Madrone Mountain aims to please every palate
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
When the front door opens, the aroma gives it all away. The layman says “I found coffee,” but the minds behind Madrone Mountain Coffee are ready to show there’s so much more to know.
“Our mission is to connect people with great coffee,” said co-founder Jake Sussman. “Being able to do a custom roast for a restaurant owner or a company owner, to help them tell their story through coffee is what we like to do.
“Seeing those light bulbs go off and seeing someone who has never tasted fruit in coffee or never noticed a Kenya could taste like blackberry jam, that’s what excites us.”
The aromas, flavors and stories are endless.
A good mix of science and passion – blended with an innovative spirit – has the owners of the new coffee roaster just south of the South San Gabriel on County Road 279 ready to share not only their unique blends, but the deep, flavorful story of their journey.
“It is about what story do you want to tell with this coffee,” Sussman says as he slowly pours water over a sample of one of four different coffees to be tasted at this sitting. “What we’d like to do is make people aware there is this kind of coffee out there. I mean good coffee. I think there’s a lot of people used to scooping Folgers in a filter and that’s fine, but there’s a whole world of coffee out there people could discover.”
As he pours and slides tasting cups in front of visitors, it is evident this experience is intended to go well beyond sending a coffee lover on their way with a good brew. It is intended to be an experience, where the taste, the story and the understanding go hand-in-hand to create an entire experience.
Sussman and his partners – Alex Noel and Rob Edwards – have built their new business around that premise. It is intended to be a place where consumers looking for coffee can find their very own coffee.
“I like convenience just as much as everyone else, but sometimes it’s the ritual, the five minutes each day I can zone out,” Sussman said of making his coffee each day. “It is very ritualistic to everyone who drinks it so to be able to get into it is kind of cool. If we can be there like that when people start their day, that connection is cool.”
Perhaps a buyer simply wants the signature Packsaddle blend. Maybe the Kenyan, Columbian or Ethiopian options. What Sussman and Noel believe is that everyone’s taste falls somewhere in the middle of the wide variety of options and that’s where the personalization comes in. Through tasting, and learning about the different coffees from all over the world what results is a personal blend created for a particular customer.
“There’s excitement of seeing someone realize their own blend,” Noel said. “Then we bag it up and label it and they know they’re part of it. We know that you might really like a Kenyan dark and a Columbian medium, and you will be able to save those profiles and then blend them together and we can tag that as your blend. It is very customizable.”
This opportunity to customize orders is their innovative way to create something unique and memorable.
“We had someone come in here and do a tasting, and we said taste everything, take a sample with you, drink them all, together and separately, then come back and we will figure out what the blend is,” Sussman said. “He called me a week later and said it was so much fun, he and his wife sitting there in the morning putting two parts of one and one part of another. It was a fun exercise.”
The first roast
Madrone Mountain Coffee wasn’t born in the office space it resides in now, or with the website where the variety of coffees can be purchased today.
It began when Sussman was still working in software and suggested his company offer coffee to its employees.
“I’ve always been a coffee fan, but was noticing people at my office were going across the street a couple of times a day to a coffee shop,” he said. “I said ‘why don’t we put a coffee bar in?’ and they said ‘Jake, that’s a good idea, own it.’ I went down a complete rabbit hole and wanted to know everything from how it was sourced to shipped and everything.”
That rabbit hole went far beyond a Keurig and a variety of K-cups, leading Sussman to researching coffees from all over the world, how to roast and how to know a good cup of coffee.
His first roast was done in a popcorn air popper, but soon became more sophisticated with a small test roaster.
“I bought a lot of green coffee and I had more coffee than I knew what to do with,” Sussman said. “I was driving to work every day and I was dropping coffee off on my friends’ front porches on my route to work. They’d call me and ask how they could get more. I was really fired up about connecting people with coffee that didn’t taste like cardboard.”
Then he found his partner in crime when he learned Noel, who at that time was living in California and working as a chef, had a similar love of coffee. Noel and his wife were planning a return to Texas from California when Sussman sprang the idea on him.
“Hearing the excitement from people about coming home and finding a bag of coffee, I thought that could be something,” Sussman said. “I kind of told him what I was thinking about and told him we should do it.”
All that was left was to begin roasting together and learn all they could about coffee.
“We went out and roasted a couple of batches in the garage,” Sussman said. “He was really interested in how to bring flavors out of the coffee.”
Noel immediately saw the parallels between roasting and cooking.
“I’m obsessed with barbecue,” he said. “I found there was a lot of correlation between roasting coffee and roasting brisket. A coffee roast is much much faster than a brisket, but you have to be extremely methodical with both.”
By early 2019 they were ready to pull the trigger and launch their roasting business, but the more they learned, the more they realized how little they actually knew.
“I started going down that path and as I put the final touches on some branding I did, the website, and some roasting I was doing I just realized suddenly I didn’t know near enough,” Sussman said. “I decided to take all of 2019 to get smart, and that involved bringing in people who had done it before, familiarizing myself with the industry on the import and equipment side, so I did my homework while doing my full-time job all of last year.”
The business model is exciting, but as the pair thinks about where the journey can lead them over time, it boils down to being happy in a new career.
“At the end of the day this is fun,” Sussman said, adding a glimpse into how they imagine the future. “We want to go and source these beans. We want to go and talk to the producers and farmers themselves, to get over there and see how they run their operation.”
They roast Mondays and Wednesdays, and ship on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the fun begins in what they call the green room, where all unroasted coffee is stored.
“It has to be kept in a cool, dry place with about 60 percent humidity and never over 70 degrees,” Sussman said. “Essentially, coffee is the seed of a cherry. They take the cherry off the tree, take the skin off and they’ll dry it and it gets bagged up.”
The room is filled with bags large and small from all over the world.
“We have about six or seven coffees we are regularly selling, that are on the menu,” Sussman said. “There’s a big world of coffee importers out there, so part of this is getting the introduction to the right importers.”
The jobs those importers do seem to light the imagination in both Sussman and Noel.
“They’ll go sit in Ethiopia where all the farmers are bringing their crop and they’ll taste everything and they’ll pick who is bringing the best coffee and they’ll go forge a relationship with that guy,” Sussman said.
As seasons change, different parts of the world move into their growing season, so the options on where they can buy coffee from is ever-changing.
“Our strategy is to just buy enough coffee to take us through the harvest season so we’re always getting the freshest coffee we can,” Sussman said. “Right now about 2,000 pounds of coffee is the most we’re sitting on at any time.”
From the green room, the pair moves into the science of the roast, beginning with a sample roaster that sits on the counter.
“The idea is that instead of doing these big batches and wasting a bunch of greens experimenting, we put them in there and figure out what a bean will do in a really hot drum roaster,” Sussman said. “How much heat it can take, how much time it can take and basically develop a profile we want to apply to it in the big machine.”
It boils down to time and temperature and three phases of the roasting process – the drying phase, caramelization time, and first crack, when the carbon dioxide is being released
“In general, the lighter the roast the more natural the flavors,” Sussman said. “If we have this really standout coffee from Ethiopia or Costa Rica we want to taste the sweetness of we usually do a light or medium roast so we get the acidity. If we’re going for a really bold cup of coffee, something smoky and dark, we will take it all the way through the end of first crack.”
Once they have a hit on their hands in sample form, it is time to move on to the larger batch production. Even the roaster selected by the partners is unique, built by a Portuguese company with its own foundry to create the cast iron drum.
“This company wasn’t even on our radar until we attended a coffee conference and we learned about the cast iron drum,” Sussman said. “Whether you’re doing it on one of these or on one of the state of the art very technical machines it’s the same, it’s time and temperature and it’s about isolating variables and recording your results.”
The best part might come last, when the roasts are evaluated, a process called cupping.
“It’s a way to take a methodical approach to tasting coffee,” Sussman said. “If you’re in Columbia and I’m in Ethiopia and you say you’ve got a great coffee and it’s an 88, I know within a pretty standard score how your coffee tastes versus just saying it’s good. It’s a standard scale to evaluate coffee on 10 attributes.”
Even learning that evaluation process took a lot of time, the assistance of an expert and of course testing and drinking lot of coffee. The pair has decided, though, that a job roasting great coffee and enjoying it a cup at a time is well worth the journey.
“There’s a whole world of possibilities,” Sussman said. “It’s a science.”