We interviewed James Chapman, co-founder of Black Coffee Roasting Co. out of Missoula, Montana. His approach to business and sustainability is refreshing, and his storytelling abilities are equally poetic and prescient. Do enjoy!
Better Grounds: What’s your favorite way to drink coffee? (Roast preference, brew method, etc.)
James Chapman: I drink multiple ways ever day. But for my home coffee, I drink a short Americano. And when camping (which is often) I love a French press. The Americano makes such a smooth, creamy drink that is just perfect for starting the day. The French press is a little more silky and allows for an extra pour while starting the day in the woods. But in terms of the rest of my cups, I like to try multiple coffees throughout the day multiple ways just to test and see how our different coffees do as drip, pour-over, espresso, etc. I typically make a pour-over at some point every day and is one of my favorite ways to test a coffee to see its true colors.
BG: What's your favorite Black Coffee Roasting offering?
JC: Oh, this is a tough one. It changes. And has different categories. But for me, currently the Peru as a single origin, and the Laura for a blend. But honestly I rotate through them all. Regularly. And if there is an aspect we don’t love about one, we change it. We strive to make them all drink deliciously.
BG: What’s your favorite memory associated with coffee? Could be a vacation, a sourcing trip meeting & talking coffee with farmers, etc. Copious details encouraged.
JC: Visiting farms is my personal favorite part of the whole experience. I’ve learned so much about coffee from watching how and where it is grown, and seeing how it is manipulated during processing. Even to the point that I’d say these things have made me a better roaster. I’ve been lucky to have some pretty incredible interactions with coffee at the farm level and it’s tough to pin just one, but certainly in Ethiopia visiting Limma Kossa is a highlight. We stayed on the farm several days and were given access to see everything in real time during the harvest, from the actual harvest, to the afternoon drop off at the washing station and all the drying tables. During the day we’d drink coffee that was freshly dried and roasted on an open fire. There is no fresher coffee. Being with people that work with coffee at this level is so educational not only with the details of how the coffee gets to the green stage we are familiar with stateside as a roaster, but also on the importance of how this product creates a lifestyle and livelihood for everyone that works in the chain. Additionally at the farm level you see how farmers are, or, in the case of our coffees which are 100% organic, are not exposed to dangerous chemicals. I’ve been on farms where you literally are encouraged as a visitor to not use the water for even washing as it is so laden with chemicals year after year after year. But on the organic farm you see something different. You see compost creation to fertilize. You see intentional interspersing of plant species and cover trees to help grow. You see a much healthier ecosystem in which people are not exposed to all the toxins that are a part of “conventional” farming (which in my opinion is anything but conventional).
BG: You’ve got 24 hours in Missoula, Montana. How are you eating & drinking your way through the city? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and coffee, of course). Where are you going and what are you ordering?
Being blatantly biased, I’d welcome you first to Black Coffee. We have an incredible toast menu complemented with awesome baristas and you will have a great start to your day here. We make all our ingredients (like our syrups, peanut butter, mocha mix, etc.) from scratch. Try an AM Americano and an avocado toast. Great way to start the day. We source the best products we can find and it shows. Since you are in Missoula, I’d recommend a morning walk at Blue Mountain for a stellar walk overlooking the town.
Next, donuts. Veera Donuts. No other option needed. Then a stop at the record store? Ear Candy. Rock’n Rudy’s. Why not? Then lunch, go visit Burns Street Bistro. Try the fence line. These guys put their heart and soul into every thing they make, and it’s wicked. In the afternoon you could take a walk downtown along the river. For dinner hit The Camino. Try the aguachile negro and tostada de atun. Also, the chips and house salsa are amazing. After dinner visit the Dram Shop. Here you can try all the many beers brewed locally (Kettlehouse, Big Sky, Draught Works… the list goes on) or find something amazing from elsewhere. It’s late. You're tired. Beware, Missoula is a town that can wear you down, in a good sort of way.
BG: You compare blending coffee to jazz. What’s the definitive, must-own jazz album? And for those who don’t know a lot about jazz, where’s a good place to start?
JC: One of the quintessential artist in my mind is Cannonball Adderly. His career spanned an incredible period in jazz, and his style is so incredible and easy to get lost in. The song that introduced me to Adderly is "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy", which I heard for the first time on a road trip driving across North Dakota during an incredible lightning storm in which there was lightning striking on all sides of us but up ahead in the west the sky was perfectly clear and the setting sun was shining straight through at us during this incredible storm… That whole scene ingrained a love of that song and I’ve been hooked to Cannonball ever since. Country Preacher is a great live album to start with.
We definitely think of blending as a musical art, a theory I learned from John Abbot when he worked for Abeja winery. You want a solid bass. You want the accent high notes, but not too much (John Coltrane, I’m looking at you) and a solid mid ground melody. You also want personality. Mood. Every coffee has all these things unique to themselves. Our Laura blend is named after Laura Palmer. The mood is a little dark and brooding, but so wonderful. Something akin to a dark corner of the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest.
BG: Montana. Big Sky. Preferred outdoor activity?
JC: Anything so long as it is outside. All year. Trails for running, biking and walking in the summer. Snowboarding in the winter. I’m personally a trail runner and get out as much as I can with my dog and recently my daughter who has gotten into it. I love just being outside as much as possible, any weather, including sitting on the porch on a snowy day wrapped in down to stay warm drinking coffee. My business partner Matt lives on a bike in the summer, skis in the winter. This is an outdoor oriented town. It gets really gray and really dark in the winter. You have to have something outdoors to do here or you’d go a bit crazy.
BG: If you didn’t own a coffee roaster, what’s your 9-5?
JC: This is funny because my son asked me this yesterday. I love writing and photography, so could easily shift more towards those. So I’d give that a go. But I’ve also always fancied that I’d like to be a cobbler and make custom hiking boots and trail running shoes… or maybe a hops farmer. I like tangible work with tangible goods.
BG: Why is organic so important to you?
JC: Petro chemicals are so incredibly poisonous and pervasive in our world. Our generation has never been given the opportunity to evaluate for ourselves if we want these in our world, we were just born into them and the quantity of poison spread on our soils and into our water supply is growing exponentially every year. As I said before, what is called conventional farming is anything but conventional in my mind. Spraying poison on food is one of the worst ideas humans have ever embraced. And our health as a nation, as a world, is proof. The world does not need chemicals to feed the population, that is literally a tag line created by a marketing firm for Monsanto. We have a food distribution problem, not a food growing problem. The chemicals are a money maker. That is it. They are overused and under studied. I’ve seen first hand water supplies considered not only undrinkable, but unusable for washing. But the people living on those lands have no choice. They are forced to drink and wash in that toxic water.
While the organic certification may have its imperfections, it is a solid start at cutting out a huge toxic component in peoples lives. And as a whole, on every organic coffee farm I’ve been on, they have a more dynamic and diverse ecosystem than the monoculture tended to on conventional farms. Organic farms still need nutrient inputs but farming a diverse number of species and including shade coverage as well as utilizing what is thought of as waste on other farms (discarded pulp) and turning it into fertilizer they are often able to maintain much healthier ecosystems than their conventional counterparts, all the while creating a healthier work and living environment and simultaneously drawing a better profit margin on their crops.
Organics is more important at the farm level than the consumer level, and this goes for nearly all crops you purchase… The farmers are always stuck with the worst chemical exposure and stuck with the ever increasing bill of being reliant on chemical herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, all of which are statistically shown to increase in need the more they are used as pests and unwanted plants all build resiliency. Creating a diverse ecosystem is what is needed to counter this need. It requires a shift in the way things are farmed. And there is a great movement towards regenerative farming on this front. And I am fully in support of that as a next step beyond organics, but it's amazing how many times we have seen this already happening on organic coffee farms without any certification beyond organics because it is what the farmers have figured out that works.
BG: What’s one thing you want everyone who drinks your coffee to walk away feeling/thinking/experiencing?
JC: First and foremost, we hope everyone enjoys it, the smell while they grind it, the aroma while it brews, and the sips they take from their cup. This is obviously the center of it all. Coffee is such a great thing. But for us, the pleasure comes not just from the resulting delicious cup, but knowing the background of the coffees we sell. We work with farms and importers that care just as much about that final cup of coffee as we and our customers do. The entire chain of people we work with around the globe are such incredibly dedicated people who know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. They believe coffee is wonderful. They love drinking it. The love working with it. They understand that it has a magical thing it does for the mind and body, and that is the goal of their work. We hope everyone realizes as they drink it, it is so much more than just a cup...