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Meet Your Roaster: Baylee Engberg
Why striving to avoid waste in coffee is a good antidote for perfectionism with the Portland-based roaster.
Hi everyone! Just a reminder that, as I did last year, I’m taking all of September off. But while there won’t be new podcast episodes and articles on Boss Barista this month, I am taking the opportunity to share some of my favorite past stories, as well as articles by guest writers. I’ll also be sending you pieces of mine which were previously published on other platforms.
Today's piece falls in the latter category. In September 2022, I interviewed Baylee Engberg for Standart. I’ve actually spoken with Baylee for Boss Barista before—you might remember this conversation we had, about why past-crop coffee is an important piece of roasteries’ sustainability work. Working on this Standart interview was a great opportunity to learn more about her roasting background and why striving to avoid waste is a good antidote for perfectionism. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed getting to know more about Baylee’s work.
Also, the stunning photos below are by @appetite.for.color
Baylee Engberg, who is based in Portland, Oregon, didn’t set out to be a roaster, and despite being told—predictably—that ‘women don’t roast’, she took to it immediately, and in her life as well as her roasting, has since dedicated herself to challenging preconceived notions and dispelling out-dated ideas.
Now, Engberg is the managing director of She’s The Roaster—an advocacy group that promotes opportunities and scholarships in roasting for women and non-binary people. She’s also a member of the international leadership council for the Coffee Roasters Guild and the US social accountability coordinator for the Specialty Coffee Association, and is determined to bulldoze all the roadblocks she has faced in her own career.
You’ve been in coffee for half your life, right?
Yep. It all started when I was 15, when my father dropped me off for my first day’s work at a drive-thru coffee stand. After working at a few such places, I finally made the move to cafés.
But I didn’t immediately start roasting! I remember one café where I did some ‘non-girly’ things like helping out with maintenance, cleaning and scraping out the exhaust pipes on the roaster, but my boss refused to let me do more than that. ‘Women don’t roast’, I was told. So I asked to do the delivery driving, but apparently, women don’t do that, either! I then asked to work all the closing shifts. The roasting apprentice began to work his magic at that time and nobody else was there, and I’d mop up and close the café just to be able to sit, watch, and listen to him, trying to pick up everything I could.
How long did it all take to hook you in?
Immediately! I knew immediately that this was the job for me, and every moment of discovery made it better. At first I was overjoyed to finally be able to operate the machinery, and then I learnt that there’s a whole science to roasting. It was awesome to use different interfaces and then examine read-outs of the data. I was blown away that it could be systematically studied in this way!
I grew up in a family of construction workers and have always been around tools, so I was intrigued by the machinery of coffee as soon as I saw it—the boilers, afterburners, drum roasters, exhaust pipes, and all that stuff—but until I actually started roasting, I didn’t think it would work out as well as it did. I just wanted to lift heavy things, get my hands dirty, and use power tools. And I wanted to stay in coffee.
When did you first develop your own ideas and opinions about roasting? Perhaps the first few months are just excitement and learning, but after a while, a personal ethos must begin to develop.
It wasn’t really until I started doing the quality control. When you’re just a production roaster, you’re not privy to information like profiling and sample roasting, or details such as the density of the beans or water activity and moisture. You don’t just learn those things, nor are you told them; your role is to reproduce the same roast curve over and over.
I think a lot of people don’t truly learn roasting until they start competing, or switch into green buying. Those are the only occasions when I’ve feel like I’ve come across bigger ideas. Apart from that, nobody hands you a coffee and says, ‘Here’s all the information to go with it.’ You’ll usually get an origin, a process, and maybe an elevation—and that’s it. And then you’re told to roast it a certain way, or just to take a crack at it.
I would have never pictured roasting to be like that. Surely it’d be advantageous to give the customer as much information as possible?
Yeah, but it turns out to be hard to get that information unless you’re speaking with the importer, or you’re making green-buying decisions. And although the industry is changing and information is increasingly accessible, even when that information existed, I was never given it as a production roaster. To this day, even when I’m given all the information there is about a new coffee, I don’t rely on it when roasting. Statistics can help you make an informed plan about how to approach roasting, but they shouldn’t be thought of as scripture.
I’ve seen Brazilian coffees—which are typically a soft bean—that can take the highest heat my roaster can give, and neither scorch nor tip, and I’ve seen incredibly moist coffees that need almost no heat applied to them. Once you know what you’re doing, a huge amount of roasting is trial and error, and I now trust my instincts, learned experience. and institutional knowledge more than numbers. Of course, I’m not saying numbers are bad, but if you hand me a $16-a-pound coffee and a $2-a-pound coffee, I’ll probably treat them both the same.
Speaking of things we can’t quantify, you’ve talked a lot about freshness. In 2021, you released a ‘past crop’ coffee, noting that green coffee doesn’t have an expiry date—it’s not as if it’s good one day and bad the next. Why do you think we’re so tied to the idea of freshness?
It was just a way for some brands to undercut others, and it’s got to a point now where it’s extremely wasteful, and a point of pride that shouldn’t exist. There’s a practice I associate with Colombian farmers—although I’m sure a bunch of other people do it too—called reposar, which means to rest. These farmers let the coffee rest for a while after it’s been picked because the flavour changes, if it sits by itself with its sugars.
When you roast coffee, you don’t taste it for 24 hours at the earliest. There are coffees I don’t even want to try until they have degassed for five days—and I even think that some coffees taste better after they’ve been rested for two weeks. It’s important to understand what roasting is. When you roast, you’ve literally just devastated the cell structure of the beans. It’s the same idea as letting a steak sit after you’ve cooked it, or when you make a cold pasta salad and you leave it in the fridge overnight.
As I said earlier, there’s no metric for this; there’s no way to know just by looking at a bag of green coffee how long it’ll ‘last’ because there are so many elements that can affect freshness, and so many instances where freshness isn’t always the factor that makes coffee taste best.
And I’m not just talking about the particular characteristics of the bean or the technical requirements of roasting. These discussions completely omit something that’s equally as important—sustainability. One ‘fact’ we’ve all been taught about coffee is that is that after a certain period of time, it’s old, but we’re not told that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With old coffee, you can use it for a cold brew, give it to your staff, donate it to a local cause… There is baking, body scrubs, culinary rubs, soap making—there are endless options! Coffee might eventually get lacklustre, but age is not the only factor in play, and even then, we can get creative, rather than just tossing it out.
The way we talk about roasting often lacks context, and there’s not much room for practicality.
I remember going to a Roasters Guild retreat where I saw a lecture by Filip Bartelak, the Guild’s current Past Chair. It literally changed my life—I almost wanted to cry, it was so good!
The lecture as a whole was about distinguishing defects in coffee, about green versus roasted defects. Now, Bartelak wasn’t trying to blame anyone or anything, but rather to figure out ways to fix problems. For instance, if you taste a dryness in a coffee, it might be attributable to an error at either the farming or the roasting end, but as a roaster, while you can fix a roast defect, you cannot fix a green defect.
A lot of what he said was about buying practices in the US, that many people revoke contracts because of cup scores, or defects they’re tasting now compared to what they tasted in the pre-shipment sample. That margin of error, according to Filip, is incredibly small in the US compared to other countries. It was so eye-opening to learn what farmers go through and how much perfection I demand from farmers, without realizing all the ways a roast can be affected. My attitude, for example, has a huge effect on my roasting—if I’m having a bad week, there’s no way my roast day is going to go well—but there are also things like ambient air temperature. How hot is it inside? Did somebody turn on the thermostat? Did I charge my roaster for twenty minutes instead of forty? Did I miss a gas hit because I was distracted? Am I just tired and not functioning at full capacity? Can I really make the judgement after one single roasting that a coffee I expected to be an 86 is just an 84? After all, I did something to that coffee, too. And that was just the first part of the class!
What was discussed in the second part?
We spoke about quakers—beans that don’t turn dark brown when roasted. Now, a quaker is a green defect. Filip led us as we cupped a sample composed entirely of quakers, another with a naturally occurring amount, and one completely free of quakers. And guess what: we realized that we all preferred the sample with a few quakers—the sample that had not been tampered with. No one liked the sample that was completely, unnaturally free of quakers.
It’s another example of how we can think we know something, but then our senses and experiences tell us otherwise. And the perceptions we have about quality can actively hurt others.
When I was working for a previous company, there was an occasion when we opened a bag from Brazil and saw some cherries in it, which is common for Brazil. My colleagues immediately said, ‘Oh, we need to send this back.’ My immediate reaction was, ‘Can’t we just pick them out?’ Granted, if you’re working with a large roaster, that’d be difficult to do, but if you’re dealing in small batches, you can do this when the coffee is lying in the cooling tray. If you’re at a restaurant and you order a salad but don’t like the cherry tomatoes, would you send it back and have the kitchen remake the entire dish, or would you just pick them out?
Is there a connection between your ideas about fresh and past-crop coffee, and sustainability?
Absolutely. When I first heard about a coffee that had been fermented with pineapple, I thought that I would love to try it—but only if the pineapples are grown at the same farm and are a by-product or waste. If someone is importing pineapples and using them solely for breaking down coffee cherries, extracting, and adding acidity, I’m out. It’s not sustainable, once you’re shipping yourself pineapples.
You’re juggling a lot of big ideas in your head. Do you ever get overwhelmed?
Sometimes I think that there are 700 answers to any one question in coffee, which is what makes it maddening, but at the same time the most interesting thing I’ve ever done. If there was no science behind it all, if roasting was just putting beans in a cast-iron pan, I probably wouldn’t have become so passionate about it.
It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. I love jigsaws, and whenever I start one, I won’t sleep, I won’t eat, I won’t do anything else until it’s done. And when I get to the end, I often find that a couple of pieces are missing. Some people might be annoyed by that, but I’m fine with it—as long as I’ve solved it as best I can. Coffee is no different.
And finally, what else do you want people to know about you?
I’m kind of the black sheep of the industry. I don’t take coffee nearly as seriously as others. I know how to roast and how to use the SCA cupping form, but if a roast gets a few seconds away from me, I don’t think that’s a big deal. I don’t sweat the small stuff like that. If the target for my end temperature was 399 and my batch ended at 398 or 400, I’ll sleep just fine. Part of the reason I can be so forgiving is because I feel so strongly about sustainability, and as a roaster, I know how hard everything is in coffee, every step of the way. I can be critical, I can be talented, I can be competitive; but as a production roaster, what I will not be is wasteful.
Sometimes I might think a coffee tastes a little different, but we’re not serving to ourselves—we’re serving it to customers, so I won’t waste coffee if I know a customer isn’t interested in scrutinising her morning cup! My job is to make a product for the people consuming it, and ultimately, that leads to a much less wasteful mindset. And, it’s more fun. It’s just like a jigsaw puzzle.