Slice of Life: Columbia Street Roastery
By EARN SAENMUK
CHAMPAIGN — The clank of the door always draws everyone's attention at the Columbia Street Roastery in downtown Champaign, and on Saturday morning the door clanks often. Customers come and go, browsing and pondering among dozens of the Roastery's coffee choices — among them Mocha Java, Hickory Street, Black Velvet. The savory scent of coffee floats in the air and a large, not-so-new machine groans while roasting coffee beans to the right temperature to create the right taste.
"I just want something bolder," a man tells Erin Erdman, a Roastery worker who loves sharing her favorite coffees.
"Maybe you should try Papa Hickory," she says, and the man nods his approval.
Mark Herriott, owner of the shop, joins the gathering from his office in the back, his usual big smile shining. "Have you tried Papa Hickory?" he asks the man with Erin. "It's a blend of Papua New Guinea and Hickory Street."
"That's what I just recommended him!" Erin says proudly as she hands the man a bag of coffee. The man laughs, pays and waves the bag at them as he leaves.
Mark lucked into his coffee business, which, after a decade, now sells between 15-20 handpicked coffees, depending on the availability of good crops, and more than 20 blends to restaurants, university offices and coffee shops as far away as Chicago and Indiana. He and his workers take regular trips to coffee-growing countries, including the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Mexico.
"There's a lot to know about coffee," Mark says. "Weather, soil, how you brew. All of these matter."
Before the Roastery, Mark worked in his family's equipment and party rental business. He first started selling coffee to offices to cover the winter slow-down in rentals. Then coffee caught him. "Coffee doesn't have only one taste: bitterness, sour aftertaste, the fruit notes and many more."
As it grows, coffee cannot tolerate extreme high or low temperatures, so temperature can have a tremendous impact on its taste, making it too sour or bitter. Coffee also needs essential soil elements — nitrogen, potassium, calcium and boron. The pH value and the drainage also can damage coffee easily. Yet, for Mark, the most important part of the process is roasting the beans, which takes time and patience. Each coffee has its own roasting temperature and roasting time.
Mark's head roaster is Alex Kunzelman, who works among the shop's roasting, grinding and measuring machines and the tons of coffee beans in the Roastery's storeroom. He works from about noon to late evening, roasting pounds and pounds of coffee almost every day.
"You can't do this if you don't like coffee," Alex says. "Well, I guess you can, but your life will be pretty miserable." Alex began in coffee as a barista, and he, too, got hooked. "I've always liked coffee. I like the smell and the taste. I don't think I'll get bored of it." Of course, everyone has different tastes. Alex prefers single-origin coffees, Mark favors blends, Erin likes both.
"Mark enjoys putting them together when I try to separate them," Alex says, laughing.
Mark, Alex and several other Roastery workers have traveled to all the countries where coffee is grown. Mark has been to almost every one of them. Alex went to Nicaragua and another Roastery worker recently went to Mexico.
"I learned a lot from these trips," Alex says. "Each country has its own way of growing and taking care of coffee. It's always fun to go to new places, too."
Most people think of coffee as the finely granulated stuff that comes in a can or a bag. Seeing mountainsides full of coffee trees and how real people grow and care for the trees and beans, and how difficult it is to pick the good cherries, has made Alex realize how complex is the journey from tree twig to cup.
"I went to see the growers and tried their coffees," Alex says. "I think that's when I realized the environment actually matters."
Back in the front this morning, Erin heats water to make samples for new customers — a man and his wife. A regular Roastery customer who is a friend of the couple has recommended the shop, and they have driven two hours to sample its coffees. They show their friend's picture to Mark.
"Oh, David!" Mark says. "How is he doing? I haven't seen him in a while."
They chat and the couple samples coffees for a long time before they decide to buy several one-pound bags of the Roastery's popular coffees. As they leave, Mark throws them a bag of Sumatra Wahana Estate, a specialty of the Roastery, and the husband catches it just before it hits his face. He laughs.
"This one is on me," Mark says.
"I like this one the most," Erin adds. "It's so creamy and sweet."
"Thank you for stopping by," Mark says.
Today at the Roastery, just like every other day, Alex blends Nicaragua, two types of Ethiopia, Sumatra and Colombia together to make Black Velvet, the shop's most popular concoction. To meet the shop's demand, he roasts beans about 20 times a day. Yet roasting isn't the only factor that affects taste. How finely the beans are ground, the brewing method used — French press, pour-over, espresso — as well as the water temperature, water quality and brewing time can change the flavor of coffee completely. To brew a good cup of coffee, Alex says, a person must pay attention to details. But, in the end, it's up to each person's taste buds.
"It depends on your preference," he says. "The variations don't make the coffee better or worse than another."
The door clanks again.
"Hi, what can I get for you today?" Erin asks.
"Just the same thing," a regular customer answers.
"Great," Erin says. "It will be just one minute."
Later, she laughs and says, "I smell like coffee all the time, which is not a bad thing. I mean, who doesn't like the smell of coffee?"
Slices of Life
This story was written by a journalism student in Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class at the University of Illinois. Funding was provided by the Marajen Stevick Foundation. You can buy the book "Slices of Life," a series of stories by writers in Harrington's class. Each story is a short peek into the lives of East Central Illinois residents.