I appreciate a good cup of coffee. I'm no connoisseur — I don't fuss over my brewing method, but that I have a "method" at all says something. The pursuit of a perfect cup of coffee has become increasingly common outside of coffee shops, with people carefully selecting their beans and brewing methodology to make their morning coffee bloom with flavour. That's all fine on a kitchen counter, but how do you bring that same sort of dedication to a large scale operation? Image by Sergey Bogomyako (Shutterstock).
In 1966 Alfred Peet opened his first coffee shop on the corner of Vine and Walnut in Berkeley, California. It was one of the first shops of its kind to particularly focus on roasting and the quality of the coffee; Peet had immigrated to San Francisco in 1955 from Holland and was said to be disappointed with the American coffee of the time. It was an influential start that set a precedent for all the coffee chains that would follow.
Now as they celebrate their 50th anniversary, how do they manage growth without comprising quality? To learn a little about the process, we spoke with Peet's Roastmaster, Doug Welsh. Doug works with 11 roasters to oversee the quality of their coffee from its source all the way to the bag.
What's a typical day-in-the-life of Peet's Roastmaster?
Every day starts with tasting some of the best coffees from around the world. As Roastmaster, I head the Coffee Quality team and taste anywhere from 10 to 20 coffee samples each morning. In the cupping room, we make five individual cups out of any prospective sample in order to taste for consistency, flavour profiles and pleasure factors. Coffee is inherently complex with over 1000 aromatic compounds and the possibilities are vast, so it's exciting to know that there's always a chance to try something different each day.
What drove you to choose your career path? What kind of education and experience was required?
I decided on the first day I was hired at Peet's original store on Vine Street 23 years ago that I wanted to make coffee my career. One of the first things they did was take the new baristas to the tasting room in the back of the store to appreciate the coffee and craft. There's no formal education to prepare for this career; I think that many in the industry would agree that coffee chooses us and not the other way around. Being a foodie helps because you appreciate the complexity in flavours and also tend to have acute tasting skills. But getting to the level of Roastmaster is less about talent and more about experience and focus.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see or know about?
Not many people think about what's beyond the coffee in their cup. At Peet's Coffee we care very much about the craft — we roast by hand with true craftsmen who use all five senses to determine when each batch has achieved its perfect roast. Others roast by computers. It takes years to learn and master the art of roasting. That is why we only have 11 people trained to do it.
Peet's has also mastered the art of blending coffees to get rich, deep, complex flavours. Essentially, we treat coffee bean blending like a master wine maker would blend wine. Then there is freshness, which is key, though an area most people don't think about. The way the bean is roasted is fundamental to the way it will taste, and coffee always tastes best shortly after roasting. Freshness contributes to flavour and our "Roast to Order" system is designed to move coffee fast so that you can drink it within a few days or sometimes even hours from roasting. For instance, we batch orders every single night and set our production schedule to roast the next day. We don't roast based on warehouse inventories. We roast based on consumer, customer and store orders from the previous day. Moreover, we have strict 90 day freshness standards on beans for grocery, mass and club. To meet that standard, we have an entire Peet's Fresh Delivery team stocking only the freshest beans in-store, every week. Others can be 365 days or more. Lastly, we will ship you the freshest coffee your money can buy, right to your doorstep. Order today, we roast, grind, pack and ship tomorrow.
What do general consumers under/over value about what you do?
As Roastmaster, I select the coffee and recommend new blends, but the roaster is easily the most fundamentally important job at Peet's. Our roasters are essential to crafting everything people love about fresh coffee — the flavours, complexity, sweetness, balance, acidity, texture, mouth-feel and so much more. Our dedicated group of 11 roasters have an average tenure of 16 years because being a roaster requires skill, knowledge and experience in craft.
What are the average work hours for the Roastmaster? Typical 9-5 thing or not?
The team typically comes in at about 7:00am and taste between 8:00am and 10:00am because we believe that our senses are most keen at that hour. We try to avoid tasting in the afternoon, especially after lunch when our palates have been affected. You have to be extremely focused and block out other distractions in order to fully understand the intricacies of coffee. Coffee roasters, on the other hand, have more unusual hours. Some of them come in at 2:00am to fulfil coffee orders that were placed overnight and need to get shipped out that day — coffee never leaves the plant more than a day after it's been roasted.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
The intrigue and delight that comes with being fortunate enough to taste some of the best possible coffees in the world. Coming in every day never quite knowing what you'll be tasting, but always hoping for the perfect cup. I'm extremely lucky.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
I consider myself very lucky to be able to focus on craft and my passion for coffee, although trial and error with developing blends can prove tricky. However, any failure yields knowledge that we can apply to refining a new and different blend.
How would someone who is interested in craft coffee "move up" in this field? What could they do beyond working at a local coffee shop?
Keep tasting and learn to trust your taste. Humans are visual animals and we trust our sight — we aren't naturally trained to rely on our gustatory senses, but you need to for this career. Try new brewing methods, explore flavours, make the samples hard or challenging and hold yourself to a high standard. We are full with bias so try to shut out pre-conceived notions. Coffee will definitely surprise you.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
The real laboratory is behind the coffee counter. Several of our roasters served as baristas for at least three to four or more years, have shown a keen interest in flavour and are curious about tasting coffee. It takes fortitude to be roaster as the job requires long hours on your feet, and it's also important to have thick skin and confidence because everything you make is critiqued by your peers. At Peet's Coffee, we have a single veto rule. If one of us isn't satisfied with the taste, the coffee never makes it into the bag.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.