c/o Alex Irace

Coffee is a staple in the diets of most college students. For some, it’s as vital to survival as food or water. Whether it’s sipping on Pierce Brothers in Pi Café or chugging Starbucks Doubleshots before an exam, we consume it almost every day of our lives. We deem it necessary to start our mornings, we go out of our way to purchase it, and we suffer from withdrawal when it’s unavailable.

Let’s face it: coffee is the elixir of life.

For some, however, this beverage is more than a means to get through the day. This is certainly true for Zen Roasters’ co-owner Nicole Schless and roastmaster Jonathan Spindel ’11, who brought their products to the Farmer’s Market outside of Usdan last Wednesday. Not only is it their profession, it’s their passion; they maintain that the act of roasting and brewing coffee is nothing less than an art.

“There is a simple way of doing this, and then there’s infinite levels of sophistication,” Schless said.

Schless and Spindel tend toward the sophisticated side of roasting and use methods and procedures that are far from simple.

Spindel explained the intricate details of the coffee roasting process. Zen Roasters imports approximately 10 types of handpicked, ripe beans. All come from small farms in developing countries located near the equator; these warm, moist environments allow the coffea arabica plant to thrive. The plants produce tiny red berries, each with two seeds in its center, which we recognize as coffee beans.

In addition to washed beans, Zen Roasters stocks a substantial amount of naturally processed beans, which are not washed but instead have the fruit of the berry fermented and dried onto the bean. There are myriad methods of pulping the fruit and washing the beans, and Spindel has a clear preference for the product he purchases.

“My favorite type of beans are naturally processed,” Spindel said. “They’re kind of funky looking because they have a crusty sheath, which is fruit matter. More fruit on the bean makes the coffee taste fruitier.”

The idea of coffee being a fruit, and the subsequent drink tasting fruity, sounds counterintuitive. However, if you consider how coffee is made, it makes sense. To combat our initial disbelief, Spindel had us smell an assortment of naturally processed beans, which did, to our surprise, have subtle hints of lemon and passion fruit.

While pouring some beans into the colossal drum-style roaster on display behind the coffee bar, Spindel proceeded to tell us about the importance of quality roasting in the coffee-making process.

“There are so many ways that coffee can be bad,” Spindel said.

For example, over-roasted beans are black and taste like ash, like overdone steak.

Beans should be roasted in small batches to make sure each individual bean is sufficiently cooked. Zen Roasters takes all this into account by roasting their beans only five pounds at a time—chain companies roast in 100-pound increments.

Zen Roasters also tries to perform each roast with the goal of highlighting each bean’s natural flavors. A light roasting, for instance, brings out a much softer, fruitier taste, while a dark roasting gives the beans a deep, rich, chocolate or caramel character.

Another important factor is the amount of time roasted beans are allowed to sit before they are brewed. Zen Roasters takes their time with their product and waits at least a couple of days before brewing. This way, the beans can release a sufficient amount of carbon dioxide and achieve their peak flavor.

So, now that you know how your coffee is made, what’s the best way to drink it? Light roast or dark roast? Cream and sugar or black? Hot or iced?

Zen Roasters didn’t give any answers. According to their workers, it’s up to you; there’s no “best” way. The roast just depends on personal preference, and the temperature at which you want to drink it varies with the seasons. However, if you’re a true coffee connoisseur and want to really savor all the different flavors of the beans, the roast masters have several suggestions.

“You should drink coffee not too hot and preferably black,” Schless recommends.

This allows you to taste all the different flavors, because it removes the mask of cream and sugar and eliminates the risk of hot temperatures desensitizing your taste buds.

At first, lukewarm, unsweetened coffee didn’t sound too appetizing, but that all changed once we drank Zen Roasters’ premium-grade products. We sampled the citrus-y Santa Rita, the earthy, spicy Sumatra, and the Ethiopian Sidamo blend, which had both great depth and richness as well as light, fruity notes.

If you think this sounds at all similar to a wine tasting, you’re right. Like wine, coffee is one of the most complex things that humans ingest, and it merits the same amount of scrutiny. Schless, for one, really appreciates the direction the coffee industry is headed.

“We can thank Starbucks for starting the specialty coffee industry,” she said. “Before then it was treated as a commodity, and people thought it was gross. People weren’t really getting into it as much until these days.”

Some may be dissuaded by the idea that one needs to be knowledgeable about the drink to enjoy it, but don’t worry if you’re not a coffee expert. We aren’t either, but our conversation with Zen Roasters was enough to get us hooked on java expertise.

Schless and Spindel are eager to spread their wisdom to Wesleyan students, and they suggested that anyone wanting to learn more should stop by their retail location on 180 Johnson Street. They also plan to offer coffee tastings and classes soon, and they already host “roast your own” events, where you can pick your blend of beans, watch them roast, and bag them up as gifts for the holidays.

The workers at Zen Roasters are hoping to expand their business to the Wesleyan community and welcome any student who wants to hang out and refuel on caffeine. The store features a lounging area complete with Wi-Fi, a coffee bar in front of the roaster, and an unbearably adorable dog, for any people on campus missing their four-legged pals from home. Come down with a few friends, some homework, and a mug. It’s a very relaxing environment and a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Main Street.

“We’re excellent hanger-outers, but we’re also really good at making coffee,” Schless joked.

Even if the store is a little out of your way, you can still get Zen Roasters signature coffees at NoRA Cupcake Company or at the Wesleyan farmers market every Wednesday. Schless and Spindel also revealed their newest project, “Buzz Bikes,” in which Zen Roasters employees attach pots of their coffee to bicycles and ride around campus selling cups to students. Think of it like an eco-friendly food truck.

Zen Roasters is a great way to take a break from the usual morning pick-me-up at Pi Café or Brew Bakers and experience a cup of gourmet coffee that has been carefully selected, roasted, and brewed to ensure the highest quality possible. Although they’ve only been located in town for less than a year, we foresee great things coming from Zen Roasters, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it became a new Wesleyan hot spot.

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