Gold Country Roasters owner Lisa Shwartz wasn’t expecting to win an award when she submitted her two best-selling coffee blends to a national coffee roasting competition, so she was pleasantly surprised when one of them recently won a silver medal.
“We figured our customers must know best, so we submitted those two coffees never in our wildest dreams expecting that we would be competitive for anything,” Schwartz said. “We were just hoping to get some tasting notes and feedback that would help us improve our roast.”
The coffee roasting company and cafe submitted its Murphys and French blends to compete against more than 400 others from across the country in coffee grinder manufacturing company Compak’s inaugural Golden Bean North America Coffee Roasters Competition and Conference in Portland, Ore., from Sept. 16 to 19.
The medium roast Murphys Blend won a silver medal in the competition’s immersion filter category, in which the blends were brewed using a French press.
“It definitely got our confidence up,” Schwartz said. “We’re definitely going to enter more of our coffees next year because we realized we can be competitive on a grander scale.”
The roasting company and cafe has coffees from all over the world and offers 14 different blends and roasts ranging from light to dark roast.
“We try to cover the whole spectrum because everyone has different taste,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz is also trying to move in the direction of organics and sustainability, offering coffees certified by nonprofits Fair Trade USA, which ensures workers were treated and paid fairly, and the Rainforest Alliance, which works to conserve biodiversity.
Schwartz recently established a direct-trade relationship with an El Salvador coffee bean grower.
“We’ve actually met the farmer face to face,” Schwartz said.
The roasting company also decaffeinates its decaf coffee blends using a chemical-free, Swiss-water process.
“That’s kind of a special niche that we’ve developed,” Schwartz said.
Developing that niche is difficult because organic coffees still compose a small portion of the entire coffee market, Schwartz said. The ability to obtain organic beans depends on the region of the world from which they’re purchased.
“It’s not easy to find organic Papua New Guinea (coffee beans),” Shwartz said. “So our signature Murphys Blend is not organic, but we have really high-grade beans. So we buy the best beans that we can.”
But Schwartz said the demand for these kinds of beans is increasing and she began moving in that direction when she received two wholesale requests for bird-friendly coffee beans in the span of a month.
“At the time, we didn’t even know what that was, so we said let’s find out,” she said.
Schwartz found a program that encourages buying and selling shade-grown coffee beans, which are less destructive to birds and wildlife habitats than sun-grown coffee. The program is offered by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which describes itself as dedicated to understanding and conserving migratory bird populations.
Now Gold Country Roasters is a certified roaster of bird-friendly coffee with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and currently offers two coffee bean varieties – Guatemalan and Peruvian – certified 100 percent organic and bird-friendly.
All the coffee beans are roasted onsite by Tonja Peterson, who can be seen at her craft through a glass window in the Murphys cafe.
Peterson said roasting is similar to the process of winemaking in that one individual might take liberties where another wouldn’t, producing entirely different flavors.
“You can start with a green bean and you have different metrics along the way that you create,” Peterson said. “But once you get it you don’t keep changing it.”
From listening for the cracking of the coffee beans and checking the color of the beans to tracking the temperature and other metrics, the process requires a lot of attention and care to ensure consistency.
And the only way to learn, Peterson said, is through a hands-on apprenticeship. But Peterson said her apprentice Alex Durante already “has it down to a science.”
Gold Country Roasters was also nominated for and won the Best Retail award at the Calaveras Visitors Bureau’s Innovation in Tourism Awards in November.
“So yeah,” Schwartz said, “it was a good year.”