Talking Coffee with Brooklyn Roasting Company’s Head Roaster, Amy Marshall

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Photos by Jane Bruce

Amy Marshall still remembers her first cup of coffee: Sumatra, loaded with a ton of sugar and half and half. And after 10 years of professional roasting experience under her lid, the new roast master at Brooklyn Roasting Company still thinks it’s okay to add a little cream and sugar to your coffee.

Marshall joined the coffee company in September and is committed to having people know their coffee beans as well as they know their farmer. She’s stripping down the pretentiousness of terms like “going to origin” (that means visiting a coffee farm for us regular joes) and approaches each roast with equal parts dedication and fun.

“This one smells like green pepper,” Marshall says, splitting open a bean. It’s hot in the roastery, located in the entrance of the company’s Dumbo café, and the heat only adds to the spicy punch. “This is something I like to do–take one bean, this is the Nicaragua, and split it down the middle. Smell it. I do that with almost every bean, every roast.”

Brooklyn Roasting Company began in Jim Munson’s Williamsburg loft in 2009. The fast growing company now has facilities on Jay Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn Navy Yard and by the first week of May, Manhattan. The new café will open at 50 West 23rd Street, in Chelsea, but all roasting will still be done in Brooklyn.

In addition to using Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and organic-certified coffees, the company takes a coffee for the people approach to business and continues to mold in different ways.

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“The marriage of coffee and Brooklyn is really great, both are really big and coffee is a universal solvent when it comes to people,” Munson says. “Coffee is a really social beverage, it’s centered around people.”

And that’s just the energy Marshall puts into her roasts. Marshall, 32, began working in coffee shops when she was 15 years old, starting with an afterschool gig at one of her local haunts in Old Saybrook, Conn. She went on to study film and television studies in college, never stepping foot inside that industry but always working with coffee.

Marshall eventually landed in Burlington, Vt. working at Uncommon Grounds Coffee & Tea for nearly 8 years.

“The guy who was the head roaster there was in at least four different bands and he was always touring and he needed somebody to cover,” Marshall remembers. “When I first started, I would have to get on this little stool and struggle to get the coffee in. And now I’m”–she paused briefly–“very strong. I think you find a way to manipulate these bags.”

The bags weigh anywhere from 130 to 150 pounds.

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Marshall roasts about 10,000 pounds of coffee every week, sometimes 1,500 pounds a day on a Loring Kestrel half-bag roaster, a fine piece of equipment that Marshall considers herself “lucky” to be able to use.

When she’s not overseeing the roaster, Marshall is behind what could double as a command post–a computer display with colorful graphs measuring the roasting curve alongside a panel to input temperatures and roast time. In order to keep track of her roasts, Marshall uses an application to keep track of inventory and save roasting profiles. She manages about 20 different profiles.

Marshall works closely with an entire team at Brooklyn Roasting Company to ensure quality–everyone from the baristas to the owners and quality control managers.

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“We work together to find how to get the best out of every coffee bean that comes in,” she says.

There’s been a “huge disconnect” in the United States when it comes to coffee, Marshall says, reaching as far back to the days of instant coffee. But that attitude is shifting for the better.

“People didn’t really understand that coffee is a produce, coming from a cherry and where it was coming from,” she says. “There’s a definite interest in people caring about where their coffee comes from and knowing where it comes from.”

“Still sometimes at the end of the day, people will need a cup of coffee like they need a tank of gas and they’ll buy it for 75 cents at the bodega. It gets you going but it’s not necessarily the most responsible choice.”

For those moving away from the 75 cent “We Are Happy to Serve You” blue cups, Marshall recommends talking to your barista about what you’re drinking and its origins.

One 50-pound bag at a time, she’s passing on her knowledge to others. Marshall is training Tammy Lewis, a barista at the Jay Street location, to roast on the half bag machine when production steps up with the new café. Other teachings come in more indirect ways.

“I had one little girl whose grandmother told me the other day that she goes home after sitting here and pretends to lift fake beans into a fake scale,” Marshall says smiling.

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Marshall’s morning coffee routine is simple: she walks the mile and a half to work everyday (she tried running but hated it) and has her coffee here.

“Throughout the day I drink almost everything that we offer,” Marshall says. “I will get four or five ounces at a time, but I try everything we have. It’s always a discussion–we all discuss how we’re going to adapt the coffee from here. Sometimes we taste it and say this can be a little lighter or a little darker. Because it’s a produce it ages and you need to adjust accordingly.”

The roasting process goes a little something like this. Marshall measures out 60 pounds (on the dot) of coffee into a large scale. A large vacuum tube brings the coffee from the scale up to the roasting drum, where then depending on temperature, the beans toss around for about 15 minutes. After cooling in the roasting tray for a few minutes, the lever is released and the freshly roasted coffee is bagged into the large burlap bags. Marshall even took a few extra burlap bags homes with her for curtains. (Note to DIYers–Marshall does not recommend washing them first).

As she begins another roast for their espresso blend (and her favorite), the BQE, Marshall takes an Ethiopian bean out of the scale and cracks it open.

“This is the bean that smells like blueberries,” she says closing her eyes and taking a big inhalation. “If you open this one up you’re going to notice it immediately.”

Brooklyn Roasting Company, 25 Jay Street; Dumbo

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