Not Your Average Cup of Joe
A D.C. coffee chemist chats about his quest for the perfect roast and the community he built along the way.
We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 5, Episode 7.
In this episode of Working, Slate’s Rachel Gross talks to Joel Finkelstein about the roasting plant and coffee shop, Qualia Coffee, he owns and runs in Petworth, Washington, D.C. How did a health care journalist get hooked on the coffee roasting lifestyle? Joel spills the beans.
Plus, is coffee roasting something you can do yourself at home? In a bonus segment exclusively for Slate Plus members, Joel talks us through the roasting process, step by step.
Rachel Gross: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Rachel Gross, a writer for Slate who covers science and food. For today’s episode, we’re talking with someone who brings people a heightened state of consciousness in liquid form. What’s your name and what do you do?
Joel Finkelstein: Joel Finkelstein. I’m a coffee roaster at Qualia Coffee in Petworth, D.C.
Gross: What is the first thing you do when you come in the door at work?
Finkelstein: Well, usually I pet Stewie and give him some food. But the first thing I’ll do is start the roaster. The roaster takes about 25 minutes to warm up. So, the first thing we do when we walk in the door is vacuum it out and then start it up and get that going. Then we’ll check inventory, make a list of things I need to roast that day, and then make a list of things that need to get stocked on the shelf. And then, of course, after that the first thing I do is make a cup of coffee. So, nothing happens without coffee here, right? So, I’ll pick a cup of coffee to brew up and maybe grab some grab some food to get me through the morning.
And then it’s just a matter of roasting and bagging and continuing to check inventory. Making sure of the inventory that we have, in terms of green coffee. We constantly have coffee coming in every week or two to replenish what we’ve roasted the week before. We roast probably 1,500 pounds a month of coffee. That’s about 10 bags.
So, we have to constantly bring more coffee in. And a big part of that, honestly, is talking to our vendors, getting samples, which we roast as well, and then trying those samples out and figuring out what we want to order.
Gross: So, back to your morning. So, you pet Stewie, you’ve made your cup of coffee, you’re starting to roast. Can you tell me a little bit about what goes into that? Are customers coming by a lot? You mentioned there’s a big education component to it.
Finkelstein: Right. So, part of our philosophy is to make people more informed about where their coffee comes from. And so, process is very important, and the roastery is completely open. A lot of people will peak their heads back and say, can we come back here? And we’re like, yep, just come on back. It’s open. Or they’ll be heading on their way to the patio and they’ll say, what’s going on here? So, we’re constantly answering questions about the roasting process. How long does it take? How much are you roasting? That’s what green coffee looks like?
So, we’re always answering those questions. And it’s pretty revealing about the coffee industry up until now in terms of people’s knowledge or lack thereof of where coffee comes from. So, we have a lot of opportunity to educate people. Over the years, we’ve learned how to better educate people while avoiding lecturing, which is really important.
I think the coffee industry has gotten really good at lecturing people. And hopefully, over time we’re getting better at educating people.
Gross: Interesting. So, how long does the roasting process take? And about how much do you make in one day?
Finkelstein: The roasting process itself takes generally 17 or 18 minutes. Another four or five minutes to cool it down, to bring it back to room temperature.
So, we budget about two roasts an hour, which means we can roast up to 12 or 13 pounds an hour. And we do at least six roasts a day. We never do less than six roasts, and we can do up to 14, 18 roasts a day. Just depending on what we’re preparing for. A batch of coffee comes out as around six pounds, generally. So, that’s eight bags for us. We’re producing about 16 bags an hour. And we’re doing that for about four or five hours a day.
Gross: So, after that it’s already afternoon. What does the rest of your day look like?
Finkelstein: I’ll get my next cup of coffee at that point. A lot of afternoons we’re cupping. So, we’re actually going through the process of assessing the coffees that either we want to buy or coffees that we have on the shelf and we need to see if the roasting is going well.
Then I will often respond to emails. We get a lot of requests, either to do events, or for restaurants, or whatever it is. We get lots of different kind of varied requests as a small business. And so, I’m doing a lot of emails like everybody else, ordering things, cups or whatever. And paperwork and all the good things that go along with running a small business.
But generally, we’re training staff. We do a lot of staff trainings. Once a month, we have a staff training that usually ends up being a pizza and beer party. But we’re also bringing new staff and training them on the particular coffees that we have right then, or on espresso techniques.
Tomorrow, I’m going up to New York to meet with farmers. I’ve actually met with farmers this week already.
Gross: What do you meet with them for?
Finkelstein: I mean, for us, that’s where we get our education. So, that’s where we learn more about what they’re doing. There’s so much going on in the flavor of coffee, and we only have a limited about of control over that. So, we can control the roasting process, we can control the brewing process. But without careful work in the growing, and harvesting, and processing of the coffee, it leaves very little room for us to do anything if that’s not done properly.
Meeting with farmers is a great way of learning more about the agricultural process, more about what they face in growing coffee and preparing it for us. As well as an opportunity to give them insight into what our experience is and how they might change their process to appeal to us better.
Gross: Right. And you care about each step in the process and you’re very invested in the origins of coffee. Can you explain why it’s important for you to have single origin coffee, to people that would not know what that meant?
Finkelstein: Sure. It’s not the right or wrong way of doing things. It’s just for me coffees are very much like wine or like a single-barrel whiskey or something like that, where what makes it interesting isn’t necessarily that that taste appeals to my palate, although it generally does, but the variety. The variety of flavors.
So, the idea of drinking the same coffee every day would drive me crazy. Like, I drink probably three or four different types of coffee a day. And if they all tasted the same, it wouldn’t be very interesting. So, the consequences of origin and genetics and processing has a big impact on what I taste in the cup. There’s a lot of different variables involved, more than you can really manage to control all of those. But at the end of the day, it’s the experience.
Gross: I was thinking, when you were saying that it would be boring to drink four of the same cups of coffee a day, yet there’s this culture where it’s like, wake up, need my caffeine fix. Need to get it in me, through an IV, any way, stand in line at Starbucks. Do you think most of your customers do appreciate that nuance and complexity?
Finkelstein: I think most of our customers can appreciate that nuance. One of the premises I started with with this business is that everyone can appreciate good coffee. All I can do is put it out there for people to appreciate.
You know, we open the door. And then it’s just up to them to walk through. But yeah, you can’t force it on them.
Gross: Is there a danger that they can’t go back and you’re turning people into coffee snobs?
Finkelstein: Well, hopefully. Yeah, that’s hopefully what we’re doing. I mean, but I think the reality is that there’s a lot of really bad coffee out there. And the reason that there is a lot of bad coffee out there is because people don’t know what good coffee is. And so, if they think this is what coffee is and they’ve been drinking it their whole lives, then they’re never going to demand better, right?
And a lot of places take advantage of that fact. They just produce a very low level of quality. And they can get away with it because people don’t say this is not worth my money.
Gross: From the consumer side, what if I’m happy in my ignorance that the dirty water that Starbucks serves and calls an espresso is good enough? Why would I want to change that?
Finkelstein: That’s fine. I mean, I have no problem. If you like dark roasted coffee, that’s great.
You know, that works for you. But if you’re closed to the experience, if you don’t try something different, then you don’t have an informed understanding of what you’re drinking. And that’s unfortunate.
Starbucks isn’t horrible in terms of the coffee that they’re accessing. I mean, if you go to a lot of other places that have the 99 cent cup of coffee, you’re very likely accessing coffee that harms the farmers. And so, I do have a problem with that from a social perspective. Given the amount of work that goes into producing coffee, 99 cents just doesn’t cover it.
Gross: Right. So, definitely let’s talk about the coffee world. But first, one more question about your day. What’s the last thing you do in your day here?
Finkelstein: Well, it goes back to feeding Stewie, usually before I leave.
But, the funny thing is, I don’t take bags of coffee home. I’m surrounded by coffee all the time, so I have very little coffee in my house. So, usually one of the last things I do is make sure that I have enough coffee to make a pot of coffee in the morning before I leave for work.
Gross: Priorities. That’s important. So, you were talking about the coffee world, which you clearly know a lot about. Can we talk about how you got into this? You were a health care journalist. Was there some moment when you decided you were really interested in coffee?
Finkelstein: Yeah. I was one of those caffeine delivery coffee drinkers. I drank coffee in the morning because I needed to wake up. And there was a certain moment where I actually got to experience fresh coffee. And I think, in retrospect, that coffee wasn’t the best roasted. It wasn’t a great roast. But the difference because that coffee had been roasted recently was huge. It was just eye-opening that coffee would actually taste good, you know.
It didn’t have to be something you like added milk and sugar to make it palatable. It wasn’t a complex coffee. It was just enjoyable the way it was. And then I started reading more about it and learning about how complex it is, how many different flavor compounds are potentially in there. This was ten years ago when, honestly D.C. was kind of a coffee wasteland.
There was one good coffee shop in D.C., which is no longer here. And there was just nowhere else to go. So, while I availed myself of that one coffee shop, it didn’t give you a lot of variety. So, that led me to start roasting at home.
Gross: So, when you’re going out and deciding that you want to try home roasting, how did you get a sense of the flavors that you did like and the methods you like? How do you figure out how to home roast?
Finkelstein: There’s a lot of burning of coffee in the process. Usually what I recommend to people who are starting out is to burn it. Like, because without seeing the whole process through, it’s really had to say where you want to stop the roasting process. A lot of it is actually burning coffee to begin with, just so you can see the whole process through, and then decide where in that process you want to stop roasting.
Gross: So, a lot of trial and error.
Finkelstein: Yeah. A lot of trial and error. With an air roaster, you’re probably roasting like maybe half a cup’s worth of coffee. Not a lot of coffee. So, even if you wanted to roast a week’s worth of coffee, you’d probably be doing half a dozen roasts. So, that’s what we do here too, honestly. The benefit of doing small batches is you get a lot of iteration. You get a lot of experience roasting, because you’re roasting everything in small batches. If I was roasting four times as much coffee, we could have far less experience with the roasting process.
Gross: Right. And I love the analogies you use for people who don’t understand or know about the roasting process. The idea that it can be made kind of like popcorn, and there’s this first crack when the bean opens up. And if you’re doing a dark roast, you’re kind of searing it like a steak and kind of flattening the flavors. Would that be correct?
Finkelstein: Yeah. So, those oils are moving out of the surface, and at some point you’re actually carbonizing the sugars. What you’re getting is carbon. You’re getting a carbon note from the roasting process, which is pretty distinctive and pretty bold.
It’s pretty pronounced. So, it does tend to overwhelm a lot of the coffee’s natural flavor. So, even if you are able to do a dark roast where you’re preserving the natural flavors, when you roast it darker you expand it more. So, the CO2 offgases much faster and that protection leaves the coffee much earlier.
Gross: So, you’re clearly very into kind of the technical and the science side of coffee. Were you always into that aspect when you started home roasting?
Finkelstein: Even though I used to cover health care policy, I actually started out on the science side. So, I did a lot of medical research coverage. And I studied physics and mathematics in college. So, I have a penchant for the technical aspects of it.
I think my feeling has always been that the technical and the more aesthetic qualities—you need to find a balance between those two things. Because while we do a lot of data collection in the roasting process, we’re still doing all of the roasting by hand. And I think, you know, that the data, the information, the statistics are all great, but they need to be put in the context of human experience.
Gross: And you have a very clear vision for the kind of coffee experience you want to bring with Qualia. When in your home roasting process did you realize you wanted to do something bigger with that?
Finkelstein: Once I got a better understanding of the potential coffee had, I started looking around to access that. And not really finding a good source, or sources for it, started roasting at home. So, at some point after I was doing that for a while, I realized, hey, maybe other people are looking for this.
So, I actually built a home roaster at that point, which was basically a barbecue grill. They often have like a rotisserie attachment. And you would put a drum in that rotisserie attachment so you could turn it, turn it like you would with a drum roaster downstairs and roast the coffee that way. So, that was my first commercial roaster. I started taking coffee to the markets around D.C.
Gross: So, what did you learn by taste testing it at farmer’s markets?
Finkelstein: That was a great. That was a really informative experience for me—there was two parts of it that were really informative for me. First of all, I was constantly improving the roaster that I built. I was learning about the roasting process by improving the roaster. That if I added a bigger motor so the drum turned faster, that would change the roasting process, for example.
The second thing I realized was I considered myself a roaster. So, I would go to these markets and I would try to sell coffee beans. And you know, at least half of the customers would be like, well, can I get a cup of coffee?
So, what I quickly realized was, if I just wanted to sell beans, I would have a very limited market. But if I wanted to sell brewed coffee, that that would really open up the field to me to maintain kind of the scale I wanted to maintain and yet still hit a much wider mark. In terms of people’s experience with the coffee and people who have never had good coffee before.
If I could not only sell them the beans but I could brew them a cup of coffee that was a new experience for them, then it was a much higher value. So, the farmer’s markets really is where I figured, I want to open up a coffee shop, I don’t want to just open up a roasting operation.
Gross: What would be the benefit of opening an actual storefront?
Finkelstein: Part of it is economics. If I sell a pound of coffee on my shelf, I sell it for about $16, $17. If I sell a pound of coffee as brewed coffee at $2 a pop, it’s more like $50.
In any food business, the more you process something, the higher the profit margin is. And if I was a wholesaler, if I was just selling beans, it’s very much about a volume business. I have to sell a lot more coffee to make a profit doing it.
By selling both the brewed coffee and the beans side by side, I can maintain a lower profit margin, but I can also sell less coffee and maintain the freshness that I thought was really key to roasting the way I wanted to roast.
Gross: What were the first steps that it took to start opening a storefront?
Finkelstein: Well, finding the space obviously. The space is kind of perfect for us, honestly.
Gross: Tell me about the space.
Finkelstein: Well, I live in Petworth. So, not having to commute was a big part of it. And when I was going downtown to work, I would take the bus past this building all the time.
Gross: Can you describe the space a little bit?
Finkelstein: It’s an old row house. There’s a fire place. There’s original wood pine floors, which are pretty eaten up at this point. So, it’s definitely got that warm, homey, kind of cozy aspect to it. And it’s probably 18 feet wide, which makes it very cozy. It’s just a nice little row house with all the wood accents and metal radiators and lots of wood and marble.
Gross: So, finding the place was probably first. How about actually getting it? And maintenance? What other challenges?
Finkelstein: Well, so that’s one of those things—I’m not a big believer in fate, but right around the time I started this whole process of thinking about opening a coffee shop, a big old rent sign went up in front.
So, the owner of the building, just an individual who, honestly, if it had been a different situation, a lot of people wouldn’t have rented to me, not having business experience or a big bankroll to finance this project. I got lucky. It was someone who had been baking for a while, wanted to rent it and was willing to take my personal guarantee. It was just really good timing. And it’s just a nice space.
We have these French doors we open in the summer. It just lets all the air in, which is good because the air conditioner doesn’t work very well. And then we have the space in back where we can do the roasting. And right now we have a pretty nice patio too.
Gross: Is there anything that people often misunderstand about running a coffee shop?
Finkelstein: Well, that by building a community you’re going to make money. As much as we love our regular customers, they’re our least valuable customers. I have people come in every day, and they buy a cup of coffee or they buy a bagel, and that’s great because over time they’re spending a lot of money here. But we have to balance that out with people who come in and buy a bag of coffee, a latte, and walk out the door. A lot of times people come in, buy a small cup of coffee, and spend three or four hours.
Gross: Is that annoying? Because I do that.
Finkelstein: It’s hard to sustain. It’s hard for us to sustain. And it really is a balancing act in terms of providing that sort of space for people to do their work at a low cost, but also having to pay our rent.
I mean, I did it when I was a journalist. I freelanced for the last three years of my job, and I would constantly go to coffee shops, buy a cup of coffee, and work for three hours.
Gross: And a lot of people in this neighborhood probably do.
Finkelstein: We have been open every day for the past three years. We’re open 365 days a year. We roast 364 days a year. People are pretty surprised when they find out we’re open on Christmas Day. But we’re kind of this staple of the community.
That is what community is about, the fact that people are always there for you. And I want Qualia to be part of that, in terms of really being something people can rely on. They know they can walk out the door in the morning, go to Qualia, and get a cup of coffee. That’s reassuring.
Gross: I like that. That is reassuring. It’s something helps me get up in the morning. Is there like a favorite part of what you do here, or something that’s the most rewarding?
Finkelstein: I mean, I don’t think that there’s one thing. There’s a lot of different aspects of it. I really enjoy roasting actually. Even after all these years, I still really enjoy roasting. There’s a certain Zen-like aspect to it. Just focusing on one thing for 20 or 25 minutes, it’s actually something you don’t really get to do that much in this world.
And I always enjoy sitting down with a cup of coffee. Coffee can just calm—I know it sounds counterintuitive—but coffee really calms me down. When I’m really agitated and frustrated with the day, I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee, sit down, and that always quells my spirit. You know, it’s funny because I get so excited about new coffees. Sometimes I feel like a kid in a candy store. When new coffees come in it always—I just have such anticipation for it.
Gross: Still nerd out over it.
Gross: That’s always a good sign.
Finkelstein: Again, it goes back to that experience. And for me, the enjoyment that comes from a cup of coffee is immense, and I want to share that with other people.
The roasting process itself is the heart of the operation. Everything flows from the roasting. And it’s something we do every day. But it’s also in the back of the shop, right? So, a lot of people come in, they get their bagels, they get their coffee. They’ve never seen the roasting operation, because they just never wandered to the back.
And when they do, it’s like, what the hell is going on here? You know? There’s a whole little—
Gross: It’s like a chem lab back here. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on here, and what you’re starting to do?
Finkelstein: We have the readily accessible coffees here up by the roaster so we can have good flow during the day. Right now I’m just weighing out the coffee. This is the green coffee, so we weigh out our batch before putting it in the roaster.
So, now I’ll put the coffee in the hopper. So, the coffee goes in the hopper. Once the roaster is preheated to the right temperature, there’s a door here and I’ll drop the coffee into the roaster, and then we’ve started the roasting process.
We have a lot of people come in and think, oh wow, that machine looks like it’s an antique or something. No. All of these machines are handmade in machine shops by a bunch of machine guys who are just good at making metal stuff. So, it looks like it was handmade. But it’s got pretty sophisticated electronics.
We ordered this one with full controls. You can see these dials. Each of these dials controls a different aspect of the roasting process. Heat, the amount of gas pressure we’re putting in, and how much heat we’re adding to the roast. The speed as the drum is rotating, it goes about 50 or 60 RPM. But we can slow that down, and then the fan speed. The amount of airflow going through the roaster, we can also control that. A lot of that’s used to cool the coffee down at the end of the process, but we can make small adjustments to how much airflow is in during the roast. But the roaster itself is a spinning drum, much like a clothes dryer, and there’s a gas flame that is underneath that drum heating the drum. So, the drum is constantly spinning, moving the coffee around.
You’ve got thousands of thousands of coffee beans that you’re roasting. You want to roast them all evenly at the same rate. And so, the best way to do that is to keep them rotating and keep them tumbling over each other. The drum is being heated below by this gas flame, but it’s also open in the back. It has holes in the back, so that as you’re adjusting your fan speed, air is being pulled over the flame and back through the drum, and then it’s ejected through the top of the drum, and then it goes out that vent.
Now, everything is done manually. We’re still controlling the roasting process manually. But we have a lot of control, and we have a lot of data to help guide us through that.
Gross: It seems like it’s very important for you to have control over many of these variables.
Finkelstein: Just like being a small business owner, control is really important.
Gross: Exactly. I figure you’ve talked to enough small business people. They’re all control freaks.
Finkelstein: Like a lot of the more sophisticated operations, we use software that tracks the roasting process. Ours is pretty pimped out. So, we have seven different therma-couples. The software also lets us look at previous roasts so we can make a comparison and decide whether we want to stick with that profile or change the profile a little bit.
Gross: Is there an ideal flavor profile you’re going for here?
Finkelstein: Not really, no. We’re looking to bring out the natural flavors of the coffee, which there are about 400 flavor compounds in coffee. So, we’re going to get a little bit of a different experience every time.
The other thing is, after the roasting process, the coffee continues to change. And we’re experiencing this changing palate, this sort of spectrum of flavors. The way I like to think about it is, if we have a flavor profile we’re shooting for, a lot of it has to do with the balance of flavor. So, each coffee has kind of its natural flavor. Do we want to bring out more of the chocolate? Do we want to bring out more cherry? Do we want to bring out more citrus? Everything is going to be in balance.
Gross: Where are we in the process now? The beans look like they’re a little bit of a different color.
Finkelstein: Yeah. So, a lot of the beginning of the roast is the boring part of the roast. We’re just warming up the beans. Now we’re starting to get some chemical reactions. We haven’t quite gotten to that exothermic phase where the coffee expands. But what you do get is you get some Maillard browning.
We have a little dryer here so we can smell the coffee during the roasting process. And it goes through several different phases of smells, like an almost brown butter. There’s like a bread phase. There’s a cinnamon phase.
Gross: It actually smells a little like popcorn.
Finkelstein: This is the period in the roasting process where we’re really going to drop the temperature. The water, as it escapes the coffee, actually makes noise. You can hear that. Can you hear this sort of popping noise that we call the first crack? It’s a pretty critical part of documenting the roasting process, that we check this phase to help us understand if we’re doing things well, if we’re doing it right, you know. If it’s too explosive, you’re actually damaging the beans.
Gross: So, it’s a delicate balance. And so far, you’ve heated up the beans, so the water has expanded. And now they’re having kind of their first break, like the first popcorn kernels that pop in a batch.
Finkelstein: And you can see, they’re fully brown now. And when we pull out the dryer, of course you get a different aroma this time. It’s smelling a little bit more like coffee. And you can kind of see the surface of the coffee is also starting to get a little smoother as the beans expand.
Gross: That smells awesome.
Finkelstein: Now we’re finished with the roasting process. We went through that first crack, so the beans opened up. And then we had to give it about three minutes for the oils inside the beans to mix together and form new flavors. I’m going to turn the air up, open the damper, and here comes the beans. So, now we’re cooling down the beans themselves, and we’re cooling down the drum so we can do our next roast.
And a lot of people find this kind of mesmerizing, because the little arm is spinning through and moving the beans around that are now really fragrant and it smells a little different than what most people are used to for coffee. It takes a couple of days, that couple of days of rest before it smells what most people recognize as coffee.
Gross: It smells like comfort, and consciousness, and heaven.
Finkelstein: Yeah. Once you get used to it, it’s a very pleasant smell.