the former is often the enemy of this process. And as part of this, we cannot stop learning. We can take classes and read literature, for weeks and weeks, and there’s value in that. But ultimately, learning side-by-side in collaboration with other coffee professionals is how our industry will continue to innovate.
—Brian Helfrich is a regular contributor to Fresh Cup and co-owner of Summit Coffee Roasters.