FEAST: Caffeinated Sensibilities
Snake River Roasting competes with a unique bean and helps to improve the lives of women coffee growers in other places.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks once said, “I was taken by the power that savoring a simple cup of coffee can have to connect people and create community.” This certainly reflects Snake River Roasting Company’s ethos both on a local and a global scale.
This weekend SNR’s coffee mavens are sneaking their beans across state lines to Austin, Texas, where they’ll face off against more than 30 competitors in a qualifying comp for the U.S Coffee Championships in Seattle, Washington, this spring.
But this isn’t SNR’s first foray in the competitive bean scene. It won two bronze medals at the Golden Bean Roast in Portland, Oregon, this past October, and a Golden Cup award from the Specialty Coffee Company of America.
However, this competition is unique. In previous comps, the team has had the freedom to select beans of its choice. The caveat for the upcoming qualifier is that each competitor has been sent the exact same raw Kenyan AA coffee bean to roast.
And this bean is special. Information sent with the beans identify them as a fully washed and sun dried product grown between October and December in the foothills of Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains in red volcanic soil rich in organic matter. In the realm of reality TV and cooking shows like Chopped or Master Chef, this would constitute a “Black Box Scenario,” meaning the SNR roasting team has to work magic with an unusual ingredient.
Petroff, along with lead roaster Jennifer Vickland and the rest of the SNR team need to develop a flavor profile, execute the roasting process, and perfect a product which will represent their unique style. Then, in very sommelier fashion, espresso shots will be cupped and noisily sipped as the judges examine the brew, working to detect earthy caramel tones or fruity grassy flavors.
It could be thanks to Petroff’s multiple daily espresso tastings that her eyes seem to sparkle when she discusses the nuances of designer coffee roasting. “In coffee we don’t really have standards for roasting. It’s entirely subjective at this point, so all of these competitions are geared toward creating standards, which will help us all to better develop our products.”
In a fickle field where the quality of the bean is affected by time, humidity, and climate, and the quality of the roast is determined by the exact same elements, these competitions provide a free flow of information to navigate complicated waters.
And like any good entrepreneur, Petroff does not underestimate the importance of continuing education. “Last year we spent 5 percent of the budget on travel, education, and competition. Everyone who works here is a trained barista and mechanic. If a driver is out on delivery and a customer needs to know how to fix their machine or pull a shot of espresso, then we all have to be able to help.” She added that a big part of helping to build a coffee culture within a community is being able to share knowledge and passion for the process.
Petroff and crew are also unique beyond the beans they roast. At the time of this interview, the entire roasting staff at SNR was comprised of women. While that changed with a new recruit on Monday, this is highly unusual for a coffee company. Of the 34 participants competing in Austin only three are female.
The gender disparity in the field is something Petroff and her employees are aware of. Perhaps that’s why they’ve made it a goal to become part of the coffee world’s larger feminine narrative. Petroff—with advice from Pinedale native Katherine Oglietti of Organic Products Trading Company (OPTC) and celebrated roaster Kathi Zollman of Driggs—now purchases a variety of beans from OPTC’s “Cafe Femenino Program.”
This female inspired enterprise works with cooperatives in Latin America to create incentives that support women as landowners, coffee producers and co-op leaders.
In Columbia, Cafe Femenino and the Cooperativa Del Sur Del Cauca helped create cleaner, healthier kitchens in a country where dirt floors and unventilated wood fires are standard for low-income families. The effort has resulted in the construction of 47 kitchens for members of the Women’s Coffee Association, with more in the works.
In Peru, the program has offered canning courses for fall fruit harvests, cultivation techniques for quinoa and amaranth crops, and projects building on-site community gardens at remote school locations.