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From the Ground Up: Inside Compass Coffee’s subterranean coffee lab

The second installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories


There are probably a lot of guys who refer to their personal space as  a "batcave." But Compass Coffee's batcave -- as Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez have come to call their coffee workshop -- has more in common with the superhero's secret lair than most. Like Batman's hideout, it's full of sophisticated technology -- and it's in the subterranean level of a mansion.

Haft's family home, where he and Suarez live and work, is a six-bedroom beaux-arts house on Embassy Row. In the basement, what was once Haft's woodworking shop has been converted into a coffee laboratory, complete with a hand-painted Compass Coffee logo on the door. And one room over, a service kitchen has been partially overtaken by a San Franciscan roaster, with a ventilation system rigged up to the hood of the oven.

A look at Compass Coffee's research lab (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

They moved into the batcave in November, dismantling a former table to build two butcher block work counters and the shelves above, which hold their cups, a series of coffee gadgets (French press, Moka pot, Chemex), and weighty, high quality spoons. Above it all, an American flag from their days in Afghanistan is on display, folded into a neat triangle. The workspace is spotlessly clean, a good habit that has carried over from their years as Marines. For the last few months, the lab has been the site of experimentation, breakthroughs, and plenty of failure along the way.

"We spent hour after hour after hour failing," Haft said. "None of this stuff is easy."

The science

"Every roaster has a different theory on how to roast coffee. Some people think it's an art; some people think it's a science," Suarez said. "At Compass, we think it's a craft -- it's kind of a combination of the two."

Before they could work on the art of roasting, they had to perfect the science. After training at roasteries in other cities, they invested in a $9,200 one-pound sample roaster and began sourcing coffee from around the world through Cafe Imports, and other importers that they trusted to find ethically farmed beans.

Getting those fresh green beans perfectly browned can be an imprecise process. Small-batch roasters aren't computerized, so their operators historically have relied upon smell, sound, and temperature to determine doneness -- as roasting coffee cracks and pops, it first smells like hay, then baked bread, and finally, like the coffee smell that most consumers know. But as different variables are introduced -- say, the origin of the coffee or its density -- the roaster has to know their machine and their beans well enough to make minute adjustments that can make or break a batch.

At left, Compass Coffee's roaster. At right, a deconstructed Italian espresso machine. (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

"You can just throw the beans in the roaster and turn them brown -- anyone can do that," Suarez said. "But if you want to highlight the characteristics of the coffee, if you want a really good cup of coffee, you have to roast a certain way."

That way, for Compass, has been determined through their characteristic military precision. Since their San Franciscan roaster is not computerized, Suarez wrote a driver that, when connected to a laptop, charts the temperature, timing, and other variables through an open-source coffee roasting software, Artisan. They keep spreadsheets of their coffee experiments, and maintain a wiki of what has succeeded. They chart their decision-making processes through the OODA Loop, a problem-solving strategy initially devised for the military, but now frequently used in business.

While they aren't the first or only roasters to computerize the process, their experiments have developed a method they say makes consistently great coffee. They're working to develop nine custom blends, three from each of the major coffee-growing regions of the world: South America, Asia, and Africa. They'll also offer single-origin coffees and other specialties.

"What we're focusing on is, there's a certain way that coffee roasts. There's chemistry involved, and the laws of nature and physics. But once you roast your coffee in accordance with those principles, there's many different end results," Suarez said. "That's kind of the art of it, deciding, 'This tastes a lot better, this tastes more interesting, less bitter,' whatever you're trying to create."

Haft and Suarez chart the progress of their roast (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

The art

The centerpiece of the lab is a cheery Compass Coffee-branded poster with two color wheels, subdivided into all of the shades of the rainbow. Each represents a taste or a smell -- from honey to pepper to pipe tobacco to potato -- with each ring improving in precision. On the left side, the wheel shows roasters what mistakes they've made. If your coffee absorbs certain tastes, it could end up with the aroma of concrete or mildew, for example. Another series of mistakes can make coffee taste "sweaty" or "horsey."

"When you taste that, it's awful," Haft said. "You know you've done something seriously wrong."

During one visit to the lab, Haft produced a wooden box of tiny vials called "Le Nez Du Cafe," used to train a coffee roaster's nose. Each represents a smell on the wheel. Some, like vanilla, are obvious, and some are harder to place. Wafting a vial beneath this my nose, he encouraged me to guess the smell, first by thinking of the memories it evokes. It smells vaguely of spice, but I draw a blank.

"Maybe Christmas? Fruitcake?" I guessed.  He laughs. "It's supposed to smell like rubber."

Compass Coffee's flavor wheel (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

During another visit, they demonstrated their roaster's capabilities with two batches of coffee from Kenya and Sumatra. For drip coffees, they tend to roast on the lighter side, which brings out the coffee's inherent qualities. But for these batches, they went with a darker roast intended for espresso.

"It's a terrible analogy, but a coffee roaster is kind of like a clothes dryer," Haft said, sheepishly. The beans are turned within the drum by an agitator, and they're roasted as they make contact with the hot metal and air around them. You can watch their progress through a tiny window, or use a small scoop to pull beans out to smell them.

Pouring the Kenyan coffee into the roaster, Suarez began to watch the computer screen, which mapped out the temperature in a jagged line from various sensors -- sort of like a parabolic EKG reading. After about three minutes, the coffee had changed from green to a lightly roasted shade of khaki. Suarez adjusted the roaster's controls by mere millimeters every few seconds, as he watched the temperature climb.

Freshly roasted beans pour out of Compass' roaster. In the front is a box that connects the roaster with a computer. (Maura Judkis/for The Post) Freshly roasted beans pour out of Compass' roaster. In the front is Suarez's device, which connects the roaster with a computer. (Maura Judkis/The Post)

"Harrison looks so chill right now, but he's looking at all these different variables," Haft said. "He's adjusting the gas pressure, there's an airflow control."

After about eight minutes, when the roaster had reached almost 400 degrees, the coffee began to pop and snap, like a bowl of Rice Krispies. In the industry, it's called "first crack": It's a measure of doneness, an indication that the moisture in the bean has escaped, and the chemical transformation of roasting is underway.

After 10 minutes, at about 430 degrees and moments after a second crack, the coffee was done. Suarez opened a chute, and the beans poured out into a drying pan, where he stirred them delicately. He examined the beans under a full-spectrum light, which made certain qualities, like the slightest hint of a pink oily sheen on the beans, more visible.

"You want the coffee to come down to room temperature in about four minutes," he said."If it cools down too slowly, it keeps cooking. If it cools down too fast, it can fracture the coffee ...  it doesn't taste as good."

He continued: "At the end of the day that's what all of this is about. Does it taste good when you drink it? All the research that we've done, it doesn't matter if you taste it and say, 'It doesn't taste good.'"

Previously: Introducing Compass Coffee

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.



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