Article: Up Close and Personal with Lee Harris

Written by Cafe Campesino on Oct 1, 2002 in Article, NEWSLETTER |
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Lee Harris recently came on board with CC to take over coffee roasting and production duties. This Fair Grounds writer recently caught up with Lee for a quick chat.

Fair Grounds: How long have you been with Café Campesino now, about 4 months?

Lee Harris: That’s about right, I moved back to Americus in July and jumped right into the roasting process.

FG: This is not the first time you’ve spent time in Americus then?

LH: No, in fact, this is my hometown! Most recently, I returned from Tallahassee, Florida, where I had been a chef/co-owner of Cypress restaurant.

FG: And before that, you also had a restaurant in Americus, is that right?

LH: Yes, Lee’s Bakery/Deli, which was located just down the street from where we are now.

FG: That’s right…I have fond memories of that place! Now tell me, what is it about cooking in general, and your most recent restaurant in particular, that you loved?

LH: Let’s see…I just love to be in the kitchen. Cooking, baking, preparing food for folks — it’s a great way to relax and share the fruits of my labor with others. And my last restaurant? I enjoyed combining my love of cooking with an avenue to “do good”. I was able to bring our restaurant into the Second Harvest food donation network to assist people in need in the Tallahassee area.

FG: Fantastic. So working with CC, a company with a clearly defined mission centered around a high quality food product and a social justice conviction, is a natural fit?

LH: Yes, I’d say that’s accurate. Being the roaster and production guy here allows me to continue to “cook” great food for people and also give back something to the world we all share.

FG: One of the things that sets CC apart from many coffee roasters is your adherence to the Fair Trade model of purchasing the beans at a fair price. Can you give me a one-word definition of Fair Trade?

LH: Disclosure. What I like about it is that everything is above-board. There are no secret deals going on, no hidden exploitation. The cooperatives and their member farmers always receive a substantial above-market premium for a pound of beans, and the farmers we partner with are all committed to organic, sustainable growing processes.

FG: And I think your customers appreciate the same things. You mentioned earlier that as a coffee roaster, you are “cooking” great food. What exactly is the roasting process anyway? I’ve always been a bit fuzzy on that one.

LH: You’re not alone there — roasting remains a little bit of a mystery to many folks. I like to compare it to baking bread or grilling a steak, where heat is being applied to bring out the distinctive flavors of each variety. Here at CC, the beans arrive in their “green” dried state, directly from the growers. I’ll take about 30 pounds of these green beans and put them into our gas-powered drum roaster, which I usually run at about 420-450 degrees Fahrenheit.

FG: Only 30 pounds at a time? Sounds pretty labor intensive.

LH: Well, it allows us to roast in small batches. We often roast and ship the coffee on the same day. Freshness is so important to coffee’s taste, we don’t want to roast massive quantities of beans and have them sit around our warehouse for weeks and weeks.

FG: Very good point. So, what happens to the beans once they’re in the roaster?

LH: Initially, their color shifts to a yellowish tone, and as their moisture begins to evaporate, they emit a slightly grassy smell. As the beans continue to cook, or roast, they lose more moisture, the aroma becomes more like what we think of as coffee and their color continues to shift to brown. That’s when the first “crack” is heard.

FG: “Crack”? Is that an analogy for something, or can you actually hear a crack?

LH: Oh, there is certainly an audible cracking sound. At this point, the beans continue losing water, begin to caramelize their internal sugars and allow oils to rise to the surface.

FG: And does this cracking sound continue? How do you know when the beans are done?

LH: There is typically a second distinct cracking sound, and the point at which they’re done depends on the roast type we’re selecting. We have three types here at CC: medium roast, which is ready just after the first crack (for example, our Mexico Oaxaca beans); full city, which is between the two cracks and is slightly oily (our Ethiopia Limu, for instance); and dark roast, a very oily style that is ready just after the second crack (our Nicaragua Segovia Dark variety).

FG: So, if I wanted the darkest possible coffee, I should just ask you to let the roaster keep going past the second crack?

LH: Well, you’d end up with a cup of coffee that I wouldn’t want to drink! When we take the beans out at the dark roast stage, their sugars are on the verge of burning, the oils are quite volatile and smoke is really pouring out of the roaster. If I left them in much longer, the beans would become black, not a darker brown, and you’d end up with coffee that tasted something like thin watery charcoal liquid.

FG: Hmmm, I think I’ll leave the roasting decisions in your hands then. What’s your favorite part of the roasting process?

LH: I’d have to say it’s when the beans drop out of the roaster into the tray — the intense aroma, the visual of all the beans sliding out and mixing together — a very satisfying moment.

FG: And your favorite coffee? Or can you not play favorites when you’re so involved in the process?

LH: At the moment, I’d choose our Sumatra Gayo Mountain, because of its full-bodied, rich flavor. It’s been called the “Guinness” of coffee, and for good reason!

FG: Lee, I’d like to thank you for taking time away from the roaster to answer a few questions today, and for enlightening our readers about the roasting process.

LH: My pleasure.

FG: Before you go, could you fill me in on one other aspect of the coffee process? Exactly how do you get the caffeine out of the bean for CC’s decaf coffees?

LH: With very very small tweezers, of course. But seriously, let’s revisit that in a future issue when we have more time. The roaster is calling!

Lee Harris is a well-known southern chef who trained at the New England Culinary Institute and is also the brother of green coffee guy Bill Harris.

Nate Wayman is a caffeine addict who is currently studying non-profit management in southern Vermont. He can be reached at nate@ifairtrade.net.

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