Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters - Behind the Scenes

Back in 2009 I enjoyed visiting a coffee farm when I was down in Guatemala. At that time I saw the coffee berries on the bushes and through the process until they were the dried beans bagged in 100 pound bags for shipment. It's years later and now I watched as raw, green beans became roasted and ready for grinding.

I was at the newer Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters location on Folsom Boulevard. Mondays and Thursdays are roasting days and with the shiny roasters in the front of the shop, it's something customers can observe while sipping on the final results. 

Nate Welsh was in the back working on the computer when I arrived. He was figuring out what current inventory was and which beans needed to be roasted. Currently they have eight varieties available from Guatemala, Honduras, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico. Nate was going to roast a little of each and then some for their espresso blend. While he was checking his numbers, he was heating the smaller roaster up. 

Chocolate Fish has two Diedrich roasters, one handles 3 kilos (5 pounds) and the other handles 12 kilos (20 pounds).  This day he was running both roasters, starting with the smaller. He weighed out 5 pounds of a Honduras bean for the first batch and once the roaster had reached temp, he poured them in. 

"Each batch will take 12-14 minutes to finish," Nate said. Next to him is a computer that is connected to a thermometer in the roaster.

"We use a program called Roast Logger to track all our roasting profiles," he explained. On the screen I could see a line that dips down drastically before turning and starting to climb up again. Nate told me that when a new coffee first arrives, it will be roasted several times at different temperatures and it is plotted on the graph. Each roasting is then brewed and tasted by himself and the owners, Andy and Edie Baker. Between the three of them, they discuss the flavor attributes of each roast trying to pick out the one that brings out the best flavor. They are trying to find the best balance of acidity and sweetness for each shipment/crop of beans. Once they pinpoint which roast they like the best, they use the computer graph to replicate that roast again and again. Each crop of beans will have a different roasting graph.

Nate pointed out the different parts of the graph. When the cold beans first drop into the roaster it drops the overall temperature, thus the drastic initial drop. At the bottom is the "turning point" when the line starts to move up and the temperature rises again. Now the coffee is roasting at the enzymatic/drying phase where the moisture is removed from the beans until we start hearing popping sounds like when popcorn pops. This is the "crack" (for the sound) sugar browning phase, when the sugars in the bean burst out and coat and caramelize on the surface of the bean. The third phase is dry distillation and none of CF's beans are allowed to go into this range as this is when the sugars start to burn and carbonize. 


"Coffee tasting is very similar to wine tasting," said Edie. "You need to develop a palate for it." On the wall is a colorful pie chart depicting the phases of roasting and the flavors that come out at different phases: lemony, chocolate, caramel. Edie explained to me that they no longer use the terms "low, medium, and dark roast". Nowadays the focus is on the bean flavor and whatever temperature brings out the best qualities. Dark roasting would be the dry distillation phase that CF avoids. 

Once the roasting is finished the coffee is dumped out and fans blow air so as to cool the beans as quickly as possible. Now completed, the beans are ready for packaging or grinding. 

I asked Edie about blends and she said the only blend they do is for their espresso. Their current blend is with beans from Brazil and Honduras. For espresso they need to roast the beans at a slightly higher temperature, as little as 2-6 degrees. Since espresso is most often mixed with milk, they need to adjust to account from the flavor change when mixed with milk's sweetness.

"That's our only blend. Nowadays coffee is roasted in single origin batches," said Edie. "These beans are such good quality, they stand on their own." 

The Bakers buy their coffee directly from individual farms that they have visited and gotten to know.  These farms will grow many varieties of coffee, but they will separate them according to quality. The lower quality is often sent to cooperatives with other farms' beans and they get all mixed together. The high quality is saved and sold directly to coffee houses, like CF.

The Folsom Boulevard location has the customer side and then the production/roasting side. Near the roasters is a cupping area where the testing/tasting of new roasts is done as well as training of the baristas. This day Scott was there preparing to be tested.

Scott passed!
Chocolate Fish has a rigorous training program. Scott has been with them for four months training. Until he passes the Bakers' test, he can't be behind the counter by himself, but must have another trained barista with him. His test included testing his tamping pressure, pulling espresso shots, and making macchiatos, cappuccinos, and flat whites. The Bakers checked for weight, temperature, flavor, and check the quality of his milk foam and pours.

I asked Edie if it bothers her when baristas they've trained start working at other coffee houses. "We want our baristas to want to work for us and many of those who leave will come back," she said. "I'll often tell an applicant to go to every coffee house and check them out first. They need to get a feel for what each place is offering and the atmosphere." She doesn't know which, if any, of the other coffee houses have such rigorous training or testing, but that's what they pride themselves on and sets them apart. It means that there will always be consistency in a customer's order, no matter which barista is serving. 

"We take a lot of pride in what we do," Edie said.

Chocolate Fish Coffee is served throughout the area at such places as Magpie, Yellowbill, Masullo's, Enotria, Formoli's, and Golden Bear. It's also sold at Whole Foods, Compton's,  and Corti Bros.

Disclosure: Even though I don't drink coffee, I do drink hot chocolate. CF advertises on my site and I enjoy my occasional chocolate chia lattes there.