Meet the Maker: Nathan's Coffee

It's hard not to be inspired by the artists and makers of the Cleveland Flea. Brilliant, talented, creative. They're tough as bleepin' nails on their ways to making their dreams come true. We're reviving last year's The Maker Series, a partnership between The Cleveland Flea/Indie Foundry and Suzuran Photography, to take a look — behind the scenes, beyond the booth — to see what drives our makers to do what they love and love what they do. All photography by Suzuran Photography.

Q + A with Nathan's Coffee Roasting

Nathan's Coffee Roasting is a small-batch, artisan coffee roaster, operating in Valley City, Ohio. Proprietor Nathan Pozderac wasn't born loving a perfect roast. He tells market manager Sarah Wilt how his taste developed.

SW: How was your passion for coffee develop?
NCR: I started drinking coffee as a teen, but drank it like my late father: Would you like some coffee with your cream and sugar?  It wasn’t until after college that I started making coffee in the mornings, like most adults, and was making a whole pot, drinking one cup with tons of cream and sugar and then throwing the rest away because I was the only coffee drinker in the house. That was wasteful, so I had to find a different way.

I remember searching the Internet for “one-cup coffee maker” (this was before the machine-that-will-not-be-named).  I found images and products that were what I later learned to be called “pour-over cones.”  It looked like drip coffee to me, so I bought one.  After that first pour-over cone, I started to learn things via web forums and message boards.  I started to look for better coffees.  Locally roasted, or better yet, roasted to order, was next. I graduated to fresh coffee, then a better grinder, an espresso machine, a home-roasting machine and then, all of a sudden, I was a coffee roaster.

I tend to delve deeply into my hobbies. Coffee was no different. I ultimately purchased a commercial roaster, and here we are today. I continue to educate myself via the Internet, industry magazines and my fellow roasters.

SW: What’s the difference between pour-over coffee and traditional pot-brewing and/or a one-cup machine brew?
NCR: A manual pour-over coffee and an auto-drip machine are actually similar in many ways. Hot water is being poured or sprayed over a bed of coffee, and it flows through the bed of coffee during the brewing process, dripping into the vessel below.  French Press fully immerses the coffee in hot water and filters out the coffee grounds at the end of the brewing process.  There are some brewing methods that combine these two ideas, but that’s for another time.

In a manual pour-over, the person doing the pouring is responsible for the temperature of the water, the rate at which the water is poured and where the water is poured.  In an auto-drip, the machine is responsible for each of those things. In all but a few cases, how the machine handles these variable cannot be changed by the user.

Quality of your coffee comes down to those variables.  Brew temp, brew time and the ability to manipulate the pour to properly extract the good stuff out of the coffee grounds, without extracting the bad stuff.

The problem with most auto-drip machines is that the water isn’t hot enough. The coffee doesn’t get evenly and fully saturated, and the brew time is too short.  As for the popular, push-a-button-and-something-like-coffee-comes-out machines, they use far too little coffee grounds in the pods, the exposure to water is far too short, and the water temperature is far too low for proper extraction.  There are tools to measure extraction, so this can be quantified.

SW: How much coffee/espresso do you drink in a day?
NCR: Not as much as you’d think.  Many people assume I always have a coffee in hand. Most days, just 300-600 mL in the morning. I make one 1300ml pot and split it with my wife. If the espresso machine is up and running, it’s usually just one or two double-espresso cappuccinos, lattes or cortados for me.

If I get a new brewing gadget or machine or method, I brew more. But I only taste and sample them. If I’m cupping samples from importers, I will taste a lot, but actually drink very little.
Also: I rarely get to pick what I drink at home.  I drink what is leftover from customer orders.

SW: Confession: I am a Keurig one-cup, Starbucks grounds with flavored creamer kind of coffee drinker. Is there hope for me? Can you make me into a purist? Is there a coffee rehab program? 
NCR: This interview is over. [long pause] There is hope, yes.  There are some steps we can take to improve your daily cup:

  • Start buying whole beans: roasted recently, within a week or two. Grind them yourself.
  • Get the best burr grinder you can afford. Grind consistency is key.
  • Use proper water temperature (approximately 195-205F, for most brewing methods).
  • Use proper brewing time—this can vary by method. It's 3-4 minutes for pour-over.
  • Use proper amount of coffee—this also varies for method and taste. Start with 55g of coffee per liter of water.
  • Brew by weight, not tablespoons.

After all of that, if you still prefer cream and sugar in your coffee, or you just really like some french vanilla syrup, enjoy your coffee with whatever you like.  That’s what life’s all about anyway, isn’t it?

SW: Does coffee have trends, like beer? What’s the IPA of coffee right now?
NCR: Absolutely. Coffee trends are very similar to beer. Since the mid-90’s, artisan beer-brewing has been growing, just like artisan coffee-roasting. Every brewery has an IPA now, and every coffee roaster has a Dry (or Natural) Process Ethiopian.  For good reason. They’re very tasty, and it’s different than what most people expect.  These trends are good things because eventually that roast gets exposed to folks who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience a sweet, fruity, acidic, tart and creamy Natural Process coffee.

SW: What are your goals and dreams for Nathan’s Coffee Roasting this year?
NCR: Nathan’s Coffee Roasting 2014 goal is to expand our commercial customer base.  I would love to have a few more cafes, restaurants, bistros, food trucks and bakeries as customers.  I would also like to increase the number of events we do.  I like spending a day making coffee, even if it can be exhausting. My wife and I enjoy seeing all of our friends from the Flea and other events.

SW: How do you balance your small business, your outside job and your family?
NCR: I do most of my roasting in the late evenings after the kids go to sleep. Chances are your coffee was roasted between 9 p.m. and midnight.  I love my wife and kids, and they always come first.  If my kids want me to snuggle at bedtime, I roast a little later.  If I fall asleep with them, I wake up extra early and roast at 5 a.m. I have my priorities, and family comes first. The day job is consistent, so it’s all part of the routine.

SW: How has the Cleveland Flea helped your business? 
NCR: Exposure and events. The events have been a huge part of my business (I roast about 27 pounds of coffee for one day at the Flea; I’ve sold-out almost every time).  The exposure has given me opportunities at other events, as well as ins for commercial business.  So, a huge thank you to The Cleveland Flea, and my friend Catie for alerting me to the opportunity.

SW: Have you learned anything about your business by participating in the Cleveland Flea?
NCR: I’ve learned that timing is important. I can wait until a few days out to roast, but not for supplies, more beans, equipment, etc. In the middle of January, I need to prep for spring and summer.

SW: What is the one thing that you’ll always pay full price for?
NCR: Coffee. (What else did you think I would say? But, really, anything handmade.  Leather goods, jewelry, pens, clothing.  If it’s been handmade by a craftsman, I fully support it.  It would be hypocritical for me to expect it, and not do it myself.

SW: Who are some of your favorite Cleveland small businesses, Flea vendors and local creatives?
NCR: We have met many awesome people in the past year. Wright and Rede, iLoveSassyFrass, Cleveland Bagel Co., Mason’s Creamery, Oceanne Jewelry, Pope’s Kitchen, Fear’s Confections, Liza Michelle, Suzuran Photography, Yellow Door Goods, Black Kitten Vintage. I’m leaving off a long list of great people, so please don’t be offended if I didn’t mention you.

SW: What’s your greatest struggle from a creative standpoint?
NCR: Coming up with verbiage for the website and marketing materials, developing graphics and things like that. As a musician, it is simply not my artistic medium of choice.  My wife is a big help; she helps write descriptions and marketing copy.

SW: What’s your greatest struggle from an artistic standpoint?
NCR: Finding time to be artistic.  Between two jobs and my family, the roasting gets done, and the extra stuff, like building small wooden things, pour-over stands and small tables, gets put aside.

SW: Where we find you?
NCR: During the day I'm at my day-job as a Long-term care Administrator.  My family owns and operates 13 group homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities.  We’ve been in business since 1965. I’ve been an administrator since I earned my master's in healthcare administration in 2008.

In the evening, I'm at home with my family. If it’s late enough: roasting coffee in the workshop. And on weekends, I'm with my family, at swim lessons and birthday parties and doing kid stuff.

SW: Favorite piece of advice as it relates to coffee and/or business?
NCR: My Djedo (that's grandfather in Serbian) and my Mama have always told me, “Keep the company strong, and you’ll be fine.”  For now, I don’t have employees at Nathan’s Coffee Roasting, but we have over 225 at my day job.  As long as the company is strong and healthy, my family and my 225 employees’ families will be OK.

Faux bois mugs by Gina DeSantis Ceramics. Salvaged table from Yellow Door Goods. All photography by Suzuran Photography. Story originally posted on Jan. 9, 2015, on Indie Foundry.