By Ryan Beitler
Five men surround the lone table inside Hidden House Coffee, a small yellow building blanketed by trees and bustle that sits across the train tracks in San Juan Capistrano's Los Rios District. Here amongst the distant noises of passing travelers, street performers, and the cackle of hand roasted coffee, the men are discussing their next business deal.
They are preparing for a coffee sampling process known as a "cupping," which is a standardized way to taste coffee. For a cupping, they grind the beans, pour hot water over them in thick glass cups, and wait four minutes. When the timer goes off, the group "breaks the crust" that gathers at the top of the liquid before ritualistically sniffing and tasting the coffees with cupping spoons. When the crust is broken, the enhanced aroma of the coffees punctures the air. They go around the table first to sniff each of the nine coffees, and then to taste them.
First there's Ben Briggs, the owner of Hidden House. He's young, muscular and tan and speaks with fluid confidence. Next to him is his head roaster John Simard, who is tall, slender, and sleepy eyed. While the group talks, he grabs a packet of beans and throws a few in his mouth and chews. Jeff Courson, who runs a coffee importing company called Bodhi Leaf, is tall, blond, and skeptically assertive. Finally there's Austin Amento, owner of Augie's coffee, and his well-dressed, pony-tailed companion.
Briggs is having the group sample the beans he brought back from Ethiopia to see if they want to split the cost of purchasing a container, which is typically 40,000 pounds. The negotiations are stiff as the group circles the table. Courson asks many questions, and Amento loves a particular coffee. Methodically, they slurp quickly and loudly, making sure the coffee touches their lips and coats their palates.
This method produces the pure flavor of the bean coffeehouses wish to recreate when brewing; it also allows them to explore roasting times. When the shop gets samples in, they roast at various temperatures for different times to identify the roast profile of each particular bean. Then the beans are ground and cupped to determine if it's a coffee they like — Hidden House always roasts light to medium by preference.
"The darkest we go is a medium," says manager Lee Lizotte. Though they prefer lighter coffees, customer service requires them to roast a few darker beans. "Our Brazil is a medium, but since it has such an earthy taste, the roast profile is like a darker coffee."
The tiny coffee company buys its beans from the top 10 percent of coffees from Africa and South America. Coffees from Africa are often lighter in taste while coffees from South America typically taste earthy with notes of chocolate and nuts. The regions they buy from in Africa are in high in altitude, which produces a much more citrus tasting bean with fruity notes of lemon and berries that doesn't go too well milk, but is light enough in taste that most people can drink it black.
The coffee house's espresso blend is a combination of their coffees from Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Brazil. "The Ethiopia has a nice fruitiness, a sweetness to it." says Lizotte, "The Guatemala is like a bright coffee, it has sugary notes, lemony notes, and the Brazil is a real chocolaty, earthy coffee that adds the body to it. Right now, Ben the owner is in Ethiopia at a farm, sampling their coffee. Last year he went to El Salvador."
Briggs personally travels to Hidden House's three direct trades in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Ethiopia. When he visits a farm, he meets with the farmers and utilizes cupping to samples the coffees. He also examines their conditions and equipment, including how they pick, wash, and dry the beans as well as how they treat their employees. Establishing a relationship with the farmers directly not only allows Briggs to observe every process of production, but it also enables him to make sure that the farm is ran ethically. "I can guarantee that the farms we go to are actually treating their employees the way they say they are," Briggs says, seated at one the store's espresso bars that separates the customers from a large roaster and bags of beans.
Though Briggs would like to engage in direct trade with every farm they buy from, traveling to obscure countries is expensive. So more often he has to buy from coffee importers like Bodhi Leaf, who he knows and meets with personally. "There's more trace ability in all aspects of direct trade," Briggs says. Though he admits, "As a small company, it can be very hard to buy coffees this way. But, as a small shop it is pretty cool that we can have three direct trade coffees."
Despite Hidden House's growth in its short life time, (the shop has only been roasting its beans for around two years) Briggs still craves to push every aspect of his business, hoping to open up new stores, expanding their number of direct trade relationships, and going to El Salvador, just weeks after he returns from Ethiopia. "I want to continue to offer better coffee," he says. "Meaning, we will never be content with our coffee offering, and are always striving to be better. From sourcing, to roasting, to brewing."