In 1989, a young Pierre Capy stopped in for a cup of coffee at a café called the Coffee Connection in Cambridge, MA.. He had never had anything like it before in his life, and two weeks later he was working for that café’s legendary owner, George Howell. Pierre’s life was on a completely new course.
When he and his wife, Ellen, opened Mocha Joe’s Café in Brattleboro in 1991, they were serving Coffee Connection beans. But when
that company was sold to Starbucks in 1994 and they were unable to get the high quality roasted coffee that had ignited their passion, they began creating their own roasts, and Mocha Joe’s Coffee Roasters was born.
Cut to the present day, at the roasting shop in Brattleboro, where Mike explains that “one origin is roasted at a time,” meaning individual lots of beans from each country are roasted separately. Mike, Jesse and Colin roast about 125,000 lbs per year, which get distributed to over one hundred wholesale customers throughout our region, including our Co-op’s Bulk Department. But before the beans arrive in Brattleboro, they’re shipped from all over the globe to New Jersey. Mocha Joe’s has an industrial storage facility there, where most of the raw, unroasted (“green”) coffee beans are kept. When they’re green, they last about six months, at least in the world of specialty coffee—commercial roasters store them for up to three years. Once roasted, the beans are only considered good for two to three weeks, if the high standards Mocha Joe’s sets for quality are to be maintained. The peak flavor is between two and five days after roasting. The coffee we get in the Bulk Department at the Co-op is actually roasted to order (how’s that for fresh!?), and if you ever want to know when the batch of beans you’re purchasing was roasted, just ask an employee; they’ll be happy to get the date
The roasting machine is the keystone of any great roasting company. Mocha Joe’s got theirs on a visit to a coffee business in Western Mass to check out their new equipment. Pierre and Jackie, Director of Business Development and Strategic Growth, noticed a giant, tarp-covered object outside, peered underneath, and found something incredible: a 1940’s era Probat-brand roaster, with a tree growing through the cooling tray. They got it home to Brattleboro, refurbished it, and it’s now the pride and joy of the shop, akin to one of those old pot-bellied, cast-iron kitchen ranges . . . if it was in Frankenstein’s lab—it’s covered with wires, dials, aluminum patches and WWII-era details. “It’s like a classic car,” Jackie, says. “It’s the best vintage of the best brand of roaster you can get.”
Mike, who has been head roaster for two and a half years, says he was often instructed when he was learning the trade to “be gentle with the beans,” and describes roasting as a physical and chemical process. Scents, sounds, and appearance are used as signals of where in the process of the Maillard reaction the beans are in (this is the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that create all the complex flavors and beautiful brown hues of cooking).
“Mocha Joe’s has been doing great coffee since before it was cool,” Jackie says. When they first opened Mocha Joe’s Café, Pierre and Ellen constantly “had to explain what a cappuccino is, what a latté is,” he says. Jackie has met folks who own their own micro-roasting businesses who have told her “you guys are why I’m doing this.” They credit a chance encounter with Mocha Joe’s with inspiring them to begin their own coffee adventure, much like Pierre was inspired by George Howell all those years ago. Since they began, the specialty coffee industry has grown by leaps and bounds, and fads have come and gone. The trend is currently towards much lighter roasts that emphasize brightness and acidity, and favor connoisseurship over affordability. And of course there are the chains that offer decent coffee at decent prices, but their business and environmental practices may be questionable. Where others would force a choice between fancy coffee at fancy prices, or cheap coffee that forces the folks lower down the economic ladder to absorb the true cost of good beans, Mocha Joe’s provides an alternative. With an emphasis on ethical sourcing through direct trade, and dependably delicious roasts, their coffee is easy on the palate and the purse. Their philosophy is pretty simple: they use great coffee beans, and “roast the best we can,” says Jackie.
The roasting crew also embodies a similar down-to-Earth attitude when it comes to the craft of coffee. Colin, who has worked there for four years, refuses to be snobby about extraction methods (how the coffee is brewed). “However you like to make your coffee is the best way,” he says. It’s a refreshing, unfussy approach that Pierre himself exemplifies. When I asked about his favorite brew method, he said, “Cowboy coffee. But it’s only good because you’re camping.” This is a pretty hilarious answer coming from a person whose life has been defined by creating quality coffee. But it also exemplifies an important aspect of the Mocha Joe’s philosophy—this is great coffee that meets you where you’re at. Whether it’s a dark, delicious, auto-drip cup of French roast with the perfect amount of cream as you run to work, or a masterful extraction of beans freshly ground at the peak moment of flavor and freshness, Mocha Joe’s is the perfect choice.
The biggest story, though, is where the beans come from. Coffee plants grow best near the equator in a particular climate and elevation; only certain countries meet all the requirements for this crop. But we need those beans here, in the US, where we drink more coffee than anywhere in the world! Historically, coffee plantations were farmed by the poor, indigenous populations of these countries, and a separate company would act as middleman, paying the farmers the lowest price possible for their beans, and getting the highest price possible when selling them to roasters in the US or Europe. But cutting out the middleman is economically more advantageous for both parties, and allows roasters to develop relationships with coffee farming communities that are sometimes, like in the case of Mocha Joe’s Roasting Company, extraordinary.
Some regions have robust coffee farming and processing industries. For instance in Guatemala, Mocha Joe’s works with one farmer, Rene Bezas, who is their sole supplier of Guatemalan beans. In other places multiple farmers may work with Mocha Joe’s, for instance in Cameroon over a hundred farmers are contributing just one bag of beans per year to that origin’s collective output. Mocha Joe’s gets beans from about a dozen countries around the globe, from Central America to east Asia; four of these are Direct Trade programs, where Mocha Joe’s employees work directly with farmers. In other cases they work with organizations that support “cool supply chain stuff,” as Jackie puts it, with a focus on human-centered, ethical, environmentally friendly practices, like La Minita, (another Vermont-headquartered organization), Gold Mountain Coffee Growers in Nicaragua, and San Cristobal Coffee Importers—all incredible organizations dedicated to improving the communities they do business in.
Mocha Joe’s itself has been an industry leader in this regard. In fact, what they’ve done in Cameroon is essentially unheard of for a coffee company of their size. In the villages of Oku and Mbessa, they’ve virtually built the specialty coffee industry from the ground up, taking care at every step of the way to make a positive impact on these communities in real and substantial ways. Four full time employees (Philip, Director; Jude, Director of Organic Certification; Cassman; and Gilbert) work on the ground with farmers, pickers, and sorters, assisting them in their endeavor to cultivate beans that meet the high standards of specialty grade coffee. For the farmers especially, who had to learn how to grow certified organic coffee, it’s an ongoing process that requires consistent development and education, a huge undertaking requiring much skill and support, which Mocha Joe’s provides via their Organic Program. Every week they have “organic meetings” run by Jude: workshops that cover farm business, technical support, and other relevant issues. They also invest in each farmer in other ways, such as paying about three times more than the local going price for each bag of coffee. Once they commit to growing for Mocha Joe’s, all the farmers have a bank account opened in their name, and are able to borrow the equivalent of 50% of their annual coffee yield to grow their operations.
Mocha Joe’s leases their own coffee mill there, where the beans are separated from the outer hull of the coffee cherries, and sorters pick out defective beans by hand. Normally coffee beans are sorted once to remove imperfections; Mocha Joe’s beans are sorted two or three times. Employees are given a hot lunch every day, a ride home at night, and, notably, Muslims and Christians work side-by-side, which is rare in this area.
Annually there’s an Employee Day, when Pierre gives out calendars, shirts, and photos—simple things which may seem insignificant to us, but in Cameroon, they are are greatly valued, particularly the photographs, which are usually prohibitively expensive. Mocha Joe’s has a respectful, big-hearted approach to business here, which is rare in a country where colonialism has been a part of its history for centuries, and corruption and extreme poverty are the norm. Just like our Co-op, Mocha Joe’s is an enterprise that has more than money as its bottom line.
Through the story of Mocha Joe’s Roasting Co., the startling interconnectedness of our world is revealed. One can see how reliant we are on other people, some of them clear across the globe, for even the most basic necessities. And buying Mocha Joe’s beans in our Co-op’s bulk bins is, in a sense, completing the circle: here in Brattleboro you can buy this amazing coffee, made with love, which started its journey down the street, traveled around the world, and has come home to roost. Or roast.
Join us at the Co-op on Friday 3/23, from 12-2pm to sample Mocha Joe’s coffee.
By Ruth Garbus