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BTSB – Cupping with Bob Garver of Wicked Joe and Bard Coffee

Cupping with Bob Garver of Wicked Joe and Bard Coffee

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Bob Garver, co-founder of Wicked Joe, a wholesale roasting company, and Bard Coffee, an amazing retail coffee shop in Portland, Maine.  After falling in love with the connections coffee can foster as an Army Captain stationed in Turkey, Bob has spent the past quarter-century sourcing, roasting, and brewing the best coffees he can find from around the world.

From living on a boat with no kitchen or bathroom and plowing driveways on the side for supplemental income, Bob has remained focused on two things at Wicked Joe and Bard Coffee: relentlessly iterating on the perfect cup of coffee and positively impacting the entire coffee supply chain.  Whether it is blind taste tests on every batch of coffee produced or subsidizing farm expansion and community development at origin, Bob and his team continually strive to instill best practices throughout the organization.  

You can listen to the full episode by clicking the audio image below, on our website, or on iTunes (more podcast players coming soon!).  Know someone who would be great on the Big Time Small Business podcast?  E-mail in at podcast@chenmarkcapital.com.

Find Someone to Help You Paddle

Carmen left her career on the east coast and she joined me in my coffee business about five years in.  It was asking a lot.  I was living on a boat in the Santa Cruz Harbor and she came out and was happy to let go of her things because we didn’t have room for stuff other than us on this boat.  The boat did not have a galley (kitchen) or a head (bathroom).  It was a racing sailboat. I had built a V-berth in the front with a lot of plywood and wood. I cut a triangular foam mattress that I put up in front and that’s where we slept.  [We used] public showers and bathroom facilities in the harbor area.

It was not a cushy boat, but we loved it.  We didn’t really feel like we were giving.  It was a magical life down in the harbor as liveaboards.  I had lived aboard a boat in Monterey when I was just starting the business–I rode out off Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey to a 32 foot antique Danish teak sailboat.  I had done everything from [living] in a tent next to one of my friend’s houses to living in the back of my coffee shop–you name it.  I remember to this day that Carmen embraced that–the idea of sacrifice–that we were able to invest in our business–and we lived that way for two years.  She came into the business and added skillsets that complimented mine.  All the holes in my game she filled.

Cup…Then Cup Again

We have two certified Q Graders who are calibrated with cuppers [professional coffee tasters] all over the world in our facility and every batch of coffee that we roast is cupped by a Q Grader blindly before it leaves the facility.  Cupping coffees is constant throughout the process.  We begin at origin when we’re making a [purchase] selection.  Before it ships, we’ll get a pre-ship sample and we’ll sample roast and evaluate to make sure it’s what we cupped when we were there.

Then once the coffee arrives we will start bringing in that coffee into our roastery and we’ll start sample roasting it to develop the profile that we’re going to roast it with. There’s a lot of cupping that happens then.  Once we’ve developed a profile on the coffee, that’s when it goes into production. Once it’s in production. Every single roast is cupped in order to determine and ensure that it is staying right in the lane that we’ve told our customers who buy this coffee it’s going to taste like.

After the coffee is developed on the cupping table, we’re tasting it. We’ll take it into our training and experimentation room.  In the cupping room, everything’s always the same.  It’s really a lab. In the training and experimentation room, that’s where we get to really play with the coffee.  In those moments we’re going to brew it exactly how we believe our end customers are going to brew it and we’re going to make sure that what we’ve developed based on our cupping table, even further tweaking is based on how it tastes as a brewed coffee or brewed as an espresso if that’s what we’re working on.

[After everything] we revisit [the farm] every year.  I’m cupping the coffees to see how they are relative to last year.  It’s a coffee that we are pretty sure we’re buying because we bought it for a long time and it’s always awesome, but it’s an agricultural product and it changes and there’s a nuance.

You Can’t Skip the Beginning

That’s when the work began again. That’s when we started experiencing all the things that entrepreneurs experience.  It does take twice as long. and it does cost twice as much as you think no matter how much you say that when you’re planning.  It still does.  We had to make a lot of sacrifices here [in Maine] again.  The sacrifices didn’t stop.  We had a limited amount of money, we weren’t able to pay ourselves for a long time in our business here.  Shoot, when I got to Maine, I put a plow on the front of the truck and I plowed for our neighborhood.  You do anything you can to make a go of it. That’s what we did all over again.

Trust the Process

We aren’t perfect.  We can’t be perfect.  We’re just not made to be perfect and we will make mistakes, but we won’t accept making mistakes because we didn’t try hard enough, because we didn’t care enough about quality.  That’s the goal. The goal is to never make mistakes because we didn’t do our best and try hard and that we didn’t use best practices along the way.

Replace Yourself

It was [only] me on the roaster initially [and] I bagged most of it.  [Carmen and I] were always stuck in the weeds–not able to really look long-term and strategically at our business because we were so busy. That is something that anybody who’s starting a business probably feels a lot.  You’re just so busy that you can’t see the forest from the trees.

I want everybody around me to be better at what they’re doing than I am because I always had to be a Jack of all trades.  Well, I feel that way now.  I’m surrounded by people that are smarter than me.  We’ve got incredibly talented people doing our day-to-day and it’s not just Carmen and I having to do that anymore.

That makes our business better because we get to think about, “What are the next steps? How are we going to be better?”  That’s why we’re starting to source teas.  I started that process years ago.  I’ve done certifications on tea and evaluating tea and understanding tea.  I’ve traveled to tea gardens at origin and factories that process the teas.  We’ve begun to apply the model that has been so successful for us with coffee to sourcing teas. That’s a good example. I’ve really been able to do that. That’s my daily life [now] and that’s probably why I like it so much.

Make it Real

I would rent a plane and take everybody to visit our producers.  Give them that because, man, when you feel that, you want to do better because they’re people to you.  You know them now.  Not from a picture on our wall at our roastery, but you know them personally.  Now, all of a sudden, you care more about quality.

We talk a lot about our responsibility in our supply chain.  We feel like we’re running the last leg of a marathon relay. We’ve gotten passed the baton and if we don’t do our job, then we’re not respecting the work of all those people that went before us.  I would take all of our staff as often as possible to origin so that they could understand that.  [Walk] their land and [hear] the stories about how that farm has been in their family for generations.  Without the mechanism of fair trade and the access to markets that they have, they wouldn’t exist, they wouldn’t be able to farm those lands and that way of life would go away.

To hear that directly–not hearing it from me or from literature that’s put out–to hear people say “Please, I want to be a member of the association” but they don’t have room because they’re [only] going to sell X number of containers this year.  You can’t un-see that stuff.  It changes you.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark  Team

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