Jul 20, 2021 • 43M

Buy Past Crop Coffee with Baylee Engberg

Practicing sustainability in coffee means contending with past crop harvests

Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Ashley Rodriguez
Episode details

Boss Barista is a weekly newsletter and podcast series about workplace equity and employee empowerment in coffee and beyond. If you’re not already subscribed, welcome! I’m glad you found your way here. Before you go, sign up, will ya? Here’s a cute little button to make it easy:

If the following piece resonates with you, consider donating to my Patreon. Pledges of any size help me produce these stories, and your support is gratefully received.

Baylee Engberg is a roaster who wants you to embrace past crop coffees. 

That’s still a pretty novel position—coffee is an industry that touts freshness, which means “past crop” can feel taboo. Most coffee is harvested just once each year, and it’s generally thought to be at its peak for the year following. A past crop coffee is more than a year old—the coffee that you still have on hand when the new year’s harvest comes in. 

Most roasters and importers avoid large stocks of past crop coffees by making projections. Even if they’re imperfect, those estimates help such businesses put a figure on how much coffee they’ll need and consume in a year—especially if their job is to import hundreds of thousands of bags of coffee annually. But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended expected buying and consuming patterns, meaning there are more past crop coffees sitting in warehouses than ever before. 

This is where an opportunity arises to change the received narrative. Just because past crop coffees are older doesn’t mean they can’t be roasted well and still drink deliciously. Does green coffee really have to be at the peak of freshness to be enjoyed? Is it sustainable to ignore past crop coffees? And don’t roasters have the power to highlight different flavors that maximize the full potential of a past crop coffee? 

Baylee thinks so, and she has a lot to say about how we talk about past crop coffees. This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed her—like some of our guests who also happen to be roasters, I interviewed her for the Matchbook Coffee podcast in 2020. She brings energy and passion to everything she dedicates time to, and this conversation is a dynamic look at how roasters can embrace past crop coffees—and why it’s essential for our industry to do so. Here’s Baylee. 

Ashley: Baylee, I wanted to have you on the show for, I'm going to say three reasons. I could probably think of more as I keep going. 

Number one, you're one of the most dynamic people on audio that I've ever interviewed. 

Number two, I loved interviewing you the last time—we interviewed you while you were sitting on a motorcycle, which you're not now because of the heatwave in Portland. 

And three, you're a person who is not afraid to share what you're thinking, which is going to make this interview really exciting. I'm also excited and nervous for our listeners who are just going to hear the two of us just go, bam, bam, bam, bam. Really fast. I was hoping you could introduce yourself to everyone really quickly.

Baylee: Hey everyone. I am Baylee Engberg. I have been in coffee for 13 years, starting as a barista. And then after seven years, I became a roaster. I sit on the leadership council for the Coffee Roasters Guild. I also run #ShesTheRoaster and I am the U.S. chapter Social Accountability Coordinator for SCA [Specialty Coffee Association].

Ashley: When I got the email from you—when we were going back and forth on like, “Let's do this interview,” I looked at your email signature and I was like, “Oh shit, Baylee does a lot of stuff!”

Baylee: It's a lot of hats. Yeah, it's a lot. 

Ashley: How'd you get into coffee? 

Baylee: It was actually my first job. So it's kind of funny when people talk about how they got into coffee. I worked in a drive-thru, which is prominently a Pacific Northwest type of thing. Although we serve specialty coffee, nothing about it was measured or scientific or precise. So then from there I bounced into a cafe, learned some latte art and found myself a coffee roasting job shortly thereafter and never really looked back. 

Ashley: Was that something that you were always interested in? Did you find roasting to be something that was compelling to you or did you kind of fall into it? 

Baylee: I don't know. It was kind of both, I guess. So me at 16 years old, I have to go get a job. So I'm like, “Yeah, okay. I'll be a barista. That sounds like something I can manage with school and everything else.” So I do that. 

I'm close with my dad and he ran a construction company, so power tools and being hands-on isn't lost on me. So when I start seeing this machine in the corners of certain cafes, it's like, “Oh, what does that do?” And then as soon as somebody opened a door for me—and honestly it involved a lot of elbows to get that door to open—I couldn't imagine not roasting. 

Ashley: I love that it was almost part of growing up, touching things and trying to figure out how they work, or “How does this thing work? What does that thing do?” I can't say that I am of a similar mindset. So I really love when people share those stories and have those experiences. At what point did you decide, “Oh, this is a thing I want to do. This is the part of the coffee industry I want to occupy”?

Baylee: I mean, I thinkso it all kind of stems from passion, right? We all like drinking coffee and I mean, that doesn't even need to be an industry-specific thing. But as soon as I realized that as a roaster, you're in control—I mean my favorite part of being a barista was manipulation of espresso, right? 

And I think as soon as I got into roasting, I realized that I have a lot more control than I do on an espresso machine with a grinder. It's almost even better then because it's so similar to cooking and baking—and realistically like barbecuing. I feel like I can pull things out, draw things in, taper things … If anyone's a baking aficionado here, [roasting] is really in line with baking to me.

Ashley: That's really interesting. I really like that analogy. Being able to manipulate one thing and be like, “Oh, how does this work? How does this change this variable?” I would imagine, even in certain ways, a little more gratifying than baking because roasting takes what? Like 12-16 minutes? 

Baylee: Yeah. It depends right now. I'm probably 10-15-minute batches on a 12-kilo. 

Ashley: Killer, killer. Tell me a little bit about your career. How did you end up where you are currently?

Baylee: Wow. What a large question. 

Ashley: Big question. Let's go for it. 

Baylee: I'm like ... a series of terrible employers. No, I'm just kidding. 

Ashley: That's the name of the game on this show, so…

Baylee: It kind of is, and I really like that that gets talked about so often now, because I've been around 13 years in specialty coffee and a lot of different facets of it and I'll say it needed to get talked about sooner. So thank you for always running that conversation. 

How did I get to where I am? Wow. What a weird question, Ashley. 

Ashley: Do you want me to rephrase it? 

Baylee: Yeah, let's rephrase.

Ashley: Okay. So let's start where you are right now. What is your job currently?

Baylee: My day job is that I'm the head roaster at Trailhead Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. 

Ashley: What does that entail for you? Are you roasting every day, or are you more making profiles, helping other people roast coffee, sourcing green? What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? 

Baylee: D) All the above, but definitely less. I'm the only roaster for Trailhead. So I would say it's less helping other people to roast. But I definitely do all of my volunteer work pretty much directly working with helping new roasters kind of get a balance. So yeah, I buy green coffee. I profile [coffee], I run the cuppings. I make the buying decisions. The only thing I don't think I do is send the check to be invoiced.

Ashley: That's great. I love that you were able to [state your job] through process of elimination. It's like, “This is the one thing I do not do.” 

What was the journey to this point for you? Like, did you...hmm...

You're right. That is a weird question. I'm going to rephrase it again.

Baylee: It’s a good question. It's hard. It's hard to get there.

Ashley: It's hard to get there, especially because you've been in the industry for so long. So like, what were you looking for to get to the point that you're at now? 

We obviously don't have to talk about specific employers or any specific experiences. I want this to be more about you and what personal fulfillment looked like for you as a roaster. What was the journey for you from starting out roasting to getting to the point you are now?

Baylee: I think from when I started roasting, because that's when everything changed, it became short-term goals. And I remember ironically, I wanted to do Matchbook [Coffee Project]. That was one of my goals. 

Before I didn't feel like there was an outlet, so I couldn’t reach out and say, “Hey, I'm interested in this, pick me, pick me!” I had to do a short bio for Goodwill—the thrift store has a barista training program, if anyone didn't know. It's an awesome program, but they usually look for mentors. So I was doing my bio for them. And there they asked what my goals were and I was like, “Oh, I just want to do this Matchbook Coffee Project thing. That's really my big one.” And it came to fruition two weeks later. I don't remember.

Ashley: I remember that happening! 

When I reached out to Baylee to do Matchbook, Baylee said, “That was actually one of my goals that I manifested,” which is incredible. And for people who don't know what Matchbook Coffee is, it's a monthly roasting project. You should check out the interview that we did with Baylee on that platform, because that's also very exciting. So just wanted to make sure that people knew what Matchbook was, but keep going.

Baylee: For sure. So short-term goals, I think, are what kept me busy, because ultimately if you're a production roaster, it becomes a very monotonous thing that you just do. I'm not going to say you can do it in your sleep because you probably shouldn't fall asleep by your roaster, but you can definitely go on autopilot and just be fine with punching a clock for a company. 

So it's kind of those extracurriculars that get you excited about things. Also for me, I wasn't part of buying decisions early on in my career. Green buying honestly is a new thing for me. But I was involved in profiling and I think when you get a new coffee, that excitement—and if you don't have that excitement anymore—I'm going to urge all roasters listening to go find that in some capacity, because if you are at a spot in your career where a new coffee doesn't excite you, there's not much left in roasting, you know? 

So I think getting the opportunities to try things and then especially under the veil of like, somebody basically just gave you a puppy and they're like, “Okay, you get to do whatever you want with this. You get to raise it however you want.” That should excite you. So yeah, through that I kept elbowing my way and working and here I am.

Ashley: What an analogy—roasting is like getting a puppy. I don't think I've ever heard anything like that. 

Baylee: I hope anyone listening to this is just going to crack up because I'm pretty notorious for roasting analogies. There's a fateful Coffee Roasters Guild retreat. And I say fateful because I was—I was inebriated. I was really, really inebriated. 

I made this analogy about roasting where I'm like, “How do I explain it to people that don't even understand that coffee can be roasted? Like, they think it grows brown.” 

I'm like, “Okay, no, I roast it.” 

And they're like, “Oh yeah. Barista?” 

And I’m like, “Okay. Yes, but no, I do this other thing to it.” And I was like, it's like cooking a frozen pizza. So I'm like, you could put your oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit and cook it for an hour. Or you could go to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and cook it for two minutes. But you just want to find that ratio. 

Yeah. I don't know that I ever stopped replaying that in my head. 

Ashley: That’s actually a surprisingly good analogy now that I think about it. Because you don't want to eat a pizza that you roast at 200 degrees, it's going to be baked—that's how you bake coffee, right? 

Baylee: Yeah, slow and low. 

Ashley: Yep, slow and low. But then you also don't want a coffee that you just burn the shit out of because the top might be super brown, but then the inside is still frozen, going with the pizza analogy. 

That's actually a really good one. I think you should, I don't know. I would like to see you teach one of those MasterClasses, those things that you get Facebook ads for, I'd love to see you do one of those.

Baylee: And just start with roasting coffee.

Ashley: “Roasting coffee is like cooking your frozen pizza…” and then the music comes in and that would be delightful. 

Baylee: I’ve done the frozen pizza analogy. I've done the marshmallow one. Anytime I go to a barbecue, I try not to eyeball the grill the whole time. But I mean, when you look at a Weber grill, you basically have a heat source, you have airflow. Then you actually have two air flows. You have an environmental one up top and then down low, you have airflow, so you can adjust your coals. 

I try not to eyeball grills all the time and people using them, but they're little roasters, they just don't have a drum.

Ashley: That's so funny. Let's talk a little bit about roasting now during these times—which I feel is such a cliche way to refer to it—but COVID-19 has certainly affected coffee on all levels. 

I think it's easy to see it on the consumer and retail level. We see coffee shops close or people get laid off. But what I haven't heard a lot of people talk about is how COVID-19 has affected green coffee and roasting. So I was wondering if you could give a little bit of an overview of what those first couple of months were like for you.

Baylee: Currently, just the ports alone are a nightmare. I mean, it's kind of been a whole domino effect on the green sector of things. And I'm certainly not a green coffee importer, so I'm probably not the best person to ask. 

But when COVID hit Trailhead, there were a lot of products not being able to get moved. I think every company puts in their best effort to find a pivot or a way to make it better or easier or just to survive. But I think a lot of the conversations around sourcing—they're just chaotic right now, my email inbox with green importers—no, one's having a good time. So I started buying a lot of past crop [coffee], which is a super sensitive subject for some reason. Just speaking out of the U.S. for roasters, I'm not sure how any other part of the world deals with past crop. But we kind of have a tendency to put our noses up at past crop and I'm just not really sure why. 

Ashley: Can you talk a little bit about what that means, what past crop means, and maybe talk a little bit about—maybe there's no clear definition on this, but what would be an ideal window for green coffee, just for people who haven't bought coffee or maybe don't deal with green coffee?

Baylee: Sure. I'm probably not the best person to ask, but someday we'll maybe talk to an importer that is. 

So coffee is harvested seasonally, right? Different countries have different months and some countries have multiple seasons so they can get two harvests in one year. They get packaged, shipped, go to the mill, all the things. And then they come to us by the time that they come—I say us, the U.S.—by the time they come to the U.S. at whatever port, they already have some age on them, obviously from when they're harvested. 

But we have kind of a standard that we call “fresh crop” and “past crop.” There's also “current crop,” but we’ll not go there, or “future crop.” So when it hits the port, basically when we say past crop, it refers to [the fact that] you're still holding onto a coffee from Colombia while Colombian coffees are coming in. So your bag is now deemed a past crop bag because there's a fresh crop already arriving. 

Ashley: The designation “past crop” and “fresh crop” doesn't necessarily have anything to do with any sort of flavor component. It seems to be a timing designation?

Baylee: I mean, there's science, right? And so the hard science is that yes, old coffee will have some volatile acids, I guess, which are kind of the big ones. So wow. How to not get too deep on this? 

Ashley: No, go deep. 

Baylee: So roasters, we manipulate volatile compounds, right? And those are the things that we can apply heat to, take heat off of, air, all those things. It's how you roast and which volatile compounds you can change, right? So volatile acids seem to be the big ones with past crop. The coffee acidity is the thing that's getting muted and tamed and less prevalent.

Ashley: Okay. That makes sense. So when we're talking about components in a coffee, like a malic flavor, or citric acid or something like that, that would be maybe more present in a fresh crop coffee—fresh crop coffee, say that five times fast. But those components would perhaps be more prevalent in those fresh crop coffees versus a past crop coffee, that’s right? 

Baylee: Absolutely. 

Ashley: And those are things that, as a roaster, you think about when you're applying heat to coffee, because those are the components that you're manipulating. 

Baylee: Yes. 

Ashley: So what does roasting a past crop coffee look like for you?

Baylee: See, and that's the thing. You don't know what you're losing with past crop. You don't have some kind of a temperature gauge or an acidity reader gauge on a bag of coffee. So it's all kind of speculation outside of that. 

And there's so many variables, like, how was your coffee packaged? Is it in GrainPro, is it vacuum-sealed? There are transportation [questions], temperatures, was it ever exposed? Has it hit sunlight ... there's so many factors to that, that there is no hard metric on how fast your coffee is quote unquote “decaying.” 

So that's why I think past crop is almost an eye-roll because we all assume that it's just becoming this terrible thing in our warehouses. And it likely isn't, but for whatever reason, I think the U.S. has this connotation with past crop where they're like, “Oh gosh, no old coffee, never,” and I just don't think it's sustainable.

Ashley: Yeah. And especially now I have to imagine that you've really had to think about that.

Baylee: Right. And as far as sustainability with coffee goes, we all, I hope, care about farmers and we all talk about caring about farmers, but frankly, if there's coffee on the ground, why are we not buying it up before we produce more? 

I think that that's incredibly wasteful and I'm not necessarily pitching for everybody to go buy some past crop right now, but it usually is cheaper. And why would you waste it? I'm sure there's a menu offering where you can plug that in whether it's your cold brew or... 

So backtracking to when we talked about volatile acids, right? So if acids are the things that are escaping from past crop, why don't we focus on sweetness? 

Ashley: I don't know. Why don’t we? 

Baylee: I don't know. I've been a huge fan of buying past crop, especially through 2020 and 2021. And honestly, no consumer has complained. It tastes pretty much the same to me. I would never offer a past crop as a single origin, like a bright, fresh look at this thing, but it's in my blends. And I think that that's really important to continue doing.

Ashley: Talk a little bit about sweetness, because I think that you're right. We talk a lot about acidity because that's what makes coffee super special, but sweetness still seems to be a component of coffee regardless of its freshness. And we're still manipulating coffee to have these Maillard reactions, to turn from green to brown and develop these caramelization flavors. So how does dealing with the past crop coffee make you think about bringing out other flavors in that coffee?

Baylee: For sure. I'm trying to not do this from a hard roasting standpoint because there would have to be some years of education here before I just start rattling off. 

So it's less about if you have a coffee, let's call it a Colombian, and you have a strawberry note and a milk chocolate note, and you're buying past crop. You need to understand that that strawberry note might still be there, but it won't be as prevalent because you have past crop. So you should be focusing your time and energy on that milk chocolate and how to make that do better. 

And honestly, I'm not going to say you can't have a dark-roasted acidic coffee, but if we're talking about sweetness, those are always more on the sugar browning side of things and less on an acidic fruit pop side of things. So they will tend to be more medium-dark roast.

Ashley: Totally, totally. That makes sense. 

Something else that you mentioned earlier too was that there's really no hard and fast science to how we evaluate a fresh crop versus past crop. The designation that we made earlier was mostly based on a timing issue and it’s not necessarily like, after six months, all of the acidity has gone from this coffee. 

You highlighted all the different points in which coffee freshness can be preserved. The way that you package a coffee, the way that a coffee is shipped, the way that a coffee is stored. And I wonder as COVID-19 has affected green coffee habits—maybe we're not buying as much green coffee anymore because coffee shops are closed, people are not consuming as much. 

So have you seen people pivot the way that they store coffee? Have you seen people be like, “Oh, we're heading to have all this excess green coffee,” because that's a conversation that I've heard people talk about—that there's more green coffee sitting in storage because there's not as many people consuming it and coffee depends on a futures market, right? You buy coffee six months ahead, or you buy coffee with predictions.

Baylee: Right. So are we talking about storage in a roasting space or a green warehouse? 

Ashley: Either one, I think. Whatever you feel most adept at talking about. I just want to know if there are conversations even happening around that. 

Baylee: Around green coffee storage? 

Ashley: Around the idea that, “Oh, we're going to have a lot more green coffee now because consumer habits are different. So what does that mean for us?” 

Baylee: Right. And I think, as far as green storage is concerned, it's kind of a coin toss because as a roaster, especially a small roaster, you have storage fees attached to your green coffee if it sits in a green warehouse. So you don't want to waste money just having it sit there. Although those warehouses are temperature-controlled and as far as preserving coffee there, they're literally designed for that. But nobody wants to pay those fees to just have your coffee sit. 

So I think a lot of smaller companies are avoiding that cost and bringing it in-house. But at the same time, a lot of those companies don't have space. I think green coffee right now is chaotic. And no one has an idea of what's coming and what they can afford to sell it for because a lot of companies are struggling. 

These finer coffees that we offered and we used to love using in [coffee] competition, well, competition hasn't happened. I think we'll end up seeing the effects of 2020 much later from now, but this is a good taste of it. 

Ashley: That’s interesting because like we were saying, coffee is bought on future predictions—that you know what 2023 will look like in terms of your consumer habits, that you know what your needs will be for the next year, because coffee comes from afar. Coffee comes from a different place, at least in the U.S.—we don't grow it here. 

Then we have to think about the months it takes to go from a coffee being harvested to a coffee showing up in our warehouses, in our coffee shops. So it's really interesting to think about how the pandemic will have effects on the coffee industry for years to come.

Baylee: Oh, absolutely. Circling back to the past crop thing, you're right. We don't have a metric. There are so many studies, I'm sure of it, of where they test these—scientists, not roasters—test these things and can give you hard metrics, but I don't think it's an across-the-board thing. 

And I just keep thinking about—I was like one of those pandemic people that bought a bulk bag of rice and it's still in my cabinet right now, maybe two pounds gone out of the five. And I'm like, if this were coffee, this would be almost two-year-old past crop at this point. You know? And I'm still eating that rice. It tastes totally like rice. It's fine. It's great rice. 

So I guess I just asked myself those questions. As a roaster, I believe that the coffee is degrading in some way. I know that. I know it's not bad, though. I am hard pressed to believe that I can't do something with it. I think if we continue to look for these nice coffees, these beautiful 90-point coffees while there are still 84-point coffees left on the ground, I don't think that this industry can sustain.

Ashley: Something you mentioned, using both your perception of the rice that you've been eating for the last two years, but also talking about consumers. I think you kind of said this offhandedly, but consumers aren't necessarily noticing a difference, or if they're noticing a difference it may actually be for the better. 

We might actually be making coffee that's more accessible, especially if we're focusing on sweetness, which is a way easier flavor note to perceive than acidity, which takes a little bit more explaining, a little more time. And so I wonder, since you guys are a roaster that serves retail coffee, what has been the attitude of your consumers? Have people noticed that coffee is different or it tastes different? 

Baylee: I actually, very intentionally—it was actually the coffee that I used right after my Matchbook Coffee Project. It's a natural Colombia caturra, and the farmer's name is Rodrigo. And that's what we've named it at Trailhead. It tasted in the cafe like those flash-frozen strawberries that you would get inside of cereal. It was a very specific thing to me. 

And then I bought that same coffee past crop this year, the same exact coffee. And it's much more like juicy grapefruit, like grapefruit juice literally. And I wouldn't say one is better than the other. They don't taste vastly different. I mean, they don't taste vastly different in the way that I can tell it's the same coffee, but they have two different things going for them. It would just be a mood-dependent thing for me. I couldn't pick one.

Ashley: Right. But when we serve this to customers, it seems like we don't lean into that experience enough. That, “These are different and let's celebrate that” versus, “These are different, so we have to sell it at a different price point” or “This was past crop, so it's not as good, so we have to put it in a blender,” or something like that. 

It seems like there's an opportunity for us to acknowledge how the pandemic, or even just how buying past crop coffee, can change a tasting experience and make that a really positive and interesting thing to present to consumers.

Baylee: Right. I wish that we talked about it more. I wish that I could slap “past crop” on a label and not feel shame about that as a roaster or not feel like my peers are thinking less of me, or I wish that we could just be very transparent about using all that we have and not have a negative connotation. 

Ashley: Where do you think that negative connotation comes from? I know that's kind of a broad question, but even thinking about the word “past crop,” that sounds icky. That sounds bad.

Baylee: Yeah, definitely. I don't know. And maybe it's all made up in my head. Maybe I'm just like, “Oh, it's probably not that my peers are thinking like, ‘Eww, past crop,’” but it's true. It doesn't get ordered very often. Most importers have a past crop sitting in their warehouse, somebody backed out of a contract, something like that. But I don't know. 

I don't know why we're not more forward about it. 

Ashley: Well, something that I think we ignore—I feel like we use the wine analogy in the worst possible times, but it feels like wine could actually serve us in this instance. You age wine, you don't necessarily always want the freshest wine, that would [sometimes] taste weird and funky. Maybe for some wines you do sometimes, sometimes you don't. 

So I wonder if there's a way for us to borrow from that world to be like, “This was harvested in 2018,” or like the way that George Howell does it where he has a 2018 Mamuto Kenyan [coffee]. And then he can compare it to 2019. But that seems like a lot of intentionality as well that maybe, I don't know. I don't know if our industry is ready for.

Baylee: Right. I think that's the worst part about it, is that we don't know if we're ready and—oh, that's where I was getting at. Wow. What a shift. 

My same qualm that I feel about past crop is also around the freshness parameter that we all put on coffee. I can't tell you what an eye-roll I think companies stressing the freshness of their coffee is. 

This whole idea of a fresh-roasted coffee stemmed from what feels like a Peet’s and Starbucks shift in the ’90s. Peet’s and Starbucks had all these young employees that were working for them, but obviously fell in love with coffee on a small scale because Peet's and Starbucks weren't these mega corporations back then. And so then they branched shop and then they want to open up their own shops.

And with that, they're like, “Well, so Peet’s and Starbucks, we would roast coffee and it would sit around for like six months before it hit a grocery store. We're going to make a coffee roaster where it's like, two weeks.” 

I feel like every year since then, everyone keeps trying to push that freshness. “Oh yeah, your coffee's fresh? Mine's only four days off-roast.” You know what I mean? And we pull coffee out of grocery stores and we don't allow our consumers to buy them when arguably, I would say that some of my coffees don't taste as good as they would until day eight. 

So the idea of past crop being like, “Oh, it's old—eye roll.” Whatever. It's kind of as ridiculous to me as like, “Oh, your coffee's 10-days fresh. That's old.” I just think everyone needs to be a lot more relaxed about time and coffee and when we're agreeing is too late or too soon to drink something. Obviously let your coffee off-gas, but I just don't think there's anything wrong with a 10-day-old roasted coffee. 

I just don't think I ever will, unless it's a French roast and it's obviously sitting in its own oils, we should just be consuming these things. 

Ashley: Right, especially in the niche that we occupy, the specialty market—no one's roasting coffee that dark. So you don't have to really consider coffee going rancid. Unless, like you said, it's super oily and that's what causes coffee to go rancid quickly. It seems like, and you pointed this out, the idea of freshness is almost a marketing tool that we haven't utilized correctly.

Baylee: Right. Agreed. Yeah. 

Ashley: I just did an espresso machine review for a website and one of the things I was really wary about—I would buy these machines and they'd be like 17, 18 bars of pressure. And I'm like, that is unnecessary, but it's the idea that more is better. And the idea that fresh is better. It's these signifiers of quality that we don't know how to present correctly. 

So we sell it in the most straightforward way possible. So then we're like, “Oh, people think fresh is good, let's sell this as the freshest coffee,” even though that might not actually be a good quantifiable quality.

Baylee: Right. Absolutely not. I think that one-upping thing, I think it's one of the most toxic things I see as a roaster all the time. I don't define a good roaster by the people that work at these very—I mean, they're talented, I'm definitely not saying otherwise—but I define a good roaster as somebody that can take an 83 or an 84 coffee and make me think I'm drinking an 86, not somebody that's getting access to 88-, 89-, 90-point coffees. And I just don't think a dollar mark equates to talent. I think good roasters are people that can take something moderate or average and make it taste spectacular.

Ashley: And it seems like it's also working with what you have in front of you. So if you have a past crop coffee that maybe doesn't have as much acidity, what does that mean? How do you approach that coffee and how do you adjust the way that you would roast that coffee to accommodate for what's in front of you?

Baylee: Every coffee's a first date. What works with one—you could get the same coffee, the same farm, the same farm at the same altitude, you could do all the things right. And they still won’t roast exactly the same. 

I think a lot of the weight that we put on metrics as far as moisture content and water activity—those are great things to measure and no data is bad data kind of a thing, but I just don't think depending on these arbitrary rules that we have … you really just have to try it. 

Ashley: How would you market a past crop coffee differently? What's your dream to see on a retail shelf? Because I'm imagining you having two coffees. One is from this year, one is from last year, and they're somehow marketed as a special experience because they are—how exciting would it be to be able to taste two different coffees, the same coffee from past years? What would that look like on the shelf for you? Or how would you market that differently?

Baylee: I'm seriously two people in one brain. So part of me is all chaos and would want to be like a fresh crop/past crop, the good shit/the bad shit, and just be really dramatic about it and vulgar and crass in the way that I'm trying to make fun of my own consumers. Being like, “Look, they're both good. But one's old and you still went for it.” 

Honestly, I wouldn't do it that way. That's just my own little brain. 

The way I would probably go about it is if you focus on sustainability and talking about using what you have before you have to buy a new thing. Or if your farmers maybe haven't collected money on the past crop, they may still be waiting for that. So it's like, if you do care about your farmers and you do care about the progression of this industry, you would care about somebody being like, “Hey, listen, this was the last five bags of whoever's farm. I bought them. They're old, but hear me out, I believe in zero waste, here's what I'm trying to do.” 

So if on the bag you explained that this is the last five bags of a farmer's crop, and now this farmer has sold 100% of their product from last year. And I mean, even if you made it less from a farmer's perspective, but just a little more of like, “There is no waste.” Anyone that has a recycle program in their city is going to care about that.

Ashley: Right. It seems like we have a lot of ways that we talk about sustainability in the coffee industry. But we talk about it from the two ends. We talk about it from the consumer end, where we're talking about paper cups, straws, the things that we all use and dispose of. And then we talk about it a little bit from the farmer's perspective about climate change. 

But we don't talk about that middle ground. I think that idea of zero waste—you wouldn't buy another, I don't know, vacuum cleaner. I don't know why that's the first example that came up. But like, you wouldn't buy another vacuum cleaner unless you used the one that you had and you repaired it or you took care of it and then it was no longer usable. You would use everything that you had before you bought a new of something.

Baylee: And I mean, I wouldn't even say—I like the vacuum analogy. Don't get me wrong. Because I definitely worked on my vacuum not too long ago, but I think it's less because the vacuum sounds like something that you can't use, but more like cell phones. Yeah. That's a good one. Because it's like, every year you're not buying a new Apple iPhone or whatever that comes out. That's just ridiculous. One: Who can afford that? But two: What was wrong with your phone? 

Ashley: Right. How can you make do with the thing that you have and then treat it as something different? It might not be the same thing it was last year—it might be different. So how do we adapt to that? Especially with something like coffee, which is so malleable. You're a roaster, you change coffee, so it's going to be different and you have the skillset to change that coffee based on what it's presented.

Baylee: Right.

Ashley: Is there anything else you want people to know about you or about past crop coffee that we didn't cover?

Baylee: No, just—I want people to be more inclined to buy past crop. That's all I got.

Ashley: I think they will be after hearing this conversation. So thank you for taking time to chat with me. It's always a pleasure. It's always a delight and I have so much fun talking to you.

Baylee: Thank you so much, Ashley. Thanks everyone.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Cover photo by Appetite.For.Color

This Boss Barista episode is brought to you by Urnex.

One of Urnex’s latest advances is a range of environmentally friendly cleaners called Biocaf. Biocaf products are made entirely from plant- and mineral-based ingredients and are fully biodegradable. They're available for both commercial and household coffee equipment.

Urnex is also partnering with coffee pros—like me!—to highlight some of the best sustainability efforts in the industry with the Biocaf Sustainability Series. You can read my most recent piece on Onyx Coffee Labs’ switch to oat milk in their latest café, and learn more about Biocaf here. And be sure to read the dozens of pieces focusing on sustainability in coffee and beyond.

Hold up! You made it to the bottom of this article! Thank you so much for reading! If you could do any or all of the following things, that’d be incredibly helpful!

  • Click the ‘heart’ at the bottom to say you liked this article!

  • Consider checking out my Patreon!

  • Share this with a friend, on your social media, anywhere! Here’s a button for you to do so!