How Vigilante Coffee roasts the perfect bean

February 22, 2013

This post has been updated. 

Chris Vigilante holds a scoop of partly-roasted coffee, still green, under his nose. "What's that smell like to you?" he says, before answering: "Hay. 260 degrees is when we hit hay."


Chris Vigilante, roasting coffee for the brand that bears his name. (Maura Judkis/for The Washington Post)

Vigilante, the 25-year-old CEO and namesake of Vigilante Coffee, roasts his beans in a workspace in Trinidad. Unlike large, computerized coffee roasters used by bigger companies, his requires him to monitor every step of the process with a thermometer, a notepad of measurements, and his nose. He roasts about 250 pounds a week in a roaster that only holds seven pounds at a time, all by hand, each batch sniffed out to desired doneness by Vigilante.

"What's it smell like now? Baking bread?" he asked. "The heat is starting to become exothermic."

Not everyone smells the bread. The nuances of the coffee roasting process are often lost among his neighbors: "You'd never believe how many people walk by and are like, 'Someone needs to learn how to cook.' "

Vigilante got his start in the coffee business in Hawaii, where he worked for a coffee shop, and then for a coffee farm, Manoa Valley. When he relocated to the East Coast to start his business, he said he chose D.C. for its lack of a coffee culture. He launched his brand with coffee from Hawaii, Colombia and Indonesia in 2012, and now that it's available in select cafes throughout the city, it's beginning to get a following. It's currently available at a pop-up shop at Biergarten Haus until Friday, March 1, and he'll be doing another pop-up at Hogo beginning March 1 as well (lasting the entire month, Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.). His full-time space will open with the forthcoming Maketto, a street food and fashion market on H Street, expected in July.

As the coffee browns in the roaster, it begins to make a popping noise, like popcorn -- known in the industry as "first crack." Darker roasts go all the way to a second crack, but Vigilante prefers to keep it lighter, to let the coffee's natural flavor come through.

"I want to highlight what the farm did," he said, which has its pluses and minuses. "When you go short, you get the good, the bad, and the ugly."

It's also why Vigilante would prefer that his customers drink his coffee black. He jokes that he'll hide the cream and sugar when he opens up his space.

"It's hard to convince my customers to just try it black," he said, likening it to people who go to bars and only order cosmopolitans. He considers himself to be a coffee educator, and a tireless promoter of Hawaiian coffee, which is among the only American-grown coffees. (Update: Puerto Rico is also a major producer.)  "I hope to grow with my customers," he said.

The coffee smells like coffee now, and it spills out of the roaster into a cooling tray, perfectly roasted. Well, almost: In a later batch, he spots a single blackened bean, and pulls it out.

"That can ruin a whole cup of coffee," he said.


Vigilante Coffee (Maura Judkis/for The Washington Post)
Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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