Interview: Matt Brown of Cafe Imports

Matt Brown, is that coffee in the background? - Cafe Imports

Post written by Jesse Harriott

As a coffee enthusiast, I am super delighted to see the ever increasing recognition that coffee producers (fincas, fazendas, estates, co-ops et al.) receive for their hard work. Much of this is due to the increased efforts of coffee roasters and baristas to highlight the transparency of the coffee chain, foster direct relationships with producers and share more specific information about the coffee they roast, taste and serve.

So how do many coffee roasters meet producers? How do coffee roasters get their coffee from a coffee producing country to their roastery floor? You may know when coffee is seasonally harvested, but when is it going to actually get on a ship and clear customs? How are the logistics of warehousing large amounts of coffee worked out? Much of this is done by my personal champs, The Coffee Importers.

Every few weeks (and more frequently sometimes), I call around to our trusted coffee importers to see what coffees are landing in the States, what lots they are excited about, what samples are available to try, what coffees we should hold, what coffees we should ship to the roastery, how their dog is doing and to be honest, I usually tell at least one or two bad jokes in the process.  Oh, and did I mention that I get A LOT of samples?

When we call Cafe Imports, I usually talk with Matt Brown.  He is our rep there and is very gracious, flexible, knowledgeable, laughs occasionally at my jokes and always remembers to add a liftgate to our shipping request.  He even came and visited Louisville a couple of months back, so we got to see him without his aviators on (see the pic).   I thought you should get to know him better and a little more about the process of what happens at a coffee importing business.  Enjoy the Q&A with Matt Brown:

How did you get to Cafe Imports? Your Storyline – Barista, Passions, etc.

How did I get here…that’s a question I tend to ask myself every day.  My coffee “journey,” per se, has been a fairly short but thrilling ride.  Being honest, I didn’t care too much for coffee not all that long ago; but thanks to a persistent roommate who was involved in the Mpls coffee scene, I couldn’t help but grow in curiosity. I ended up getting a gig at a local shop, where I learned the ropes and basically fell in love with coffee.  The day after I got hired at that shop there was an event at Café Imports, and I just had to attend.  Almost exactly a year later I applied here and was blessed with the amazing new opportunity to work on a whole new side of the industry.  More so that the product itself, it’s been the people that keep me excited to work in this business.  There is a genuine hunger for knowledge and excellence that you can’t find most other places.  Being able to combine vocation, education, and recreation into the 9-5 lifestyle is the best.  Plus, after it all there’s still time for Wheel of Fortune.

How much coffee do you guys import a year?

We have anywhere from 12 to 15 million pounds come through our warehouse in a given year, the guys that handle receiving and shipping are absolute champions.

What sort of brewing equipment do you have at work?

Most anything that a coffee geek could want: Various pour-over methods, Clever, Aeropress, Siphon, a 2-group Hydra that puts up with our nerdy nonsense, and even the house robot Mr. Clover joins in the fun from time to time.

What are your favorite brew parameters and favorite brew methods right now?  

I’m sad to say that I don’t get to play around with brews as much as I’d like. Most days we’ll go with Chemex right around the standard 2g/oz with small variances as needed.  Over the summer we experimented with a few different cold brew methods with mixed success.  Alas, our R/D time was always cut short (I could swear the plan with the Clever had great potential…)  We have the awesome problem  of a constant refreshing of new coffees, so going with tried and true methods helps differentiate and characterize each one more accurately.

Favorite part of job?

Working with new people on a daily basis.  Our customers are some of the best out there, and every time the phone rings it means a new question/idea/update that you hadn’t heard before.  This is easily the most dynamic job I’ve ever had in that regard and I love it.

Least favorite part of job (that your boss won’t fire you over :))?

Honestly, the withdrawal of not being behind a bar every day.  Making drinks for yourself just isn’t the same…  We recently had an event here where I was able to do some brewing/serving and I had forgotten how much I loved it.  There’s just something about that kind of work that you can’t get anywhere else.

Current favorite coffees?

I’d have to go with Guatemala at the moment, specifically a few lots from Huehuetenango.  It’s just such a balanced, versatile coffee that never gets old.  Looking a bit into the future, we’ve been tasting some Burundi pre-shipments that are the cat’s pajamas.

All-time favorite coffee or fav region or varietal, etc.?

That’s a really tough one…I kind of feel like if I answer it the Coffee Spirits will strike me down simply for choosing.  Taking that chance though, a Bourbon from San Jose in El Salvador could make me smile most any day.

What is the process for an importer choosing a lot of coffee?

The story behind each coffee will definitely look different depending on the origin and the relationships involved.  If we looked at a specific example like Colombia, the process typically starts with one of our sourcing team traveling down to origin and cupping with producers, the co-ops, and other involved parties like the exporter.  They’ll get a feel for the current year’s crop, meet with specific producers either that we know or are hoping to purchase from, and potentially start working out details for contracts based on those cuppings and/or the quality of farm practices.  After that point we’ll get samples sent to our offices here prior to shipment, once that sample is confirmed in our lab the coffee is on its way!  There are obviously more details and variances involved along the way, but that gives a good general picture.

You guys get alot of awesome CoE (Cup of Excellence) lots, how do you guys go about getting these (people on the ground, etc. elaborate as you wish)?

CoE is a very unique program, in that the process itself finds these fantastic producers.  We love seeing farmers that we know get recognized for outstanding quality within CoE, but who gets what ultimately comes down to an auction.  We’ve had the privilege of sending a number of staff members to be part of the international jury at CoE, which gives us an insight into the coffees that we might specifically be interested in.  We also hold public cuppings of the CoE samples sent out to members, where we’ll get to try them at least one more time before bidding.  At the end of the day though, who wants a coffee more determines the outcome, leaving producers with no ceiling on what price they can get for their lot!

Other favorite craft/trade areas that you respect for their integrity?

Perhaps it’s too obvious of an answer, but the craft cocktail scene is one that I can’t help but enjoy.  There are so many similarities to coffee in the attention to detail, the unending pursuit of quality, and the wide range of taste preferences and possibilities.  We’re fortunate to live in a city with multiple options for great cocktails, it seemed to me that Louisville was no slouch either (would’ve guessed being right in the heart of Bourbon-land).  Maybe a less traditional answer from me would be custom-made guitars, specifically acoustic guitars.  I’ve dabbled in playing since high-school, and having limited exposure to the world of artisan luthiers is absolutely fascinating.  So many options of different woods, different treatments, different shapes/designs that all produce different sounds…  Waiting 10 minutes for an amazing cup of coffee is nothing compared to waiting months (or years) for a perfectly-crafted guitar!

How does Louisville compare to other cities you’ve been to for coffee culture?  How could we improve?  (Don’t worry; you won’t hurt our feelings, and encouraging critique is highly desirable)

The thing that I loved most about the Louisville scene was the simple passion of everyone that I met.  It was easy to see that the coffee culture was poised for growth, and it was really exciting.  Beyond the talent and the quality was a true sense of community and genuine “fun,” for lack of a better term.  Louisville certainly isn’t quite as developed as other places, but the people who are currently (and who have been) laying the groundwork are outstanding.  In some ways I see Louisville as a city just waiting for the right spark to set it off, a dark horse in the race for America’s next booming coffee haven.  If great new shops keep opening, new baristas continue to emerge on the competition scene, and top-notch roasters keep working into the national market, it’s only a matter of time.

Your favorite coffee bar experience ever?

This has to go to Fernwood Coffee in Victoria, BC.  I stopped in there the summer of 2011 and had an absolute blast.  Rob Kettner (the reigning Canadian barista champ at the time) was gracious enough to show me around their shop and roasting works, along with letting my unworthy hands poke around their brand new Strada EP.  It was the perfect summation of everything I love about the industry, people welcoming a random guy from across the continent and treating him like family.  We talked coffee for a bit, I got a great tip on where to find the best food that Victoria had to offer, and I can even attribute my interest in working at Café Imports to that very experience. Naturally, I had an incredible shot there as well…

A little insight into sampling/cupping processes at Cafe Imports? Expound as you wish…

One look into our sample room alleviates all of my envy for our Sensory Analysis crew.  Sorting through the countless coffees coming in, they coordinate cupping schedules for each day that work through the various offers/approvals/arrivals coming through the door.  A typical sample will earn a spot on the table, be roasted the evening before cupping, and set up alongside coffees of a similar nature (or completely opposite depending on the goal of the cupping).  As a Sales team we are able to join in on the cuppings, helping to provide feedback and keep ourselves acquainted with the inventory on hand.  It’s a fascinating exercise, as we get to try out the full spectrum of “Specialty” coffees, from those that are outrageously good, to those that somehow went completely awry.  On any given table there may be a lot that makes you cheer, and a lot that… well, you politely never speak of again.  Every coffee professional should be lucky enough to work through a defect cupping, it’ll change your life.

About Jesse Harriott

Jesse Harriott and his beautiful familyCurrently working as a shop operations manager, roaster, and barista for Sunergos Coffee in Louisville, Kentucky, Jesse Harriott has been a coffee professional for just about 9 years now. Jesse has been roasting for about 4 of those years.  More importantly, Jesse is married to a lovely woman and has 3 wonderful children, of which two occasionally help him in the roastery (you know…as helpful as an 8 and 5 year old can be).

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