By Matt Starlight
Putting the freshest cup of coffee in your hands every morning may seem like an simple task, and to some coffee shops, it may be. But, for the last 26 years, Highland Coffees has taken the road less traveled by strictly adhering to standards that put most commercial coffee providers to shame.
In 1989 after graduate school, Highland Coffees founder Clarke Cadzow returned to his alma mater to open a coffee shop that took as much pride in their brew as his favorite spot, Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery in Austin, Texas. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘Baton Rouge could really use a specialty coffee shop,’” said Cadzow. “I felt like it had to be next to the university, because I didn’t think it would make it anywhere else in town, because people just weren’t familiar with what a specialty coffee shop was. I like the academic community; I really wanted to be next to LSU.”
After learning the roasting ropes from friend and roastmaster Bill Trull, Cadzow opened shop with a handful of brand new equipment. Now, they roast beans on a near-daily basis, which serve as the bedrock of every coffee-drink option on the menu.
Getting that roast just right, though, has taken decades of experience to perfect.
It starts with the bean selection. All coffee beans grow along the equator, in places like South America, Africa, and Indonesia. But, placing an order from any farmer in these places would be a total crapshoot, except with worse odds.
“You can go to a country and get good coffee (they have lots of different grades of coffee), so a shop like mine would only bring in the finest coffee we could find from those countries. It’s a lot more expensive, there’s not as much of it, but it’s got a lot of flavor, it’s subtle, it’s complex. From those same countries, you could get much cheaper coffee that would not be suitable for a specialty coffee shop,” explained Cadzow.
Things like pests, hurricanes, and wars can all decimate an area’s crop, on top of the expected ebb and flow of quality. Because Highland Coffees only brings in beans of the top 5% quality, discerning what to use and what to pass on is a full-time job in itself. Cadzow credits his relationships with trusted suppliers, who travel the globe to evaluate beans, as a major contributor to his success.
Once the beans are in the shop, the roasting process begins. Because raw coffee beans have the appearance of hard green pebbles, determining just which type of roast, somewhere between a light and dark, a new batch will be comes down to experience, need, and preference.
“In the medium roast, as you get darker, certain qualities are going to be more muted. But when the bean is lighter, those qualities are more bold. So, you use the roast level to highlight flavors you want to highlight in that particular bean,” said Cadzow. “Some beans may naturally be very acidic; have a certain liveliness. But, you may want to go a little darker on those beans to soften that liveliness or acidity; whereas other coffees may not have as much acidity, you may want to go lighter on those because you want to keep all the acidity you have,” he explained.
“The dark roast has the darker bittersweet quality people that some people like, and some people don’t like that. So, we roast a lot of medium roasts and dark roasts. Within that, you’re looking for a very specific roast point,” said Cadzow. “It a full spectrum, a continuum of roast levels.
“Let’s say you want to do a medium roast. Each bean has a point that’s going to bring out the best flavors. So, some beans may taste better a little bit lighter, some beans may taste better slightly darker, but all still considered medium roasts. The tipping point between a medium and a dark is when we see oil on the surface,” explained Cadzow. “The beans crack a couple of times during the roast process, the cellular structure breaks down, and oil deep down inside the bean comes to the surface.”
Preheat the roaster between 400 and 500 degrees, pour the beans in the top, and check every few minutes to ensure they haven’t roasted past your desired level. From there, the roasted beans become the base of every coffee drink the shop makes. Seems easy enough on the surface, but Cadzow doesn’t let employees near the roaster without several months of training. Maintaining a high level of consistency is crucial to a specialty coffee’s survival, and Highland Coffees knows it.
The shop has survived the low customer base of summer months, evacuations, property disputes, and more, but what keeps this shop humming is Cadzow’s dedication to the craft. He and his staff treat the roasting process with the respect of a Shaolin Monk cleaning the temple. What may seem redundant and superfluous to the untrained eye is exactly what it takes to ascend to the next level.
Roasting coffee may not be something that you think about when you order your daily latte, but behind the scenes of your caffeine fix lie master craftsmen whose skills and experience make your morning all the better. Putting the perfect cup of coffee in your hands every morning is no simple task, but to Highland Coffees, it sure is fulfilling.