Welcome back to a new feature series on Sprudge, Going Somewhere Solo, in which we profile the people behind the new wave of so-called “nano-roasters”, the tiniest of new coffee concerns pushing quality and entrepreneurship in a big way. These are seasoned coffee pros who’ve struck out on their own (often in unexpected places) to launch roasting enterprises outside of the traditional coffee shop format, instead growing their businesses within collaborative spaces, home offices, garages, and of course, online. Know of a gutsy coffee startup? Email us!
This week’s spotlight is on Esther Shaw, a longtime Chicago-based coffee professional who recently relocated to Astoria, Oregon to pursue a roasting dream.
Hi! Tell us what your roasting business is called and where you're located.
Coptic Light, located in Astoria, Oregon.
What equipment are you currently roasting on?
A seven-kilo Diedrich for production roasting, and a Quest M3 for sample roasting
Who else is involved in the business right now?
David D’Andrea of Samaritan Press designs all of our beautiful packaging. He creates all of the art for our company and presses each box himself on this amazing 100-year-old letterpress machine. JR Robinson is an essential creative force who plays a major role in generating the aesthetic of our company and is in production and sales. And I am in charge of anything coffee-related—logistics, roasting, green coffee buying, etc. We each bring something different to the table and collaborate wonderfully together—I love working with JR and David!
What's your background in the coffee industry?
My first coffee job ever was as a Quality Control lab assistant at Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago—my dream job for starting out in coffee. From there, my position expanded fairly quickly. I started managing the lab, building QC data systems, coordinating green coffee inventory, and contributing to coffee buying decisions. After that, I was offered a very appealing position working with the amazing Dark Matter Coffee crew, heading up and building their quality control systems. They were always hugely supportive of my decisions yet always challenged me to view coffee and quality from a different perspective. Then, I did a short stint over at Quasar Coffee as well which was such an immense learning experience.
And drawing from all those valuable experiences, I am now able to run Coptic Light alongside David and JR. I also have a few side projects. I began working with cooperatives in Pu’er, Yunnan, China a few years ago and actually imported my first partial container last year. I also work as an SCA specialized instructor teaching cupping and roasting classes with a focus on China and Taiwan and help translate curriculum and testing materials from English to Chinese for the SCA.
How are you currently sourcing your coffees? What do you look for?
Being a new business, I knew we would be moving through a smaller quantity of coffee at a slower pace. I focused on sourcing delicious coffees which would be super sturdy and cup well over time. So I started off safe, solely sourcing washed Ethiopian coffees and then gradually some natural Ethiopian coffees. I get them through my friend Sean Capistrant over at Trabocca who is wonderful to work with.
However, as mentioned earlier, I have another passion which is working with coffee cooperatives in Pu’er to elevate specialty coffee standards. It was a personal venture I started exploring a few years ago. Last year, I started making a conscious effort to connect specialty coffee roasters to quality coffee from Pu’er. I was actually successful enough in 2016 to import my first partial container. I chose to purchase one of their experimental coffees in order to closely track its quality from start to finish, seeing it all the way through. This will be the next new offering on the Coptic Light menu.
What—or who—inspired you to go out on your own with roasting? Is there a coffee (or other) company you admire and would love to grow up to be like
I was at a point where I needed a bit of solitude in my life and was also realizing that life is fleeting. I felt an urgency to make a huge change in order to pursue all of my dreams and passions. So I chose to move away from my lovely friends and life in Chicago to the small town of Astoria, Oregon. And with that came Coptic Light, which represents this inspiration of starting something new, beautiful, and independent.
Other companies I currently admire or would like to grow up to be like—I have a lot of respect for what Steve Mierisch has done at Pulley Collective. He pursued a concept fairly outside of the box and the resulting collaborative model is so exciting to be around every time I visit them over in Brooklyn. I also really admire coffee roaster guru Chris Schooley and his company Troubador Maltings. He is one of the most giving, intelligent coffee people I know. He works hard, creates wonderful quality products, and naturally draws people to want to be around him.
What kind of risks have you taken in striking out on your own to launch an independent roasting business? Did you make any unusual decisions?
Nothing really out of the ordinary. I knew that starting off it would be difficult to distinguish ourselves from other coffee roasting businesses. I knew it would take time to gain some recognition and grow, so I would need to be patient and smart with the money I had saved up to start this business. I wanted to keep true to a few principles—simplicity, quality, and beauty. I aimed to keep the logistics and initial investment simple. I didn’t want to purchase a roaster and rent out a store space right off the bat, so instead we rent roasting time from a local roaster and focus on alternative outlets for sales. By simplifying the logistics, we are able to focus our time and money towards the important stuff, towards pursuing high quality coffee and beautiful packaging. The simplicity allowed us more freedom to execute things the way we wanted to do them.
How are you reaching customers without a retail cafe? Do you plan to have one someday? Where can people buy your coffee?
David D’Andrea has a huge following as a talented artist and printmaker. JR Robinson is a wonderfully talented musician with a following of his own as the leader of the band Wrekmeister Harmonies. And me–I know some people I guess! We just reach out to the following we currently have via social media by posting photos of our lives, our work and our beautiful product. We sell our coffee on our website copticlight.org, at a few cafes, grocery stores, and interestingly most of our sales happen when we are on tour with Wrekmeister, which I also play in, at the merch table. It’s actually my most favorite place to sell. People love seeing our coffee being sold as merch, and it naturally leads to many questions and conversation. I also love seeing when the music world and coffee world collide and chatting with people who are passionate about both.
Yes, we would love to have a retail café someday—it’s the dream. I have a plan for that maybe a few years down the road after we get our current online retail sales and wholesale accounts more steady.
It strikes us as a measurement of where the specialty industry is now that many small roasters are now cropping up across the landscape without a physical location to hang a shingle on. How will you stand out from others competing for shelf space in the world's decreasing multi-roaster cafes?
Haha, I don’t know! I just know I love doing what we do. I love putting out delicious coffees in beautiful packaging and scheming with David and JR about the possibility of future Coptic Light events and pop-up shops. I am happy to keep this company at a small scale but would be happy if it does grow—like I said before the simplicity of our business model allows for this freedom.
Lastly, how would you describe your vibe in general? Is there a kind of music you like to listen to when you roast, do you wear lucky shoes, etc.?
Check out the song Coptic Light by Morton Feldman—it is actually what we named our company after and definitely representative of our general vibe. The piece is classical yet experimental. It is quiet and soothing, a bit noisy, mystical and beautiful.
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.