Rhyme or Reason

Sept. 25, 2014

Why You Roast – Marshall Hance

Marshall Hance is a “Get Action” sort of individual; on the go, driven, and endlessly curious. Like many in roasting at home or in shops, Marshall is a tinkerer. Putting things together is a passion, but putting them together for a reason is the true draw. In the case of Mountain Air Roasting in Ashville, NC, that reason is excellence in coffee. Knowing that Marshall comes from a background of building his own roasters and roasting for himself I wanted to know what drove him to do it professionally and if that pursuit had any impact on his love of roasting in the first place.

CS: How did you start roasting coffee?

MH: I started roasting just a few weeks after reading about it when I realized roasting was what I was supposed to be doing instead of turning wrenches at a bicycle shop. That bike shop was actually my first customer, and five years later I still enjoy making deliveries to my friends there.

CS: Do you believe in the idea of the freedom and independence of being a small business owner?

MH: I’m not sure if freedom and independence are a reason to be a small business owner. I’m certain my life was much more free and independent with a “normal” 40hr a week job. While I do feel captain of my own ship, it takes away from other favorite pursuits such as riding bicycles and cooking dinner. Ideally, I would roast about 15 batches a day, 5 days a week. I enjoy getting into the groove but not breaking my back.

CS: What do you like most about roasting?

MH: I think the combination of introverted precision and tastiness of product were the most interesting aspects of roasting to me. The fact that a roasting business is smoothly scalable from roasting for one’s self to roasting thousands of pounds a day was a draw; knowing that I could find where I fit in the market and build a business to compete seemed to offer tremendous opportunity.

CS: What roasting devices or set ups have you used?

MH: At this point in time, the only roasting machines I’ve used are the ones I’ve built. They’ve all been rotating fluid bed hot air roasters, scaling up from 1/2 lb, 2lb, 6lbs, and finally 15lbs batch size. Each step up, the byproducts of roasting were more than I had anticipated. Learning what to do with all the chaff and exhaust has required a fair bit of engineering (and a few fire extinguishers).

CS: Would you enjoy roasting more on a bigger machine?

MH: My roasts definitely became more consistent and easily controlled with the larger machines. The current size is really nice; for light roasted coffee I put 12.5lbs in and get 11lbs out; that’s a manageable weight for my current sales volume. I’m not sure I’d want to scale up any further for top shelf coffees. Definitely for the big movers like the dark roast and espresso I’d like to roast on a larger machine. Certainly for the stability of larger mass, but also to save time which I have little left these days.

I once roasted over a hundred batches back to back for a single order back in January; I would never wish that sort of thing on anyone no matter how ambitious they were. Half and full bag roasters have their place for times like those. I look forward to roasting on one, one day.

CS: If you’ve built a roasting device or kit, what did you learn from that process?

MH: The best piece of kit I’ve added was a realtime data logger with ROR (rate of rise) on display. I’ve recorded some 3,000+ roasts since last May when I finally set that up. I’ve learned more in the past year than the four prior as a result. Continuous improvement is built into my mission statement, which acts as a compass to guide my decisions. While I’ve succeeded in creating an income for myself, my work should really be never done.

There are always improvements I can make working towards the goal of consistently better coffee. I may be a bit obsessive, but I work from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, with meals in between and some exercise if I’m lucky. I had been taking weekends off, but last year I agreed to providing coffee for Asheville’s oldest tailgate farmers market on Saturdays.

CS: Do you try to match the tastes of your local audience? How do you know your coffee is good?

MH: In my opinion, it’s the very best of Asheville in terms of people and product. Our local farmers produce is a component of what influences my choices roasting. We have abundant local foods and a good handful of superb restaurants serving amazing farm to table fare. These fresh flavors guide my tastes. I think of just picked ripe fruit as the gold standard for delicious flavor, so the closer my coffee tastes to good fruit, the better I think it is.

From my recent profiles I’m getting deep, thick, syrupy body, pungent aroma, and lively acidity without cooked, ashy or baked flavors, so I think I’m doing well as far as my tastes go. Of course, the flavors could always be cleaner and continuous improvements at farm level are showing each year so the coffee does keep getting better.

I’ve seen at market a customer might tell me they want the darkest “boldest” coffee, and after tasting my various offerings they proclaim a delicate Yirga Cheffe the best cup they’ve ever had. So instead of worrying about what my audience wants (I can’t possibly know!) I try to do my best according to my own opinion, then fingers crossed I hope others like my work. Repeat sales from customers who have other choices are how I know I’m doing well.

CS: What do you feel like makes someone a legitimate roaster?

MH: I’ve personally purchased multiple expensive limited edition boxes from well known roasters where all the coffees (geishas for that matter!) were baked flat. I find this a big disappointment and a disservice to the entire specialty coffee community. So, I’d say a “legitimate” roaster is one who knows what defects taste like and works tirelessly to eliminate them from their roasts. That said, I really can’t be the judge, only the person roasting the coffee could say for themselves. Legitimately caring should be a minimum though, in my opinion.