Standing beside a fire engine red, 7-foot-tall coffee roaster at Woods Coffee’s Lynden base, Shea Hagan describes coffee with terms like flavor profile, structure, acidity, and sweetness.
He can taste a difference between regular and decaf coffee. He can even tell by taste which decaffeinating processes is used.
As head roaster at Woods Coffee, having such a nuanced palette is part of Hagan’s job. For eight hours a day, he oversees the roasting process. Heat rises off the roaster, wafting with it the toasty aroma of browning beans.
“Every coffee is a little different, and so is the roast,” Hagan said. “We’ll roast it to bring out things that are particular to a varietal; to make that varietal shine.”
Last month, Hagan’s job got a lot busier. Woods Coffee started roasting all its beans in-house in January, and made the announcement at the end of May.
Since the change, fresh roasted beans arrive daily from the distribution center to all 14 of Woods locations around the county. Since the announcement, sales have increased by about 20 percent, said Wes Herman, founder and owner of Woods Coffee.
Herman said he waited six months make the roasting announcement so that he wouldn’t skew what people thought about the coffee.
Those first six months allowed Herman to get feedback and perfect the roasting process. During that time, Herman said, they only heard positive comments about their coffee.
“We shoot for a higher quality than we were releasing previously,” he said. “For the people who really pay close attention, they know when something changes. Our goal is to produce something that gives them such a great experience that they actually notice.”
The improved quality comes from fresher beans and better roasts, Herman said.
Herman planned to eventually roast coffee from the beginning of Woods Coffee, 12 years ago. He wanted to control as much of the coffee serving process as he could, he said.
His original plan for his coffee chain also included a bakery, which he started up four years ago. Roasting got put off, partly because it costs more to start than baking, Herman said.
“If I get flour, sugar, water, and I’ve got an oven and a mixer, I can produce baked goods pretty quickly,” he said. “Roasting at the level that we’re doing, we had to bring in more power, the equipment costs were greater, the inventory amounts were greater.”
Herman’s investment in roasting equipment is paying off with an increase in sales, but also with a more efficient distribution process. Along with the warehouse space for roasting, Woods Coffee got a distribution center.
Previously, paper goods came from one source, baked items came from another source, and roasted coffee came from yet more separate sources. Now, the distribution center delivers all that in one daily delivery.
To keep up with increased demand and finish roasting beans before the hottest part of the summer day, Hagan, the head roaster, and co-roaster Chris Forsyth start work at 4 or 5 a.m. Each 40-pound batch of beans takes about 15 minutes to go from green to brown in the 400 degree roaster.
A roast starts when green beans drop into a preheated roaster atop the machine. The room temperature cool the roasting chamber by about 200 degrees.
For the next 15 minutes, the temperature in the roaster has to rise constantly and consistently to get a good roast, Hagan said.
“You have to be on it,” he said. “We constantly have to be aware of the time and what the temperature is. At anytime a roast can take off or start a fire.”
Next to the roaster, a computer and a pair of screens plots the roaster’s temperature. Automation keeps each roast consistent, Hagan said.
After roasting for 15 minutes, the batch of beans drops into a circular cooling bin, where a stainless steel paddle stirs them. This stops the beans from further roasting
Hagan began his coffee career making espresso and steaming milk as a barista. After a stint doing quality control work for an Italian coffee company in London, he moved to Portland and learned to roast. When he moved to Bellingham, he started roasting at Moka Joe Coffee, before Moke Joe moved its roasting facility to Anacortes.
Taste is Hagan’s passion, and not just for coffee. He also owns and works at the Redlight Bar on State Street.
Herman said Hagan was a crucial element to roasting coffee in-house.
“We felt had to have a very strong team led by someone who really knew what they were doing,” Herman said. “We were fortunate to have someone like that right here in Bellingham.
Herman said Woods Coffee will offer cupping and tasting courses soon, and he hopes to open a store in Skagit County this year.
As for Herman’s original goal of controlling as much of the process as possible?
“The only thing left for us is to own our own cows,” he jokes.