Chip Grabow started Radio Roasters Coffee out of his desire for a good cup of joe. After refining his roasting at home and keeping his friends and family stocked with good beans, he decided to venture out into commercial coffee roasting. He opened the Radio Roaster facility in Scottdale a little more than a year ago. Eater recently chatted with Grabow about what it takes to make good coffee, starting with the farm and ending in your cup.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested coffee.
"I'm not a barista; I'm more focused with the whole coffee production chain"
I've always loved coffee, and having lived in Portland, Ore., for a while where there is a roaster on every block, I really got hooked. I got interested in roasting coffee out of the desire to have good coffee at home. I had friends who were roasters and a friend here who was roasting in his backyard in an adobe oven. That's when it really clicked, and I got the idea to bring really good coffee to Atlanta with a focus on the roasting side. I'm not a barista; I'm more focused with the whole coffee production chain. I'm fascinated with how the coffee grows, its origins, how it gets to the roaster, and how the roaster treats it. It's amazing what you can do with one bean based on how you treat it. My professional background is in news and media production. I've worked with NPR and now CNN, which is still my day job. Radio Roasters is still my side project; I'm boot-strapping it. But this part is fun. I'm just busy enough now with our sales that I've brought in some part-time help with roasting and order fulfillment.
How did you make the leap to becoming a commercial coffee roaster?
I'm basically self-taught. I started roasting at home on a smaller sample roaster. Sampler roasters are similar to the large commercial roaster we use here, but it fits on a table top and you can do much smaller quantities. I started roasting on that and getting a sense of how the roasting process affects flavor and aroma. I started selling to family and friends and it took off from there. I was learning along the way and am still learning a lot now. Every time I roast, I learn something. There is still so much to learn about roasting and brewing
What are the challenges a small roaster faces in sourcing really good coffee?
Most of the bigger brands are working with fewer farmers because of the quantity of coffee they need. They are probably working with one large company. Smaller roasters can pick and choose which farmers we work with. I buy from an importer who buys from a single processing facility for independent farmers. They know the farmers and they only work with farmers who are focused on quality, which typically means they are using sustainable processes. We can't have a direct relationship with all the farmers, but we trust that the importer has those relationships and are working with good farmers.
"Atlanta is the capital of the South and you still have to look around for really good coffee"
It comes down to quality. If you are buying good quality coffee, you know that farmer has put effort into it, and it justifies paying a little bit more for it. When you pay a little bit more for your coffee, you are helping everyone along that coffee chain, especially the farmers. It's quite similar to wine and how people are usually more willing to pay more for a good bottle of wine if we know that the person who grew the grapes put a lot of care into growing and producing it. For so long, the coffee farmer has been an overlooked element in the world of coffee. Paying $20 for a bag of coffee isn't crazy when you think about the work that went into growing and producing that coffee. When we roast our beans, we are trying to best represent all the hard work that the farmer put into it. I could get really good green coffee and I could totally ruin it through the roasting process, and no one would get to see the potential
What's your take on the ongoing coffee boom around Atlanta?
There is certainly some good coffee here in Atlanta. But when I moved here, I didn't really see people doing coffee the way I saw it being done on the West Coast. I saw a huge niche, especially in Decatur, where there is such a great food culture and people pay attention to such things. I think Decatur could even support another few good coffee places and roasters. I felt like there was huge need here. Atlanta is the capital of the South and you still have to look around for really good coffee. In Portland, for example, there's this whole other level of coffee now: how to prepare it, where it is coming from, etc. Part of our mission at Radio Roasters is to get better coffee to people, but also to educate them about where it is coming from and who is growing it.
What's the secret to a making a good cup of coffee at home?
I like pour-overs. With a pour-over you get such a clean cup of coffee as you filter out all the sediment. You get the cleanest cup. With a French press you get a muddier flavor, but some people like that. I'm still trying to get my head around AeroPress. I have an AeroPress at home, and I know some people swear by it, but I prefer a pour-over most often.
"For so long, most Americans have been used to drinking mediocre coffee"
The other key is to use good coffee. I tell people to treat good coffee like you do good, fresh bread. Don't buy a five-pound bag of coffee and keep it your freezer for two months. Buy enough to last a week or two. It's all about freshness with coffee. Ideally, from roast to cup should be less than two weeks. It is a perishable food — the fresher, the better. For so long, most Americans have been used to drinking mediocre coffee. It was just a caffeine-delivery system. If you start with good coffee, you don't need to do things like adding cream and sugar to your coffee.
How can the general public gain access to your coffee?
People can order our coffee on our website online for home delivery. We deliver for free around Decatur, often on the same day the coffee is roasted. We also ship our coffee via USPS. We have a subscription service so you can be sure you are getting our coffee every two weeks, or you can order as needed whenever you are running low. We have a handful of restaurant and wholesale customers, and we are really trying to grow that aspect of the company now. We are also planning to start open house coffee tastings on Saturdays in the fall so people come by here at the roastery and learn a little and taste a little.