Interview with Aaron Blanco; Brown Coffee, TX

brown

Aaron and Steve in Atlanta

I met Aaron Blanco for the first and only time on the competition floor of the WBC in Atlanta this year. Everyone that was there to support and help me that week seemed to be walking on egg shells with me as soon as I came within ears shot lest they upset, enrage or simply make me nervous.

I did therefore take huge notice when Steve Leighton stopped me in my tracks, looked me in the eye and insisted that I talk to a friend of his. He didn’t care what I was doing or where I was going, Aaron was a guy I had to meet.

I have, since then, gotten to know Aaron a lot better through Twitter, Steve and the odd email. The first thing that strikes you about Aaron is that he is a man that doesn’t do things by half. His enthusiasm and will to succeed  in every aspect of coffee is both inspiring and bewildering.

The last interview posted, with Mr. Ben Kaminsky, was an article I felt was hard to follow but Aaron has in his own understated way presented us with something remarkable and intriguing without even realising it himself.

I think that in itself sums him up.

(p.s. You can learn more about Brown Coffee here)

How did you get into coffee?

I guess at its root I’m a purist at heart. So whatever it is I’m into–coffee, music, etc.–I quickly become obsessed with finding out how that thing should be expressed in its truest form. About 8 years ago I was a home coffee hack who stumbled upon the weird and crazy good coffee with the weird and funky name “Yrgacheffe” and was intrigued. The more I began to explore this world of cool coffees the more I found there was to discover. A hidden Xanadu! I had just left working on staff at a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and one day on a lark walked into a Starbucks (2001, people! Starbucks was a VERY different company back then!) and something just hit me that this was the direction my life needed to go. I figured I could get some good organizational experience around coffee and so started as a barista making next to nothing, one kid and one on the way. Three months later I was promoted to a salaried position and a year to the day after putting on my first green apron I was the manager of a brand new Starbucks. (Incidentally, our store was one of the last in North America to still use the La Marzocco Linea/Super Jolly combination, so I hope that gives me some cred.) I worked for big green for 3 1/2 years before moving to Texas and starting Brown.

Tell us a little bit about your roaster?

Ah, Big Brown. When I started Brown in late 2005 I had a tiny loan from my in-laws and no prospect of getting any more $$ so I had to make every penny stretch. I purchased a 2.2kg electric tabletop roaster (“Little Brown”) and began buying greens from Sweet Maria’s to practice roasting. 2 years into it and Brown was needing something bigger to help us get to the next level. I simply couldn’t afford a new, big commercial roaster so I tapped my father-in-law, a retired aeronautical engineer, to help me design and build one on my own.

Short story long, we now have a 10kg gas roaster that was built completely from spare parts. There is not a single roaster-specific part on Big Brown. So for instance, it has a beer keg as the housing for the chaff collector; the burner assembly is a modified gas oven range top; the motor that turns the cooling tray arms is from a mechanical ice cream maker, we picked up a used PID from my landlord; the motor turning the drum used to turn a cement mixer; etc. A lot of the raw materials came from an obliging scrap yard at Purdue University (where he retired). Some parts had to be custom fabricated, like the front and rear face plates. But most of it was fabricated by my father-in-law in his Indiana garage and trucked down here to Texas. We’re always tweaking and bettering things here and there (next up is building an afterburner), but all told I think we’ve sunk just under $2000 into it. Not bad. Some older Flickr pics of earlier stages of Big Brown start here: 

brown2

Given the funds, would you buy a brand new Roaster or build Big Brown II?

That’s a great question I’ve been asking myself lately. I don’t really know the answer. Big Brown was always meant to be a bridge: the proof of concept machine rather than the final item. The creator in me says I’d like to take all the lessons learned and best practices from Big Brown and really let it catapult us into the next generation. My father-in-law have spent countless hours discussing how we would reinvent it all in the next roaster. This is of course because it turns out traditional drum roasters are not rocket science to get going; but as with so many things in this life, the devil is in the details. So I’ve thought about things like collapsing internal drums that could be used to better customize the ambient space and airflow for different size batches; or somehow creating a turbine scenario out of the drum rotation to help it use energy more efficiently; and so forth. As nice as I think it would be, if funds were no issue, to maybe just buy a brand new roaster built to my specs, there is something gratifying about watching something like that that is central to what you do grow from a speck in your mind to the final product.

Sometimes I just chuckle to myself as I’m in the middle of a batch on Big Brown and thank God that I can do what I love. The real irony here is that I am rather “mechanically declined.” I know what I want but building it is another matter entirely. I’m like the old saying, “A critic is one who knows the way, but can’t drive the car.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t a coffee roaster?

Hmmm…probably a) a professor of theology somewhere; b) a concert promotor; or c) running for some political office.

What is your pie-in-the-sky dream for Brown?

Two things. I’d like to open a coffee and espresso bar called Black. “Black” because there’d be no milk or dairy or sweeteners available in the place. Anywhere. It’s the mimimalist/purist in me. Two, maybe three espresso machines. Maybe as many as 6, 8, even 10 espresso grinders, similar to how you have multiple taps at the pub, with house espressos and guest espressos. Coffee via syphon, Chemex, pourover, Clover. And NO MILK. A pure coffee bar. We’d probably go out of business in a year! (Evidently, some good folks in L.A. must’ve gotten wind of my idea and tried out something similar in Venice.) 🙂

The second thing is pretty standard for smallish roasters: I’d just like more time to travel to meet quality-focused farmers in producing countries (I hate using the term, “origin” since it’s blandly generic and seems somewhat demeaning to the people living and working in coffee in these places) to continue developing relationships around tasty coffee. Ultimately, I guess just want purity in my coffee (business) and in the relationships surrounding the coffee.

What do you wish you knew more about in coffee?

I was gonna say, “I wish I knew a way to distill the complexities of quality coffee so that it’s easily and quickly understandable to the average person.” But I think that’s a lie. Or at least it’s probably not really desirable. If it were so easy to grasp it would be easy to gain ubiquity and then what was the point? As a former theologian I find similarities between doing coffee well and doing theology well: Everyone has their ideas and reflexive thoughts surrounding it, but not all of their ideas are truthful, accurate or even seeking to be so. People often just want a quick, neat answer or turn of phrase. “Fair Trade.” “Jesus saves.” Bumper sticker thinking can really be so damaging to the cause! There is (or needs to be, in my opinion) a bit of a systematic/mystical tension to it that requires something deeper of us if we are to really become students of it and refine ourselves.

In coffee I guess we would call that the tension between the art and the science of it: the beauty of honing your craft as you use your senses of sight, smell and hearing to create a beatiful coffee versus gluing your eyes to a timer and temp readout and following a graph on some computer screen.

Either way will get you to the desired end. But the best way is to somehow read by the light of both of these approaches and keep both of those in tension in the back of your mind. That is the refining fire that separates the kittens from the lions. That’s probably what I want most for myself in coffee. (Did that even answer your question??)

Being as hands on as you are, how big is too big for The Brown Coffee Company and how do you balance business expansion against remaining a craftsman in your trade?

That’s a very deep question with a lot of moving parts to it. My sense of it based on my own experience is that making selection and retention of quality people missional to your company is key. Making it part of your company’s DNA from the early, small stages will pay huge dividends as you figure the right formula for growth versus craftsmanship. Other people might include location, equipment, business skill, etc., as necessary components, and that’s true. But those things don’t live and breathe and positively influence your success like people do–in essence, they don’t interact with your customers, recommending products, troubleshooting customer complaints, making (and knowing when and when not to make) appropriate upsells, etc. They are more or less “defensive” aspects to your business. For example, a bad location for a cafe can definitely hinder customer counts. But it’s not going to be the reason the bulk of the customer base that selects you as “their cafe” are going to keep coming in. I never hear the kinds of customers I would want to populate my cafe say, “You know, the coffee there is pretty good and the people know their stuff, but holy heck! they sure are easy to access from the freeway!” I’ve seen great locations fail due to poor customer service and I’ve seen customers go out of their way to make poor locations profitable, all because of the people you choose to represent your company.

Selecting people can be a science and I’m down with that as far as knowing what ways can help you draw out better answers in the interview process, but I think people often overlook much of the human component to it. What I mean is you can train all the technical stuff; but you can’t train heart. People have to bring that with them. I can teach someone how to brew coffee (or clean toilets!) technically well time after time after time but people have to have that internal spark to keep themselves going, to keep from growing jaded about technical perfection and from turning into a cynical coffee automaton. I see that all the time in myself as I sometimes have to jolt myself out of becoming ho-hum about this 90 plus coffee or that great flecking in the demi. And I’ve hired and fired so many people that by now almost nothing surprises me in the interview process. But one thing always stands out to me is the internal hunger certain people have for truly taking care of customers. It’s just that special something that animates the eyes.

Yeah, we all get tired when we’re roasting hundreds of pounds a session and it’s hot in the roasterie, or if the line is out the door for the third straight hour. But those scenarios only make selecting people you’d want to go into battle with all the more mission critical. Retention is the other side of that coin. Making sure the back door is not open as widely as the front is a huge skill that I didn’t fully grasp for a good six months into my retail management experience.

In Starbucks, fortunately, it was pretty simple–they have a huge wealth of materials for training and promotion. Basically, if you can read, you can learn to become a great manager there because very smart people have already done the heavy lifting of building systems for training, recognition of good work and promotion for your people. And I think that carries over to the independent coffee bar because everyone at their core basically just want to know that you value them and what they are doing for you. When they don’t feel they’re getting that from you, from the environment and culture you’ve created, they’ll head somewhere else to find it. How far up and out does that scale? I don’t know. Maybe the big pitfall to avoid is opening your arms so wide to embrace new revenue streams as you expand that you can no longer embrace any one item well. You build a coffee empire–or even just a coffee fiefdom–and lose your coffee soul.

For Brown I just want to be happy doing what I do and creating something that makes other people happy and wanting to know more. If I can scale that to two, three, ten stores successfully, great. If adding just one more store comes at the cost of too much delegation and a dilution of the mission, then what was the point of working so hard to build the foundation? Maybe the metric for me (as I make plans to open a small cafe in the front space at our roasterie) is whether I could a) walk into any store of mine and feel like I weren’t being an intruder if I wanted to step in and help make drinks on some other barista’s bar or b) knowing that I could get a top notch beverage and experience if I walked in and were completely unknown to the barista. And both of those come out of having the right people in place executing at a high level.

Those of you lucky enough to live in London will soon get the chance to taste some of Aaron’s coffee at Dose Espresso, the venue for Tamper Tantrum’s first outside broadcast. Watch the site or follow us on Twitter @tampertantrum for more details

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3 thoughts on “Interview with Aaron Blanco; Brown Coffee, TX

  1. aaronblanco says:

    Thank you, Colin. Just an FYI the roaster still wasn’t finished when those old pics were taken. We’ve made some pretty significant design mods and finished adding parts since then. Naturally, my camera has gone missing so I’m not able to update some shots for this post.

    Anyone passing through Texas is more than welcome to come visit.

  2. […] here’s the link to the interview.  […]

  3. […] this quote that perhaps represents Aaron’s thinking in being more nuanced in opinion from his fantastic interview with Colin Harmon (IBC Champion 2009 & 2010, purveyor of 3FE in […]

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