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Meet the man behind the roasts

Posted on May 28, 2017

 

Gregg Roberson

Head Roaster Extraordinaire

 

 

So how did it start? What were your earliest experiences of coffee?

 

My first personal experience trying to turn green coffee into a drinkable roasted bean was in my kitchen. I tried a couple methods; a stove top popcorn maker with a built in stirrer and in the oven basically heated to the max on a perforated cooking sheet. I couldn't find a perforated sheet that wasn't made for industrial size ovens so I ended up taking a cooking sheet we had already and drilled lots of little holes in it. The popcorn maker was a suggestion from Sweet Maria's website which is a great place to start for people trying to get ideas for different home roasting methods. The perforated cooking sheet was a suggestion from Blue Bottles book that we have in the Training Center. Neither method got good results but was still very interesting and fun to do. I still have my 'first roast' beans in a jar in my kitchen.



What sparked your interest in coffee roasting? How what point did you know that you were meant to roast coffee for a living?

 

A couple years before I got the Head Roasting position, I had made a conscious decision to try and make coffee my career. Before that I had worked in coffee off and on for 7-8 years just to make ends meet. Luckily when I started in the coffee world I was surrounded by people who were excited and wanting to share their excitement with others. That excitement plateaued when I first moved to NYC but was reinvigorated with getting a job at Gregorys Coffee. With that new spark of interest, I realized that roasting was the next step into my coffee knowledge journey.  

 

 

 

What are some of the trends have you observed in coffee roasting over the years? How has GC roasting changed since its inception.

 

Oh so many trends have come and gone. When I was a kid I remember making Folger's at home with my Dad and then using that same coffee in a percolator with my Grandmother. When I started drinking coffee myself, Starbucks was about the only coffee out there if you weren't wanting to make it yourself. You could find places but they were few and far between. But it was all dark roast or darker roast coffee. No one had heard of Cold Brew, everything was Iced Coffee. I try not to but I pretentiously correct people on that all the time. But with the emergence of Third Wave coffee and more and more people realizing that you don't need to burn the crap out of the coffee, many doors were open.

At GC, we are riding that Third Wave. We like to let this extraordinary coffee speak for itself without it being styled by roastiness (not a word) or smokiness. Our roasting hasn't changed too much though from when we started other than the fact that we've personally gotten better at hitting the objectives we are aiming for in a particular roast. We still have a lot to learn so experimentation of new coffees and blends is a big thing for us.

 

Whats the day by day process behind your roasting team?

 

Everyday is a bit different but when it comes to it we are a team and other than a few exceptions (the roasting itself, asking Maciej nicely to order more green coffee) everyone is expected to do everything. Some of the jobs are a bit more strenuous then others, like weighing out all the green coffee to be roasted for the day. That's 3,000ish pounds divided up in different bins with a scoop that does about 3 pounds at a time or getting the 150 pound bag light enough that you can lift in an pour the beans onto the scale. Just saying I count that as my workout for the day. But there is tons of little things to be done; sticker/weigh/package/seal retail bags, weighing out buckets, grind/weigh/package cold brew, receiving orders, doing donuts with the forklift, chasing pigeons out of the warehouse. The list goes on and on.


Other than roasting coffee, what are the other facets in coffee interest you?

I guess this goes pretty hand and hand with roasting but I've been trying to work on my palate for a long time. When we are roasting a new coffee 3 different ways that are only 2 degree F different or tasting 8 different coffees from the same region, being able to taste the little thing can be difficult sometimes. Sometimes they punch me in the face and it makes my job a whole lot easier. Outside of coffee, I like to smell anything before I taste it or when I'm cooking I'll try the ingredients as I go.


What have been the most notable moments that have shaped your career?

When I did my first coffee tasting 13 years ago, I told the person leading the cupping that the coffee tasted like dirt and they didn't tell me I was wrong. Instead we had a discussion about what that could mean and broke it down further. Even learning terminology like 'earthy' to say it taste like dirt but in a nicer way. But learning that every's taste is a little different so getting as many opinion as I can from super tasters to the laymen are really important to me.

When I went to the Roaster's Guild of America's annual retreat, I had never roasted coffee on a proper roasting machine. While you are there, they split you up into different groups for the competition that is also happening that weekend. When my team found that out, they very lovingly pushed me into the fire. Everyone was so helpful and eager to answer any questions that I could come up with. A lot of amazing things happened for me that weekend but one of my biggest take aways was a conversation between 2 guys on my team who had each been roasting coffee for 30 years. While discussing how to get what we wanted out of the provided coffee for the competition, they both had completely different ideas on how to approach the roast. We ended up doing both of them and they both provided a different kind of sweetness that we ended up using in final blend for the judges. And yes, we won.

The last big one was getting to go to origin. Actually getting to go to Honduras and see they whole other side of the coffee world (i.e. farms, washing and processing stations, drying beds, packaging green coffee) was extremely eye opening as to the extent and distance that these beans have to go through in order to make it to a customers cup. I've always been pretty hardcore about not waisting coffee but now when I see beans on the floor I'm like "Aw man! Some worker somewhere making next to nothing carried you up a hill on their back, you were shipped and made the journey over seas on a boat, managed to get trucked to our warehouse, were roasted, shipped again to stores and... almost made it". I just feel sad for the bean not fulfilling it's destiny.

 

How has the evolution of Gregorys shaped your individual coffee career?

 

When I started at Gregorys, we only had 3 stores. That year we doubled to 6 and its been crazy ever since. But without this growth, most of the people who work for this company would even have jobs now that we are up to 23. The more stores we opened, the better and better it would be for the company has a whole to roast it's own coffee. Basically growth equals opportunity for people who want it. Personally, working at Gregorys took coffee to a whole new level that I never knew about before. I had taken all the extra coffee knowledge classes that I could at my other coffee jobs but Gregorys really takes it to a whole new level. Before Gregorys, I never saw coffee being a career but a combination of opportunity, being surrounded by good hardworking people who also have a passion for coffee, dedication, and the trust of a man with big ideas made that possible.

 

 

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