Talk about talk about it talk about it talk about Roasting – Christopher Oppenhuis

I’ve mentioned it a lot of times already I know, but I really can’t say enough how awesome the roaster scene is in Chicago right now. Not just because there’s a lot of folks doing quality work, but also because there’s a lot of folks doing really unique work and most importantly that there seems to be a real sense of community and support throughout the scene. Seriously folks, you should definitely be watching what’s going on in Chi. A roaster there who it was a great pleasure to cup with at our last visit there and to visit his roasting space was Christopher Oppenhuis of Half Wit Coffee Roasters and Gaslight Coffee Roasters. Both companies were started together with Zak Rye and Tristan Coulter, the two of these gentleman on the Gaslight side, and Christopher’s Half Wit being an endeavor he helped start for roasting for the Wormhole Cafe.

I absolutely love hearing success stories of roasters who have taken this approach to getting their businesses off the ground, sharing space and equipment. There are obviously challenges that go along with that and so I asked Christopher if he could shed some light on all of that as well as talk to me about the insanely sweet roasts of Peru lot #86, the residuals of which in one particular glass of which i brought with me to a breakfast spot here on Shrub Mt. were mistaken for maple syrup, and the Colombia Giovanni Lizcano which he roasted for Gaslight that sang with that bright and sweet balance, that perfect balance of exciting and approachable that makes that such a bangin’ coffee.

CS: You sent me your roast of the Peru Puno lot #86, can you tell me abouthow you approached this coffee?

CO: With any coffee I purchase for either companies’ program before putting it through the big roaster (Diedrich IR-12) I take into consideration as many attributes about that particular seed and try to relate it to what I think I know about how those variables affect its path in the roaster. After I get the greens in house I like to start with some sample sized batches (140g) on my table top roaster (Quest M3) to see how they move and accept heat throughout the roast as well as how quickly they develop color and aroma post first crack. This control style roast will give me some insight into how to handle a coffee when developing a production level profile.
With this particular lot of coffee there were some variables I had never experienced before, mainly its country of origin. This is actually the first coffee from Peru I have had the pleasure of taking from green to brown and before first tasting it with Chris and Aleco during their recent trip to Chicago I had never had such an attraction to a coffee from this country. Silky and cocoa sweet, crisp clean and floral. Lots of complexity in a very refined elegant way. Obviously a lot of care was put into its preparation and journey and it shined in the cup.
Taking into account the variables I did know (Variety, Elevation, Process) coupled with information from the website, a few Quest batches and some words with Chris (Schooley) I was able to project a path for this coffee in the big roaster. Specifically one major trait of this coffee in terms of roast level and its development post crack is that it fills out with color very quickly when given too much heat and removes the floral characteristics that I love in this coffee. I associate that floral characteristic in my experience thus far with the Typica varietal that this lot is made up of. Another approach I find necessary to retain the pronounced attributes of this coffee is to make sure it gets eased into first crack to try to prevent over development on the temperature side of things. There is a very defined and even first crack in which lots of energy is being reinterpreted in the drum and with very little help from the burners (if any) this coffee will carry itself from crack to my desired completion level. I believe it cracks very consistently due to it being a single variety and as loudly because of its elevation. I have found that the first phases of the roast are not as critical with the flavor attributes overall as they are tactile balance. Too long in the drying phase can attribute less defined sweetness but attributes a fudgier body. More of a maple sweetness than a dark cocoa sweetness. Still very pleasant overall in several types of roasts but the characteristics I love most about this lot are its ripe raspberry and chocolate sweetness, its floral aromas and complexities and its silky balanced acidity and mouthfeel. Its a really great coffee that has comfort and complexity across many types of palate.

CS: How have you been serving this coffee, what has customer response to it been like?

CO: At our mothership, The Wormhole Coffee here in Chicago (from which Halfwit was born out of), we have been serving this coffee as a filtered brew in several ways. I am extremely lucky to work with a group that is so tirelessly on top of their urn coffee service day in and day out as well as manual brewing devices. This coffee is so approachable as a batch brew and so balanced. It has a very balanced body and acidity that meshes well with a touch of cream also. I feel the types of “specialty” coffees that can reach a wider audience are milder in acidity with a familiar mouthfeel coupled with a rich full complete cup profile. So sweet adding sugar makes it TOO sweet. Balance balance balance. Thats sometimes the dream right? Selling better coffee to more people while knowing it won’t all be everyone’s preference all the time. Our average day to day urn customers take note when this coffee is featured and I believe these types of drips are great grounds for discussion about maybe trying it black next time or maybe trying it as a hand brew which leads me to the next part of this question which is more in the hands of the baristi than myself as the roaster. At the Wormhole they also highlight this coffee as a V60 brew as well as on the Chemex brewer and its fantastic to taste where they can highlight its finite sweetness and bring out some its more delicate floral qualities. I believe customer response to be positive overall based upon their availability to try the same coffee a couple different ways over the course of its time on the shelf. It opens up a lot of questions which lead into larger conversations about coffee in general and having quality beverages next to customer service from a well educated genuinely interested staff is the best type of situation to maximize the coffee overall I believe. It IS just coffee in the end but only in the way it IS also just fine art, beauty, etc..We can certainly survive without these luxuries but the spices of life in the right hands can be extraordinary experiences we remember forever or on a smaller scale can be experiences that open doors for further wonder and exploration. In our case that exploration is sensory. I love that this coffee is memorable for both the average drinker as well as our peer and industry type customers. Win-win.

CS: You also sent me some Colombia Giovanni Lizcano roasted for Gaslight, what was your approach to this coffee?

CO: First off, when a coffee has so much complexity so much sweetness and so much bright sparkling acidity its hard to nail down which direction to head on the roasting side. The versatility of this coffee allowed for several different roasts to produce an exceptional finished cup and the complex qualities are present but with alternate frequencies. When narrowing down this coffee profile for Gaslight I really had to rely on the feedback from their camp. This is where roasting and coordinating unique green offerings for two unique companies out of the same space goes well beyond my baseline of personal preference and knowledge and into the hands of the specific companies. For Gaslight part of their program is being able to have versatility with their offerings and to have a larger “sweet spot” for extraction amongst various devices including espresso. With this particular coffee it really took an elongated evaluation of the different initial production roasts that went well beyond the cupping table and a couple of brews. Ultimately the first few weeks we had this coffee at Gaslight we were selling the initial two production batches behind the bar not only because they were delicious in their own right but also because they were different enough in the roaster to see which one would work better for filter brew and which would lend itself more toward the espresso extraction. Based upon not only standardized evaluation but also getting to see how this coffee went over in the shop allowed me to go back to the profile and find a middle ground for both the filter and espresso extractions. Because of the deep seated inheritent undeniable qualities of the coffee itself my objective in the roast was to find an average that would sit balanced filtered as well as under pressure. I was worried that taming the acidity in the roast for the sake of espresso may flatten the brewed cup but it only brought out more balanced sweetness while retaining its bright delicate features. I have found that ultimately coffees with so much inheritent sweet bright flavors that are fresh and consistent in their quality leave me with a wider range for error on the roast while still maintaining attractive qualities. The harder part is when faced with a large number of positive attributes at different developments being able to narrow down which one is “the best” for your situation or need.

CS: You talked about this a little bit but do you differentiate roasting approaches between the two different entities, Halfwit/Gaslight?

CO: Its hard to say a simple no or yes to this one. I am in a very unique situation that at the end of the day has been to develop the same type of work for two separate entities with similar values and qualities desired out of the same space off the same equipment. Literally splitting between 5 production days (as of now) in a 240 SQ FT room tucked inside of Gaslights physical shop where I am storing on average 2 additional pallets of raw coffee (also, as of now) at any given time. Its definitely a cozy spot and incubator for two new companies with some additional room to grow. As for where the companies differ it would be so nice sometimes if it was as simple as roast level preferences. Ultimately, because my personal roasting style is based upon the combination of “what I think I know about coffee” and past experiences as well as being open to new ones with coffee, the biggest factor to differentiate the two entities on my side is in the raw or green coordination, evaluation and buying. For the sake of confusion early on I made the decision to not share our green inventories but in the future for the sake of added buying power we may share a lot or two. Only time will tell but for now it helps differentiate overall taste aesthetic more so than trying to approach one coffee two different ways for two different camps. My buying determines my roasting and vise versa. On a personal roaster/buyer preference note before I move forward with any coffee for either companies evaluation my goal is that the coffees I present will be clean, and fresh physically, balanced and true to origin, process and variety in the cup while keeping in mind the desires from each group. From there we can collectively within each company make decisions based upon preferences and brewing executions and evaluations as well as the other variables necessary when buying coffee spot or forward.

CS: How do you talk to other people or even your customers about coffee roasting, what do you think the most important thing is to convey to people
about what you do with the roasting?

CO: My biggest sentiment lately to consumers, especially in a city where we are part of a wave several new micro roasters, is that we are all in completely different unique situations. Using different equipment with different experiences at the helm. Different ideologies and directions in growing our companies in different spaces. Even if we are sharing some of the same importers we have different relationships. Even if we are buying the same coffees they may be different lots. If they are the same lots there are so many other variables such as environment coupled with personal preference as well as operator experience and intuition. . The end results are all very different and I think being able to relate consumer preference to coffee can be done but it takes that next step of execution on the service or extraction part of the chain to help cull results that can be accesible to a consumer in regards to finding their preferences. . I think having options is fantastic as a consumer myself and in areas where I choose to be a more conscious consumer I tend to spend more time learning more about the products I choose to hold with higher value than others. In coffee we have this huge chain that can be well executed when functioning not only forwards but backwards as well. I’d like to thank Stephanie Ratanas at Dogwood who influences almost everything i do on the roaster. As a roaster I am in control of my equipment and how it works but as for the coffee it has already been determined what qualities are possible. It is my job to nurture the work of the producer, exporter, and importer before putting it in the hands of the server or the consumer. Some of us have said that coffee can be messed up in the hands of the baristi which is true but it can also be messed up in any link of the chain. The final product takes just as many variables to extract it well as it did to plant it well. At least climate change within our cafes is predictable if not controllable. Its not quite the same on the other end of the chain.
To wrap up that thought a lot of times my conversations about coffee roasting tend to err on the side of that I cannot make the coffee any better than it already is. I can only coax out qualities that are inherent but need to do so very delicately and precisely in the oven that makes those seeds delicious when ground up and added to hot water. To industry professionals who score coffee regularly that point is easily summed up by saying I can make an 85 point coffee an 84, but It doesn’t go the other way around.

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