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Coffee roasting business heats up in SW Virginia

Friday - 5/11/2012, 1:42pm  ET

The Roanoke Times

ROANOKE, Va. - On a rare snowy April day in the mountains of Craig County, Mattie Barnes has the music blaring while she works her coffee roaster inside a barn at her farm.

The roaster, a large machine that turns out 25 pounds of coffee at a time, is making music of its own. The green beans turn over and over in a big drum, tumbling and cracking.

Barnes is listening for the cracking, then sizzling, her signal to drop the beans into a cooling tray to stop the roasting process.

When the beans are cooled, Barnes will package them as Mattie's Mountain Mud. Her beans get sent off to 25 commercial customers and thousands of residential customers.

Barnes, 39, began roasting coffee in Lewisburg, W.Va., 22 years ago and was one of just a few roasters in the region when she got started.

Now, more roasters have joined the scene as specialty coffees are catching on with connoisseurs.

Interest in specialty coffees started with larger companies such as Starbucks, which introduced coffee drinkers to high-quality roasts on a mass scale.

This so-called third wave of coffee takes it a step further, producing roasts that can be traced not just to countries or states, but also to regions, farms and microlots, where the soil, climate and altitude change the characteristics of the bean.

Phil Beattie, president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Roasters Guild, compared the coffee movement to that of wine or craft beer.

He also said it is popular among advocates of the local food movement.

Of course, coffee can't be grown in Southwest Virginia, but the idea is to support local roasters who help sustain small farmers in third world countries, Beattie said.

"It's a vehicle of change," he said. "You can absolutely affect people's lives in a really great way just by buying a cup of coffee. You can know that there is something good happening on the other side of that cup."

The third wave of coffee is growing in Southwest Virginia. Some roasters, such as Mattie's, Lexington Roasting Co. in Rockbridge County and Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea, have been in the roasting business for nearly 20 years or longer, before specialty coffee shops became popular.

Others have come on the scene more recently, including Red Rooster Coffee Roaster in Floyd County, Strange Coffee Co. in Roanoke County and Cups Coffee, which will soon be in operation at Cups Coffee and Tea in Roanoke.

The roasting movement in Roanoke started in 1990 with Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea, the city's first coffee shop. The shop's giant roaster, imported from Germany, was visible through the front window.

"They were ready," owner Dave Johnson recently said of the response the coffee shop received. "It was like instantaneous success. We just kind of arrived at the right time."

Johnson and his former business partner, Scott Elich, moved to Roanoke from Seattle, where coffee shops had caught on decades earlier with the opening of the first Starbucks.

They purchased beans from New York and San Francisco coffee brokers and roasted in the store as needed.

The coffee shop was popular, but its opening revealed customers' lack of exposure to specialty coffees.

"We had a lot of questions, people wanting to know what's what," Johnson said in a 1990 Roanoke Times story about the opening.

The downtown shop was such a success that Mill Mountain opened a second location in Blacksburg the following year.

Johnson now owns five coffee shops and three coffee kiosks. The company roasts about 1,000 pounds of coffee a week at four locations.

As coffee shops gained popularity, they provided a natural segue into the roasting business.

That's how Cups Coffee is getting its start.

Christopher Spoon learned to roast at Mill Mountain, and then formed his own roasting business, Honest Coffee Roasters, which provided coffee for Cups.

Spoon recently sold the business, and now he's now setting up a new roasting company, Cups Coffee, at Cups Coffee and Tea's second location on Brambleton Avenue.

Cups Coffee will provide about 100 pounds of beans a week for the shop's two locations, Spoon said. The Brambleton Avenue coffee shop is expected to open this week.

Red Rooster Coffee Roaster also got its start roasting for a coffee shop in Floyd, the Blackwater Loft, but has since taken the business in a different direction.

It still provides coffee for Blackwater Loft, but roaster Haden Polseno-Hensley also creates exclusive blends for other companies, such as Chateau Morrisette winery.

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