Eat | Drink

Carlsbad roaster borrows lessons from winemakers for its artisan coffees

Elliot Reinecke releases the freshly roasted coffee beans that helped Steady State Roasting Co. win the 2020 Good Food Award this week. It's a big validation for company founder Elliot Reinecke of Carlsbad, who started roasting coffee as a hobby in a backyard shed a few years ago.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Three-year-old company’s highly curated beans earned a coveted 2020 Good Food Award

Every Thursday afternoon, customers at the Steady State Roasting Co. cafe in Carlsbad are invited to a free “cupping” event, where they can sniff, slurp and spit their way through multiple samples of rare coffees from around the world.

Company founder and cupping host Elliot Reinecke not only regales weekly attendees with extensive details on the beans’ terroir, moisture content, roasting characteristics and flavor profile, he can also talk about each of the farmers who grew them. Steady State is a “relationship trader,” meaning it works one-on-one with individual farmers in Central and South America and East Africa to buy their crops at above-market, sustainable prices.

That commitment to sustainability and quality has made Steady State a darling among Southern California coffee aficionados and also earned the company a coveted 2020 Good Food Award. Each year, just 15 winners are chosen from a field of 2,000 entries in 17 categories, from beer to cheese to charcuterie. The award, announced Friday, is a huge achievement for a high-minded company that Reinecke started as a hobby a few years ago in a backyard shed.

Steady State Roasting Co.
Trent Broeckel takes part in a “cupping” experience smelling the aroma of coffee made with freshly roasted beans at Steady State Roasting Company’s new California Roasting Collective in San Marcos on Tuesday, Jan. 14.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Taking lessons from the wine-making industry, Steady State’s long-range mission is to use its weekly educational cuppings and its transparent buying and sourcing practices to transform how the public buys, drinks and appreciates coffee.

“We’re elated to receive the Good Food Award. It’s a reflection of our values and commitment in this industry,” Reinecke said. “Adding the education element has both been fun for customers and helpful in creating a respect for the lengthy process that creates your morning pick-me-up.”

Steady State is a small-batch roaster, turning out just 600 pounds to 800 pounds of beans each week. They’re sold both by the bag and in $6 to $15 coffee drinks at its cafe at 2562 State St., Suite G, in Carlsbad. They’re also sold online and to wholesale customers like John Resnick, who serves the coffee in his two State Street restaurants, Campfire and Jeune et Jolie.

Steady State Roasting Co.
Founder of Steady State Roasting Co., Elliot Reinecke shows some of the coffee beans that helped the company win the 2020 Good Food Award.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A self-described “coffee addict” who drinks four cups a day, Resnick said that after he tasted his first cup of Steady State Coffee nearly four years ago, he knew it was the only coffee he would ever serve at his restaurants.

“Aside from how much I love the taste of these beautiful coffees, it is also their commitment to the source that I respect so much,” Resnick said. “Elliot and his team really do source the best coffee beans in the world from small farmers who are passionate about their work. He doesn’t just create relationships with brokers, but actually goes to visit the farmers and create relationships with them.”

Reinecke, 37, and his wife Ellen Sroka, 36, fell in love with coffee while living in Costa Rica, where they moved in 2006 after graduating from college in Maryland. They moved there, and then to North County in 2008, to pursue their passion for surfing. For several years after moving to Carlsbad, Reinecke was a professional mountain biker. He remembers a day about five years ago when he was on his way to a bike race and stopped for a coffee at small roaster’s cafe.

“It wasn’t good,” he said. “That was my a-ha moment when I thought of starting a coffee roasting business. From that day on, I would visit roasters in every city I visited.”

Founder of Steady State Roasting Co., Elliot Reinecke inspects a small batch of freshly roasted coffee beans that helped the company win the 2020 Good Food Award.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As his cycling career wound down, he started roasting tiny batches of beans in a tabletop electric roaster under the name Boogie Beans. Then in 2016, with his wife, his cycling partner Len Geiger and partner Dave Stainton, he launched Steady State. In 2017, the company’s coffee won second place in the Specialty Coffee Association’s national roaster competition. In 2018, it placed third. It has also won first-place awards in several local competitions. In April 2018, the partners opened their first dedicated cafe that Reinecke said draws coffee devotees from as far away as Los Angeles.

Reinecke said artisan coffee is now riding a fast-growing wave of popularity, driven by consumer interest in the sourcing and quality of ingredients and artisan roaster techniques. It follows a similar boom that started 20 years ago in the craft beer industry. And as with craft beer, San Diegans are among the consumers driving the trend. In November, San Diego was named the 9th best coffee city in America in a study by WalletHub.

But Reinecke said the coffee industry is fast approaching an abyss. Unlike the prolific crops of hops and grains used in beer, coffee can only be grown on a large scale in certain latitudes, altitudes and climates. It’s also a highly labor-intensive crop that’s dying out for lack of workers and profits.

Right now, the global “C market” price for coffee beans is about $1.30 a pound, but it costs farmers $2.50 to $4.50 a pound to produce it, Reinecke said. As a result, many coffee growers are now cutting down their coffee trees to plant more profitable crops. And, of the farmers who are successful with coffee, many are using their profits to send their children into the cities and colleges to seek better-paying, less-grueling jobs.

Coffee beans stored in burlap sack sit ready to be roasted on Tuesday, January 14, 2020 at Steady State Roasting Company's new California Roasting Collective warehouse in San Marcos.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

So, Reinecke said, it falls on the coffee importers and roasters to pay farmers a sustainable wage and teach consumers the value of what they’re drinking. Reinecke said he has paid from $3 to $75 a pound for beans, depending on their rarity and quality. On Saturday, he flew to Brazil as one of just 20 international roasters invited by FAF Coffees to forge one-on-one sustainable trading relationships with Brazilian farmers.

Because Steady State works so closely with farmers, its coffee products are one of a kind. The Loma La Gloria 12.10, for example, is made from all the beans picked on a single day (Dec. 10, 2018) at one farm in El Salvador. The Kerchache Wush Wush beans from Ethiopia undergo a 120-hour barrel-fermentation process before processing, giving them a slightly boozy taste.

To help customers appreciate the difference, Steady State has an ambitious barista education program that’s similar in style to what wine sommeliers undergo. They’re taught the history of the beans, the roasting process and how to find the best brew for a customer’s taste.

Creating educated customers is just part of building a sustainable industry, though. Reinecke said it’s just as important to grow the community of roasters who are dedicated to an ethos of supporting small farmers in the developing world.

That’s one of the reasons why Steady State launched the California Roasting Collective in San Marcos in November. The 4,000-square-foot light industrial building on Grand Avenue at Las Posas Road offers incubator space for small roasting startups whose owners can’t afford the space or equipment to roast, weigh and package their own products. So far, four companies have signed on: Bear Coast Coffee of Orange County and Tired Eyes Coffee, Hawthorn Coffee and Ghost Roast, all of San Diego.

“By creating this space, it lowers the barriers for roasters who are just starting out,” he said.

Steady State roasts all of its own coffee at the Collective in San Marcos and uses the space to store all of its imported beans. Soon to come will be the construction of a walk-in freezer, where Reinecke said he will launch his next wine-inspired idea: Vintage coffee. Newly processed beans will be imported from farms, roasted and then frozen for two years so connoisseurs will eventually be able to order beans from specific vintage years.

The San Marcos location is also now hosting free cupping events, by appointment. Reinecke said the greatest compliment he can receive from a cupping participant is when they can smell and taste the difference between the various coffees at the blind tastings.

“Often, we find that people have the perception that all coffee tastes the same, or that it’s the additions that change the flavor. In reality, a cup of coffee tastes different depending on where it was grown, how much rain the region saw that year and a slew of other factors,” Reinecke said.

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