Are you wondering, “how do I win the Golden Bean award?”
WHILE WE CAN ONLY OFFER SUGGESTIONS AND SUCCESS STORIES, HERE’S YOUR ANSWER: SOURCE GREAT COFFEES, AND ROAST THEM WELL.
The TL;DR version: Leaning on his relationship with Michael at Catalyst Trade, Sam sourced a stunning coffee from Bensa, Sidama that won Gold Medal in the Single Origin Espresso category at the Golden Bean Competition! He credits healthy collaboration with the win, which was a huge success for his coffee roasting company.
How to Win a Golden Bean Award… the Relationships Way!
Sam LaRobardiere was on a camping trip with his family when he heard that his roasting company, Theory Collaborative, was the top Single Origin Espresso Golden Bean 2018 winner. “I lost it!” He says. “I was on cloud nine. I was out on this camping trip with a bunch of people I didn't know very well, and I just started gushing to them. It was amazing!”
Building a Successful Roasting Company in Redding, California
A relatively new roaster in northern California, Theory Collaborative opened with a unique business proposal: create the collaborative coffee culture the partners wanted to see. Two competing roasteres looked at their city (Redding, California) and set out to build both the quality and the collaboration that would put the city on the map from both angles.
Sam, who founded Scout Coffee, and Jason Miller of J. Edward Miller Coffee, merged their brands in January of 2016 after a period of successful popups together. “I would land the events and he would bring his equipment,” says Sam, “And we would send messages telling people about it… and they showed up, with their friends!”
With sold-out events validating the original idea, Sam and Jason started inviting their friends who were makers of other handmade goods, and the popups took off. “Jason and I realized we could create an event that allowed us to sell coffee and also provided a platform for others, and we would all benefit because we can capitalize on each other’s communities. It just ended up being a really great scenario, so every time we launched an event would would walk away stunned at how successful it was! With a lot of time and hard work and strategy, we created a cool community around what we were doing.”
When Sam and Jason created Theory Collaborative and truly combined their momentum, the two were well on their way to a true coffee roaster success story… through collaboration.
How to Source an Award-winning Ethiopian Coffee
Sam’s coffee sourcing strategy developed almost before his business did, and he’s the first to admit that he didn’t start with much knowledge! “At first, I just googled “green coffee” and called people who came up in the search results,” he laughs. Initial relationships didn’t meet his models and he began to seek a more intentional way of sourcing coffee. That’s where your humble coffee sourcerers came into the picture. (Pun intended…)
“You guys were really our first venture into relationally sourcing our coffee,” Sam remembers with a laugh. “Emily’s parents introduced us at a farmer's market in downtown Redding—I was still Scout and I was roasting on a barbeque grill, Michael tasted the coffee and suggested I might have more control and growth potential with a production roaster. I was like, who's this guy and what does he even know? I was a little defensive. Little did I know that kind of honest feedback would be the what I would need to progress and eventually roast good coffee.”
Sam’s fast and thorough growth as a roaster and coffee buyer has been very impressive to us here at Catalyst. We clearly remember that first interaction back in… was it 2014? My parents live in Redding and my dad told us about the new coffee roaster who had set up at the farmer’s market, so of course we drove over and walked through the aisles of yarn and honey, BBQ sauce and churros. Sam served us, we sipped the coffee, and none of us knew it was the beginning of a long and rewarding friendship.
But he kept showing up, kept gaining traction in the market, and before long it was clear we needed to work together. We visited with some coffees and had a long cupping session, and a great collaboration was born!
Sam remembers that first cupping with Michael too: “You brought some coffees, came upstairs and we cupped coffees together, and I just fell in love with you guys and your coffees and what you were doing.” He adds that this very passion and professionalism in his partners is what keeps him improving and growing himself. “I think about this while I’m roasting—if my profile isn’t quite perfect, I think about how I owe it to my relationships to get it right next time.”
Fast-forward a few years. Theory Collaborative is launched and a stunning success from the very first day of its soft opening, when the line reached the street and hasn’t let up since. Sam is on the phone with Michael finalizing his 2018 coffee choices, and he remembers he needs a competition entry. “Just on a whim, I said, ‘hey Michael, do you have anything I haven’t bought from you but that I need to source to win the Golden Bean Competition?’ and he was like, ‘yeah, actually there’s this coffee that’s been blowing me away since I first tasted it…’.”
There wasn’t time to taste the coffee. Sam bought a three-bag nano lot of Keramo Natural, isolated to Screen 15, and when it arrived threw it into his Quest M3.
How to Roast a Golden Bean Award-Winning Coffee: Step One — Don’t panic!
Sam remembers, “Michael had warned me the coffee is incredible but very polarizing. It can be little herbaceous, depending on how it’s roasted. Those first sample roasts were like… like a Ricola cough drop. I was terrified.” After several sample roasts he reached a profile that brought out more sweetness and tambed the herb quality, but he was still nervous when he loaded up Theory’s Diedrich IR12 and roasted his first batch.
After roasting several batches of Keramo and sealing them into buckets, Sam left the roastery to deal with some business. He came back a few hours later to package up the coffee for the competition, and had a wonderful surprise.
“I opened the bucket and the aroma just filled the entire room. It was like a fruit potpourri bomb had gone off! I might have jumped and done a heel click… I started bringing everyone from the cafe in to smell it and they would get all wide eyed and astonished.”
“I knew that if it didn’t win the gold medal, it would have to rank high, because it was a really special coffee.” Sam sent the coffee to the Golden Bean competition in Portland and left with his family on a camping trip. He learned about Theory Collaborative’s Gold Medal through Instagram and text messages, and a new chapter opened for his company.
How to Rally Your Entire City Around You
Remember that Theory Collaborative started with the vision of uniting Redding’s coffee drinkers in a high-quality, relationships-focused venue? Winning the 2018 Golden Bean Award was a big step in the right direction. “It's been a big win for our city,” says Sam. “Going back to that original question of how do we create a coffee culture? Redding hasn't had anything that it could point to in the arena of coffee to say, this puts us on the map in any way. It gave our town something to be proud of, which is really cool, people came in from all over thanking us for putting Redding on the map for coffee.”
The visibility and credibility Theory received from the award has also helped them begin to reach markets outside Northern California, which was a business goal from the beginning. “It's really nice to be able to reach out to new wholesale relationships who haven't heard of us, and point to the medal—to be able to say, we just won a really cool award, it's amazing how much that credibility adds to creating those new relationships.”
The win also boosted staff and customer morale. We visited shortly after the win and there was the feel of a party: Gold streamers hung from the ceiling, the award-winning coffee sat in pride of place with its gold medal draped over it, and customers entered beaming.
Meeting the Coffee Farmer and Sharing Golden Bean Success
In an unusual conclusion to the saga, we were able to connect Sam and his family with Asefa Dukamo Korma, the producer of the award-winning coffee, as well as Asefa’s son Kenean. My parents came along too, which was pretty special given that it was my dad who introduced us to Sam in the first place!
We all met in Sacramento at a brunch place which began to pour a cascade of remarkable food into our figurative laps—mounds of crispy bacon, perfect fried potatoes (golden and crispy on the outside, tender on the inside), and pork verde in massive dishes. With Kenean as translator, Sam and Asefa talked about the coffee and its success, thanked each other, and shared good wishes for the future. The children (three of Sam’s, one of ours) devoured approximately 48 waffles. At the end, we took pictures together in front of a colorful mural and Asefa packed several bags of his coffee into his luggage; he would be taking it straight to the washing station where this coffee was processed and sharing it with the day laborers.
“That meeting with Ase was really special to me,” says Sam. He shares that after winning the gold, there was a feeling that they should be celebrating with the producer of the coffee. “The whole supply chain should be celebrating this coffee! Even down to the people who picked the coffee and processed it.” When we called him with very little notice and invited him to meet us in Sacramento, he cleared the calendar, grabbed his family, and met us at 10 am on a Saturday.
Sam says, “He's a really neat man; I like how he carries himself with a lot of self respect, definitely a big personality and strong silent type, I appreciated that. It was really neat to be able to bring the gold medal, give him a hug and shake his hand and thank him for all his hard work. It felt like it completed the circle—to be there with you guys and celebrate together, felt like the picture was complete. Gave us some… completion. Completed the circle of celebration. Everyone who was significantly involved got to celebrate, even your dad who originally introduced us. I think it's even more special than I realized at the time. It's so layered—just like the coffee, layered with complexity.”
The Secret to Coffee Industry Success: Great Collaboration
We’ve been lucky in our partners over the years, Michael and I. Collaboration is a constant excitement to us, and we learn from every successful partnership and probably more from every failed one. The relationship between a coffee roaster (like Sam) and his origin partners (like Catalyst Trade) is one of the core collaborations that anchors the entire coffee industry.
We’ll be writing a lot more about successful collaboration (and you’ll be hearing more from Sam!) but for now, some final thoughts:
Good partnerships are worth working for
They don’t happen overnight
There’s endless potential for collaboration in the coffee industry
If you want to connect with some awesome relational coffees in Ethiopia, we can hook you up. Give us a holler!