Craft Coffee Roasters Take To the Hills

Coffee’s Third Wave rolls into ski country (with tasty light bites along for the ride)

At Publik Coffee Roasters in Salt Lake City, UT, fit hipsters in ski beanies, coffee steeped from Salvadoran beans light-roasted just the day before and airy post-industrial décor have us wondering if we're in Brooklyn, Portland or Vancouver, BC. But Salt Lake City these days is rich in au courant cultural diversions, making it a dynamic and fun hub for a ski trip – and a great place to taste what small-batch specialty coffee roasting is all about. 

Publik's emphasis is on small batches and light roasts, which lets coffee aficionados taste differences between beans.  Courtesy Publik Coffee Roasters

Publik's emphasis is on small batches and light roasts, which lets coffee aficionados taste differences between beans. Courtesy Publik Coffee Roasters

Known as coffee’s “Third Wave,” specialty roasting has more in common with wine tasting, craft brew and the farm-to table scene than with Maxwell House or even Starbucks. Instead of joe that tastes predictably uniform from day to day, the idea is to highlight distinctive flavors of each sustainably sourced and freshly roasted bean, often without the caramelization and carbonization signature to mainstream dark roasts. “Most specialty coffee is lighter roasted, and you're trying to preserve varietal and regional flavors and characteristics,” says Ryan Gee, 39, head roaster at Publik.

Green coffee beans, before roasting.  Courtesy Oso Negro Coffee

Green coffee beans, before roasting. Courtesy Oso Negro Coffee

The roasting process is a hands-on mix of art and science.  Courtesy Oso Negro Coffee

The roasting process is a hands-on mix of art and science. Courtesy Oso Negro Coffee

Time, temperature and airflow are adjusted during roasting to enhance the flavor of each batch of beans.  Courtesy Oso Negro Coffee

Time, temperature and airflow are adjusted during roasting to enhance the flavor of each batch of beans. Courtesy Oso Negro Coffee

Those flavors vary more widely than many java drinkers realize. “Coffee from Central America is very different from coffee from Southeast Asia or South America or Africa,” Gee explains. Ethiopian beans, for example, can have a fruit-forward quality. Central American beans may be snappy or zesty. Indonesian beans may be sweet, with a sharp finish. Even within regions, each crop of green coffee is distinctive. And like wine grapes, varietals also carry the flavors of their particular terroir, even influences from the specific fruit trees in the farmer’s shade canopy.

Treeline Coffee  in Bozeman, Montana offers coffee tasting flights for patrons interested in learning more about different coffee flavors.  Courtesy Treeline Coffee Roasters

Treeline Coffee in Bozeman, Montana offers coffee tasting flights for patrons interested in learning more about different coffee flavors. Courtesy Treeline Coffee Roasters

Treeline Coffee sources its beans directly from hands-on family farmers, and fine-tunes custom roasts for each small batch.  Courtesy Treeline Coffee Roasters

Treeline Coffee sources its beans directly from hands-on family farmers, and fine-tunes custom roasts for each small batch. Courtesy Treeline Coffee Roasters

Bringing out those flavors (instead of the taste of the roast itself) requires a skill set that’s half food science and half art. “It’s a lot more involved than putting coffee in the roaster, turning it on and waiting until its done,” Gee explains. Time, temperature and air flow are manipulated throughout the roasting arc (ten to fourteen minutes per Publik’s 20-pound batches) to enhance or minimize each varietal’s flavor components – sugars, acidic compounds and lipids – to suit both the bean and the roaster’s own style.

The idea, as with wine tasting, is to savor variations in coffee bean flavors while enjoying good times with friends.  Dreamstime

The idea, as with wine tasting, is to savor variations in coffee bean flavors while enjoying good times with friends. Dreamstime

We love skiing, snowboarding and mountain life—but we love great coffee, too.  Courtesy Treeline Coffee Roasters

We love skiing, snowboarding and mountain life—but we love great coffee, too. Courtesy Treeline Coffee Roasters

At Publik and other small batch, specialty roasters emerging throughout the ski world, the end result is not mere caffeination but coffee flavor appreciation. The idea, as with wine tasting, is to savor variations. Expect lighter roasts (in which subtle qualities are more evident) accompanied by millennial eats like avocado toast. Coffee snobbery? Not required. “I like coffee in all its different forms,” Gee says. “I’m not gonna lie. I drink it anywhere from black made with a homemade pour-over to a Starbucks Frappuccino. I love road trip coffee from a gas station. I love visiting specialty coffee shops. I love going to my Mom’s and drinking a Keurig. I just love coffee.”

We get it! Here are four of Ski Travel Guru's favorite places for a quality coffee buzz.