The Sourcer's Apprentice: 'I got it going through my veins'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - Think back to the TV ads promoting coffee in the "Mad Men" era.

For millions of Americans at the time, the coffee experience was a dark brew bubbling under a tiny transparent dome. The percolator was a kitchen staple and coffee was just coffee.

That was then. This is now.

We order double lattes and caramel mochaccinos without breaking a sweat. That's because we now celebrate a culture in which coffee is ritualized, even fetishized.

No surprise then that coffee has a market value second only to oil.

"It really does make the world turn, whether you want to admit it or not," says Dawson Taylor Coffee Roasters founder and fearless leader Dave Ledgard.

"Financially and psychologically, it gets us through."

Ledgard is the man to talk to in Boise when the talk turns to coffee. He calls his coffee gospel "From Jungle to Java."

He's quite literally the bean counter at Dawson Taylor, the man who scours the ends of the earth - the sourcer - for the beans that'll keep his head roaster busy.

That would be Sean Watson, the sourcer's apprentice. It's his job to take the raw beans his boss has discovered and turn them into tiny works of art.

But roasting is not for the faint of heart.

Hour after hour, Watson stands watch over two roasting machines that resemble the business end of a steam locomotive. And they throw off as much heat.

In essence, the roasting machines bake the beans, which start out as fruit.

"It is a cherry," says Watson. "And we want that fresh fruit taste out of the coffee."

The coffee bean is the seed of that cherry.

At Dawson Taylor, burlap bags, fat with raw beans, sit atop wooden pallets boasting the names of the countries of origin--Indonesia, Costa Rica, India. They read like passport stamps.

Watson takes a large scoop and digs deep into the burlap. He then pours the beans into a plastic tub.

From there, the tub's contents are dumped into a hopper that feeds the beans through shiny aluminum pipes; they arc overhead like robot arms, one for each roaster.

Inside each roaster is a spinning drum that sits just a few inches above a gas flame. Once the beans are inside, Watson has to stay on his toes. There's always a risk that the beans will over-roast.

"It's very vital near the end of the roast because the coffee changes within seconds," he says with a practiced confidence.

Periodically, he pulls a small tube from the roaster that has a notch cut into it. It's called a trier. He can check the progress of the roasting process by examining the color of the beans that emerge each time he flicks the trier in-and-out.

Raw beans go in looking like dried peas. After about 20 minutes, they take on the color we associate with coffee: a rich, nutty brown. Or, sometimes, they can be as dark as mahogany.

It takes an artisan like Watson to know the flavor profile of each kind of bean. That's because not every one can withstand the heat of a dark roast.

Once he determines that the beans are sufficiently roasted, Watson pulls a handle, dark with the oils from his hands, and the beans spill into a shallow metal tray.

A rotating arm spins in the tray to cool the beans. It makes things go much faster. Otherwise, he would be waiting forever for the hot mix to be cool to the touch.

The roasted beans then go into bags to be sorted and tagged. Watson says he has a few customers who insist on showing up at the office to purchase beans that have been freshly-roasted.

The room has the aroma of a coffee shop, a spicy-sweet tease of the senses that makes a reporter think immediately of pie.

It's intoxicating. Especially for Watson, who isn't just roasting; he's also tasting-all day long. Coffee, after all, is his passion.

"I got it going through my veins so much, you don't feel it hardly," he says with a grin. "You just get more amped up and go to sleep when you can."

It's clear by the rhythm of the place that this isn't Starbucks, but that's by design. Dave Ledgard doesn't want to roast coffee on an industrial scale.

"We run on a razor blade," he says, tilting back in his swivel chair.

"I don't have a lot of capital. We do this because we love it."

And he loves doing it in Boise because this is a coffee town and just the right size to cater to his customers.

"We can keep it within about a 200-mile radius of our facility here and take care of everybody and be happy with that."

With the roaster spinning like a roulette wheel, the folks at Dawson-Taylor are gambling that if you build a better coffee, the world will beat a path to your door.

"My thing is to go out and find the rarest, most intriguing coffees I can get my hands on," Ledgard points out with pride.

"It's amazing," he says. "We can source from a rare farm on the slopes of Guatemala and two months later, the coffee's being served here in Boise, Idaho."

Spoken like the Indiana Jones of java. Just no whip.