It all started in 1993 when my wife, Shannon, and I were living in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, PA where I was getting my post-graduate degree. Some friends took us down to the “Strip District” to go shopping one Saturday morning. This historic section of downtown Pittsburgh was where the barges off loaded anything you could imagine...from meats, metals, vegetables, clothes, and wouldn’t you know: green coffee!
Storefront after storefront, vendors would hawk their wares to attentive shoppers looking for a deal. This particular Saturday, I was standing outside of a fish market when I noticed an elderly gentleman in front of an antique coffee roaster filling the street with this bready, toast-like smoke. So, I went over to watch and lo and behold, he was roasting coffee...I was hooked! I went inside and tried a sample and instead of buying a pound of roasted coffee, I asked if I could buy a pound of green coffee. He agreed, we talked briefly about roasting, and off I went, imagining how wonderful this was going to be.
Well, the truth is, it wasn’t all that wonderful as the cast iron skillet I was using to roast became superheated. My little green coffee beans turned into this black pile of burning coffee, filling our row house full of smoke. Quickly, Shannon asked if something was on fire and ran into the smoke-filled kitchen as I was running for the back door to get the coffee out of the house.
Not all was lost as I learned very quickly that it doesn’t take much to burn a pound of coffee. After another visit to the Strip District, I came home with some more green coffee and developed a strategy on how to not get in trouble by filling the kitchen full of smoke. Short of the long it worked, and the next day we had some stovetop-roasted black-iron skillet coffee and my life was changed forever.
Fast forward to 1996. After three years in yankee land, Shannon and I decided to take a job in Mexico to fulfill my requirements to graduate. This was an exciting time as neither one of us spoke Spanish, but felt at peace about moving to a little town called Ciudad Juárez which was right across the river from El Paso, Texas. Hindsight says that knowing how to speak Spanish might’ve helped in becoming culturally sensitive, but we did it, lived to talk about it, and for the most part, are better people for it!
However, it wasn’t until we moved into the interior of Mexico after the Drug Wars started, that we both began to develop a deep appreciation for good coffee and coffee growing communities. In the small town we lived in for language school, there was a little coffee shop that we visited every morning. Every day I would order my “Americano” and again, I was drawn into the world of Specialty Coffee.
Three years and 2100 miles later, we leave Mexico and wind up, once again, in Pittsburgh. Of course it didn’t take long to make my way to the Strip District to buy some more green coffee. This time, however, I decided to use a hot air popcorn maker to roast my coffee. Success! This was a game changer. The best part was the satisfaction that I could successfully roast coffee for my personal use.
It was during this time in the southern part of the city where I received my “street” name: Bald Guy. Now a little bit about street names: no, I wasn’t a drug dealer, but I worked with urban youth in a depressed, run down, old steel mill town. They never could remember my name, so they would just call out: “yo bald guy...what’s up?”. Well, after a while, it took and I was referred to as “Bald Guy” in my hood.
It was also in the hood that I started roasting coffee for the public schools to raise money for kids who kept a “B” average to receive a free bicycle. I can’t tell you how many bikes we helped to buy, but there were a lot of shiny bikes with smiling faces riding around the school parking lot!
As our time came to end in Pittsburgh, we decided to move back home to North Carolina as we had two young coffee roasters in tow...Caleb & Nathanael. Since both Shannon and I went to App State, and we love the mountains (not to mention trout fishing, snow, and cool mountain nights), we decided Boone was as good a place as any to raise a family and start a coffee roasting business.
Well, the rest is history so to speak...literally and figuratively. We had a good run of building a successful coffee roasting business. However, August 2016 marks the end of Part I of our story. The last lines were written that morning when an arsonist took out our complex and my business. As I walked down Hwy 194 back to my truck, I stopped, raised my head, took a deep breath, and realized that this chapter of Bald Guy Brew had come to end.
Moving forward, to start over from scratch wasn’t one of the things on my bucket list. Not that I don’t mind a challenge or hard work, but it was more of the fact that Boone is a small town, and it took a decade to scratch a niche. However, determined to have the last word on the fate of Bald Guy Brew, we decided to do the last thing first: try to make a difference in the world through the platform of coffee.
How? Well, that was the tricky part. Thanks largely in part to two leaders within the Specialty Coffee Industry, I began to pursue becoming North Carolina’s first Specialty Coffee Premier Training Campus. Really not knowing exactly what needed to be done, we jumped into the deep end and began to swim. The key to finishing for me was to keep the “water out of the snorkel” and just keep swimming.
Thankfully, we were able to officially open the doors for the Coffee Campus in January 2018. Since then, I have had individuals from round the world come to learn how to roast and evaluate coffee, and more importantly, I have been given the privilege of helping people build their dreams of javaprenuership (more on this new word in the next post!)
The great part of doing what you love isn’t so much that you get to do it every day... for me, roasting is more than making green beans brown and clear water black. That’s what a coffee roaster does.
But what roasting coffee is…really is…is freedom Freedom to live a life worth living.