Andrew Newell, founder and owner of Farmhouse Coffee Roasters in Winterport, got his start as a micro coffee roaster in perhaps the most Maine way possible — out of necessity and in a backpack.
Barred from drinking coffee because of a Lyme disease diagnosis about five years ago, Newell began researching the effects of different foods and beverages on his system.
Some of his reading led him to discover it was the chemicals used in producing commercial coffees that may have been triggering digestive distress related to his Lyme disease. But organic products could be safe, he read, so he began to experiment with roasting his own organic coffee beans.
“I drank it and waited and thought, ‘huh, my stomach feels OK,” Newell said. “I started experimenting more, and it became fun. And I began roasting more than my wife and I could drink, so started giving it away to my friends, and they were like, ‘Hey, we will buy it.’”
So, three years ago with the full support of his wife, Newell took to the streets — literally — to peddle his Farmhouse brew.
“I was roasting 5 pounds a week when I started,” he said. “I used to put it in a backpack, trying to sell it by walking up and down the streets in Bangor in the winter. People really liked it, and the word spread. Crazy as it sounds, that’s how I got started.”
A Maine micro-industry
These days, Newell is roasting between 300 and 400 pounds of coffee per week and is a busy member of Maine’s micro coffee roasting industry, defined as any business roasting beans to exact specifications in small batches generally less than 150 pounds.
His business outgrew the backpack sales early on, and he just recently moved from his small roasting shed next to his house to a larger commercial space in Winterport.
There are no official statistics on the how much specialty or micro-roasted coffee is sold in Maine, but an online search showed more than 30 Maine-based roasters from Kittery to Fort Kent.
According to the co-owner of one of the state’s oldest roasters, there is always room for one more.
“Everyone is welcome at the table to make a high-end product that is affordable for people,” said Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design in Portland, which is marking its 25th anniversary next year. “Coffee is often seen as a luxury item, but it is really a luxury item that people will argue is a necessity.”
Nationwide statistics would seem to back up Lindemann’s claim.
According to the National Coffee Association, 76 percent of Americans say they drink coffee on a regular basis.
In a 2016 study sponsored by the National Coffee Association, the total economic impact of the coffee industry in this country in 2015 was $225.2 billion with coffee-related businesses and activities counting for around 1.6 percent of the total U.S. gross domestic product.
More people consume coffee in this country than tap water, according to the National Coffee Association.
New to the industry
Among the newest to the micro roasting coffee table in Maine is Alan Susee, who has no problem admitting he’s a coffee snob.
After years of searching and sampling, he could not find a cup of coffee that met his exacting standards in northern Maine, so he decided several years ago to obtain and roast his own beans at this Fort Kent home.
“If there had already been readily available properly brewed fresh coffee in Fort Kent, I might never have gone down this road,” Susee said. “But I was tired of ‘truck stop’ coffee. I really enjoy good, high-end, specialty-grade coffee.”
Since March, Susee has been roasting and selling his specialty roasted Red Devil Roast Coffee Company beans locally and has built up a steady mail-order client base around the country. He estimates he is roasting around 65 pounds of coffee per week.
“I know it’s a small-scale operation right now,” Susee said. “But I am pleased by the response, and I can see this growing into a full-time operation for me.”
Susee roasts coffee part time, and his full-time job is as the owner of the Fort Kent Sears Hometown store.
Mainers know their ‘joe’
“People in Maine know what they like,” Lindemann said. “We want to produce coffee that meets their standards, maintains our own standards and is affordable.”
Coffee, she said, is an important components of many people’s days, whether it’s that first cup in the morning before work or a mug of steaming brew enjoyed in leisure among friends.
“Coffee makes people happy,” Lindemann said. “It brings people together.”
No one is growing coffee commercially in Maine because the state lacks the tropical environment and weather the plants need to thrive, but that’s hardly an obstacle to the state’s roasters.
“I’m always on the lookout for good coffee beans,” Lindemann said. “We just brought in a new variety from Colombia from a farm that had been taken over by the original farmers’ son. What we tasted was unbelievable.”
So impressed was Lindemann by that Colombian coffee, she has arranged to buy that farmer’s entire crop.
Meeting the people behind the coffee crop is a big part of what Lindemann enjoys about being a roaster.
“When I think about meeting the growers and sourcing great coffee, it’s a bit like dating,” she said. “You see something that interests you, and the next thing you know you are meeting the whole family and it becomes like a marriage.”
Lindemann travels the world in search of the perfect beans and to work directly with the growers.
“My favorite coffee is usually from wherever I’ve just been,” she said with a laugh. “I do love the Burundi coffee, and I just bought a Kenyan bean that is unbelievable.”
It’s the beans
For those who can’t travel to the source, the beans are delivered to the roaster.
A self-described “homebody,” Newell has never traveled to the coffee growing regions from which he imports raw beans.
Instead, he works with a trusted importer.
“I only buy organic coffee beans,” Newells said. “My importer treats me really good, and we are able to get beans from Latin America, Africa, Indonesia and even small batches from Hawaii.”
By sourcing directly from these organic growers Newell believes he is producing roasted coffee in a manner that helps the farmers operate sustainable farms.
That’s an important point for Susee, who also works with an importer who works directly with the farmers on “best practices” for their farms.
“They help the farmers adjust their growing systems in ways that work best for that individual farm,” Susee said. “They help them develop methods that promote sustainability, the environment and can turn a profit for the farmer.”
These days, Lindemann believes her company has come full circle.
“Many of the countries we buy from are where many of our new Maine immigrants are from,” she said. “For a variety of reasons many of them can never return to their home countries, so bringing in coffee from these places is like bringing a piece of their home to them and that is incredibly powerful for me.”
In the end, Lindemann said, the future of roasting is the future of human interactions shared over a cup of coffee.
“I have customers that have come in every day for 25 years and that just amazes me,” she said. “We like to say there is a story in every cup, and people share their stories with me. I believe you can help the world one cup at a time.”
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