When you first meet Stephanie, she's very unassuming, soft-spoken and laid back. But, don’t be fooled, her little frame does not match the vast knowledge she has regarding everything that is coffee. She has traveled the world, learned from the best and has worked extremely hard to develop the skills, palate and understanding that have earned her the title of Director of Coffee at Dogwood Coffee Company, where we get all of our beans. All Stephanie wants to do is work, and continue to solidify Dogwood's spot as the best roaster in the Twin Cities. So listen up and maybe you’ll learn a little something about what goes into your favorite drink at Urban Bean.
What do you do here at Dogwood Coffee Company?
I do our coffee buying, which means I organize and make decisions on the coffees that we’ll offer, and I oversee the roasting and production. I used to roast, now Eddie does all our production roasting. I’m also the warehouse cleaner. I do a lot of dishes and mop.
Your title says, you’re the Director of Coffee, What is that?
That’s just anything having to do with our actual coffee products—I have some part in it.
How did you start in coffee?
I had always wanted to work in a coffee shop. When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time in coffee shops, like Pandora’s Cup on Hennepin. I would stay there until 1:00 AM several nights a week.
I went to school in Chicago for journalism and I got a barista job on the side. That was always the job I had with my schooling and while I was writing.
What was your first barista job, what company?
It was for this really shitty cafe, and I actually forgot the name of it. I only worked there for a month.
Really? You wanted a coffee job forever and you can’t remember the name?
They were psychos.
So, what was your job after that?
So, I quit those guys and I got a job at an Intelligentsia account, that was my first specialty coffee experience, really. After a few years I started working at Metropolis Coffee Company, which is another specialty roaster in Chicago.
Was the craft coffee movement in full swing during that time? Did they teach you all the techniques?
I was introduced to it at the Intelligentsia account I worked for in Chicago called Savor the Flavor. It wasn’t really focused on latte art and stuff like that, I kind of figured all that stuff out on my own cause it was a fun thing to do at work. When I started working at Metropolis it wasn’t exclusive or overly “barista-y” or anything, but it was the first roasting company I worked for. Metropolis is where I was introduced to cupping and I got close to the roaster/buyer there, Chris Schooley, who now works for Coffee Shrub, a little coffee sourcing company that’s an extension of Sweet Maria’s. He was the first person to show me that coffee could be interesting.
Was he your mentor?
Well, I didn’t do any roasting under him, but he was kind of the first person I connected with, he and showed me that there was more to coffee that just working in a coffee shop.
Out of nowhere we hear a crash behind us. Jon Ferguson dropped a lap top behind us in an attempt to mess up the interview (don’t worry the laptop was already broken).
Was that for real?
Nah, he’s been doing that all day.
So what goes into green buying? And what drives the decisions you make for Dogwood Coffee?
Green buying decisions are different for every company, we’re pretty small. Some of our coffee is stuff we’ve been working on with people we’ve traveled to and met. I didn’t have much formal training to do this before I started, so all the training was from cupping a lot of coffee and figuring things out as I went. You have to taste a lot of coffee to build a palate and mental backlog of coffee and understand what you’re tasting and how to taste it. There are all kinds of other things that come into play like contracts, financing, usage and growth, figuring out how to get the coffee imported or exported and who you need to work with.
If we were some kind of tiny boutique roaster that only roasted 20 pounds a week, maybe we would buy ridiculous expensive coffee all the time, but I think that the buying goals for us are to buy really good coffee that fits in many different areas. I don’t mean that all coffees necessarily have to be crowd pleasers— we do like to try to push people to try new things.
Since we started I think what where we have really pushed people is in the roasting, because we don’t do any dark roasts and people are very dark roast focused here, or they were four years ago. I think we’re pushing coffee drinkers here to be more critical of roast and hopefully encouraging other companies around here to become better roasters as well.
Why don’t you do dark roast?
Because we’re not really interested in that flavor, its kind charred and chalky and burnt. It takes the flavor away. You can do a really good dark roast or a really bad dark roast too, but it doesn’t really highlight the characters of the coffee. It makes it more about the roast and not the flavor of the coffee. We’re more focused on the flavor of the coffee, but also we don’t under-roast either.
There’s a trend of the Norwegian style or Scandinavian style of roasting which is to roast super, super light. You could argue that it’s coffee true form, but it’s not really, because we believe the roasting is a value-add to the coffee. We’re not just buying the coffee and everything is within the coffee and we’re trying to leave it as it is, we interpret that flavor with the roaster.
I like to think that we have well developed light roasts.
When you do a sample roast, are you actually trying to figure out the way the bean tastes the best?
The sample roasting is mostly used for buying, to see if we like enough to buy it or to evaluate a sample. You can change the way a coffee tastes by roasting it slightly differently at the same roast level with a sample roast. It takes a lot of practice and an understanding of what you’re doing to the coffee, and how to taste that roast of that coffee. I’ve done that sometimes just to see what flavors are available in a coffee. But the reality of the sample roast versus the big roaster is that it doesn’t translate. It’s a totally different roasting environment. The way that the coffee is actually going to taste when we do a production batch is going to be different than anything we do in the sample roaster.
What are your favorite parts of the coffee culture?
The reason that I liked working in a coffee shop was that everybody had other interests, and other interests we encouraged. It wasn’t just that people were only baristas. Dogwood is a lot like that. Our focus is coffee obviously, but we’re all individuals—we all have other things that matter in our lives. I love that it’s one product, but everyone takes part in it at different levels and in different areas.
Traveling really helps me put everything into perspective. I’ve learned the most about coffee from traveling.
Coffee is an organic product so it changes with time, weather, how you roast it etc. It’s not a constant. When I visit places where coffee is grown, in some places I see that thousands of different people have contributed to a coffee that we buy, with slightly different methods, attention to detail and conditions. It’s not this organized, isolated, perfect thing.
There’s a place for people to agonize over one gram here, or one gram there, and there’s a place for the opposite. There’s a place where it’s more natural, but I like it because there’s a place for everyone who wants to do something.
Where’d you travel last?
Honduras. This is our first year for that origin. I went there twice, once with Jon in December and again in February. We’re trying to focus on relationships, knowing people, working closely with the people growing the coffee and understanding their process more and get great coffee for our customers. Because of that, we’re slowly adding origins in that fashion. We are quite small, so travel for us is pretty expensive and it’s not possible to travel extensively for all of our coffee right now.
If you compare the same coffees but from different roasters, will they taste the same?
No, they’ll be different interpretations of the same coffee—because while companies may be receiving similar beans, they’ll be roasting on different equipment and they’ll roast it however they decide that coffee does best in their environment.
Would it be worth buying another roast from the same origin and comparing it?
Yeah! I love doing that. A year or two ago Heart Roasters in Portland had a couple of the same coffees we had, so we asked them to trade. It’s fun to see what they did with a similar coffee.
Who are your favorite roasters?
I really like Stumptown. When I moved to Portland for four months in 2008, I had only heard of Stumptown, but I had never had any. When you get that big, you have to deal with inconsistency, but really there’s inconsistency at every level in coffee. They’re a bigger company, so there will be places where they might seem to fail or be spread too thin, but in the same vein, they’ll succeed much more in a lot of areas because they’re a big company. I think they buy really great coffee and I really like their roasting style.
One of my favorite coffee shops is the Stumptown Annex. In this shop, they’re displaying all the coffees they’re offering at that time, and it’s just pour overs—no refrigeration, no milk or anything. It’s just coffee.
People don’t just like a particular brand only because of the coffee. For Dogwood, want a big part of it to be because they like our coffee, the way we source and the way we roast it. But, it’s also the way we present it, the people who work for the company, what kind of support and attention we give our customers, and what kind of attitudes those people have about coffee and life in general. It’s more about a commitment to understanding the product as a whole.
We’re a young company so we’re learning. If we go long on a coffee, or we run slim on offerings because we’re trying to be careful about going long or something is delayed, or if we try something new and risky, we want customers who are going to stick with us because they trust us and they know that we’re working hard to do a really awesome job, but we’re not perfect. You don’t want someone who is going to dump you because you’re trying to figure something out. There’s so much more to a relationship than that.
When you leave the warehouse, what do you do?
I just go home.
No way, come on, what do you do around town? Where do you throw one back?
Yes alcohol! Do you only drink coffee?
No, I drink alcohol. We get a lot of free beer here. We trade coffee for beer with Indeed Brewing, so that’s nice.
I’m kind of a homebody introvert type. I think all of the times I’ve gone out you’ve seen me (Looks at Greg).
What’s your drink?
I just liked plain old good brewed coffee. Urban Bean has great Air Pot batch coffee. Espresso just makes me feel like shit. My brain, my whole everything is bad. I do a lot of tasting and spitting out, but it still messes me up.
credits: photos by Eliesa Johnson