Interview: Chris Owens, Roaster of Handsome Coffee
Vintage Probat – damn Handsome.
F+B: I’ve noticed in some of the Handsome Coffee videos you have a swanky coffee roaster…
Chris Owens: Yes, it’s a Vintage drum roaster by Probat from 1966, fully restored with fresh motors, belts, and 2 added (bean temperature) probes.
F+B: Are you automating your roasts?
CO: No automation, fully manual. Everything added has been added only to glean information to better inform our process.
F+B: Where did you learn to roast?
CO: I have only roasted for Ritual and Handsome. A huge thanks to Ritual for letting an untried roaster come in and work with their coffee. I was there 9 months and worked with Ryan Brown on the roasting team, Steve who is at Ecco, Dave Boscana was there. He is now the Green Buyer at Sightglass.
I learned purely through apprenticeship, no classes. Not to take anything away from classes. I’ve just always been more interested in apprenticeship. I started in mixology at a bar in LA. I thought they were amazing so I walked in and asked them to teach me how to do what they were doing. I find that it’s the best way to learn; find the people in a specific craft and learn from them.
The right touch.
F+B: Do you have any roasters that you look up to or were influences on you?
He roasts a lot lighter than we are but I love what he does and he’s been a friend for years. I went there, not to try to copy what he does but I wanted to see what they are doing and how it can influence what I’m already doing.
And then of course I love Square Mile, Sightglass, and Ritual.
F+B: When you develop a blend, what is your approach?
CO: Keep it really simple. Not one of our blends is over two beans yet.
F+B: Do you have a philosophy behind the coffees you develop?
CO: Basically, make coffees I like. Clean, sweet, transparent, bright, washed coffees. Not that they aren’t good naturals, but that’s what I like. Clean, juicy, fruit notes. When a coffee is juicy it is a balance of sweetness and acidity. If I go for anything, it’s that.
I also look for interesting versions of a coffee. Cupping coffee from Honduras, for example, there is a standard flavor profile but I am looking for the one that stands out differently.
There are basically three types of Kenya. Tomato-ee Kenya , tropical fruit Kenya, and berry Kenya. I gravitate for the tropical fruit.
F+B: What do you believe defines a Master Roaster?
CO: If I ever become one, I’ll tell you.
F+B: Handsome’s roastworks in LA is also your café. What influenced the decision to combine the two?
CO: Welcoming the customer into this world. We want to throw the door open, if you want to come in and hang out, we would love to have you.
We built the roastery within the coffee bar to highlight where the coffee is made. To create a question and show the connection (between their drink and how it’s made) immediately to the customer.
When a customer walks in, they might not even know what the roaster is. Sometimes they think it’s a giant grinder. Creating the question creates a great opportunity to engage the customer about where the coffee comes from. We wanted to pull back the curtain a bit and let every one in on our process.
F+B: What would you like to see develop in the coffee industry?
CO: I think that they’re is a lot of people spouting right and wrong. I think companies in our industry think the only way it can differentiate itself is to say some one is wrong and what they’re doing is right.
I don’t like that. Because then you get very singular results. Suddenly people have to defend a rigid position, “We roast everything light” or “We roast everything dark” or “They’re under-developing.”
When I started working in coffee there was a lot of noise and opinions and I had to filter out a lot. It became a bunch of fighting and not thinking about the customer, but thinking about the shop opening down the street.
I think we need to support each other in the industry rather than be exclusive. There is a version of coffee for everyone and that’s important so everyone stays relevant.
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