Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden
For Don Cox, there’s more to the coffee business than simply perfecting the art of roasting. It’s about behaving ethically and, hopefully, making a global difference.
Upon walking into Don Cox’s coffee shop in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, I notice a big roaster is churning in the back corner of the room while thick smoke bellows from the metal stove pipe that runs out of the back wall. Every 20 seconds or so, employee Matt Duval pulls out a half-circle tray that grabs a small amount of spinning coffee beans, which in turn lets the roaster know what color the coffee beans are at this point in the process.
Bald Guy Brew Coffee Roasting Company is located on the same road as the original Mast General Store founded in 1883, an historic mainstay in the mountainous seven-county area of Western North Carolina known as the High Country. Today, Cox is standing near the front of his shop beside a much smaller roaster connected to his laptop. On a nearby table are five samples of coffee beans that a farmer in South America recently sent to him for inspection. The sensors on the tiny roaster help Cox to record the various ways that the test beans are being roasted. His goal in 2016 is to create a new espresso.
Once roasted, the test beans are ground and brewed for a series of taste tests, a process called “cupping.” A color-coded sensory chart, which features two drawn wheels on a board that describes the variety of coffee flavors as well as what can go wrong with coffee beans, is always on display nearby.
“The coffee cupping flavor wheel is based on wine sommelier training,” Cox informs me. “Coffee can be categorized as fruity, earthy, from baker’s chocolate to spicy to sweet like cane sugar, from caramel to mangoes, papaya, and sun-dried tomatoes. There are so many things going on as far as the dirt and how the processing occurs. ‘Cupping’ coffee is the means by which you evaluate coffee. We just roasted a Kenyan coffee and people were like, ‘What does the Kenyan coffee taste like?’ I told them, ‘Man, it is like 2% milk that has a long finish, and it is kind of delicate and has a nice bounce to it like champagne, and it has a citrus note as it cools like somebody took a white grapefruit and rung it out in your cup.’
“The only way you figure all of that out is by evaluating coffee—by ‘cupping’ coffee. The only way to get that flavor profile is by roasting coffee, and by doing sample roasting, you figure out which time and temperature roasting profile makes the best sense for that particular coffee.”
This is a constant process, as coffee roasting is a dirt business. That is why Cox often refers to “walking dirt” with various farmers when he visits South America, because the changing conditions of nature affect the coffee bean crop.
“There is new coffee every year,” he says. “It could be from the same farm and same plant, but they might have had more rain that year, there might have been less rain, there might have been a real active bee population, with a real cool plant that the bees were also pollinating.”
Passport to Inspiration
Don Cox has been in the coffee business now for 11 years. He’s traveled to Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama, going south of the border several times each year, and he also gets coffee samples from, in his words, “all around the world.” There is more to his operation than just great roasted coffee, however, as he is insistent upon fair trade and sustainability when it comes to the beans he buys. The bigger problem is the exploitation of the small local coffee growers by those who value profit at the expense of the grower.
Let’s go back to what led Don to this point, a journey that found him traveling the globe and meeting people from all walks of life and cultures.
“My parents were real good about getting me out and about,” he says. “The Boy Scouts actually took me to a lot of different places and cultures. I was born in Germany, and I was a military brat kid. My dad is American and my mom is German, so I went to Europe a lot and visited with my grandparents and my aunt and uncle. It was kind of cool. Germans are close knit and like to keep around family. My mom was the first one to leave the family, so we made several trips so I knew where I was from and who my people were. I think that helped me to develop a sense of life, that life is big.
I think that if you never get outside the bubble, you don’t realize how the rest of the world operates. The more you travel, the more you hang out with people that do not speak your language, the more you are exposed to different world systems.”
Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
“The passport that we [Americans] have,” he says, “people die to get one because there are a lot of perks to it. When you travel to other countries that don’t have the same infrastructure, you realize that people can still be happy and not have to worry about the stuff that we do. But, they sure do want a shot at it. It is one of those things where you find that happiness is not about how much you have, but about who you are and who is healthy. It is not about ‘stuff.’”
He was a history major at Appalachian State University (ASU) in Boone, later going on to do his graduate studies in sociology and anthropology at Pittsburgh’s Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. While there, he worked with kids in crisis in the Pittsburgh inner city neighborhoods. Eventually, Don and his wife, Shannon, moved to Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, working with street kids in a pre-natal clinic. But then the drug wars kicked in all around them, and they quickly had to retreat to safer locales.
Meanwhile, he had developed a love for roasting coffee—and at first, much to his wife’s chagrin. He attempted to use an airpopcorn popper to roast the beans, which proved to be a bit aromatic in a negative way. So he decided to purchase a real roaster, and that’s when the learning process began.
As it turns out, the roots of his coffee roasting journey are located in, of all places, Yugoslavia. “We always drank coffee,” he points out. “Germans love coffee. We actually roasted coffee in a pan while living in Mexico. My great-great aunt lives in Yugoslavia, and I remember visiting them one time. I was real little. We walked into a house that had a fire in the middle of it and a dirt floor and smoke was rising up. I remember her sitting over the fire, and there was this metal wok-like thing, and she was roasting coffee in this copper whatever-it-was. Just recently I found out that the wooden spoon that my great-great aunt used was passed on to my mom’s mom, because it was her sister; and then it was passed on to my mom; and when she dies, it will be passed on to me. The coffee roasting spoon is just a wee bit of a nub from all of those years of roasting. I think I have coffee roasting in my blood.”
Once he decided to make a living from artisanal coffee roasting (using “two credit cards and a personal loan”), he started small with a unique mobile roasting unit that soon drew much attention.
“The Watauga Farmers’ Market is where we rolled the show out,” he says, of the famous warm weather market located in Boone. “We pulled up in a box Sprinter van with a two-group espresso machine coffee maker and a 200-pound roaster that we swung out on a jib boom, and we started roasting coffee in the parking lot. We’d sell it as soon as we got done roasting it. That was the first van, I think, in North Carolina that was set up by the Department of Agriculture to roast, package, and stock shelves with coffee out of a parking lot, running off biodiesel and solar panels, ten years ago.
“About four years later, I had a business coach who asked me if I liked what I was doing. I said yes, and he said, ‘Well, you are going to plateau. Have you ever thought about wholesale roasting for other people?’ I was actually doing that because people wanted to carry my coffee, but I was having a hard time keeping up while doing it for me and others. So, I flipped a switch and got a bigger roaster and started roasting for other people.”
Incidentally, in case you are wondering about the origin of the Bald Guy Brew Coffee Roasting Company name: Don explains that back when he was working with those Pittsburgh inner city kids, “they couldn’t remember my name—and since I’m bald, they called me ‘bald guy.’”
Journey to Eden
Two unrelated incidents have perhaps had the greatest impact upon his coffee roasting career. The first came early on, with Don learning a hard lesson while also experiencing the results of his version of the Golden Rule theme.
“I had a bank deposit,” he says, “and I was going to my kid’s Kindermusik [music and motion] class. I missed the deposit and had a bunch of money in my bag, and I stuck it underneath the seat of my truck. And, somebody took it. They got into my truck and took my bank bag and I didn’t know it was gone. The next morning, I went to the bank to make a deposit and it wasn’t there. It was really dumb. This was year two or three, back when I first started. I was new. I was like the ‘Struggle Bus’ [tough situation] guy. Man, when you’re just starting off with a business and $2,000 is gone, and it was about three weeks’ worth of hard work, you’re just devastated. I wasn’t really mad that somebody took it, because I figured they needed it more than me, but I was mad at myself for making it such a cherry pick. I thought, ‘Why don’t I just leave it on top of the damn hood?’”
Then something very cool happened. “I went to the police and told them what happened. Then somebody probably asked me why I was down, and I told them that I got robbed. They asked me, ‘How much did you lose?’ I told them it was three weeks’ worth of work. People just started putting envelopes all around my shop, on light switches and elsewhere, with money and notes that read, ‘I hope this helps.’ I got the majority of it back. It was people giving back to the business and to me to make up my loss. It was a good feeling to know that people appreciate you and what you do. ‘I want to see you succeed.’
“That really started to pave the way for my different approach to business. You don’t count people as dollar signs or profit. You count them as human. You treat people the way you want to be treated, and do right by them.”
The second incident happened some time later, after he had been in coffee roasting for about seven years. It didn’t just suggest another level to explore when it came down to doing business ethically. He maintains that it changed his life.
Most United States roasters, it turns out, purchase their beans from brokers. Don, however, had some friends in Costa Rica, and he already felt comfortable traveling in Latin America because of the time he’d spent previously in Mexico. As he recalls it, upon one such trip, “There was a guy I met named Juan, and his brother worked at a pizza place for 15 years in New Jersey, saving up his money to buy a coffee farm in Costa Rica. I was down there, and I talked to Juan, and he introduced me to his brother. They were just great people. He shared with me about his struggles and about how hard both of them worked.
“The next year I came back and I saw them and said, ‘Man, look at all of this great coffee. Can I buy some of it?’ He said, ‘It is all sold.’ I said, ‘Dude, that’s great. What did you get for it?’ He said, ‘I just don’t know yet.’ I said, ‘Well, what did it cup like?’ He said, ‘Man, I don’t know.’ I asked him who bought his coffee and he said this guy’s name—I don’t want to repeat [the] name because it is a small world—and I said, ‘So, you’re telling me that this guy bought your coffee and he is going to tell you how much it is worth and he is going to evaluate your coffee? Is that what you’re telling me?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, that is just upside down.’
“Then, he started to cry. He said, ‘Man, what do you want me to do? We worked for ten years to build up this farm and we’ve got a lot of money involved in it. So, if he doesn’t buy my coffee, who is going to buy my coffee? I can’t sell it to the co-op, because they won’t pay me enough.’
“It was at that point, while watching a grown man cry, that it really just burned a hole in me. I realized that I had to come up with a way to help people like Juan evaluate their coffee and to provide opportunities to sell coffee at a fair price. It was a pretty intense example of the power of heart-to-heart conversation. That was really a turning point as far as the direction.”
That was when the idea to create Project Eden kicked in.
“I came up with the idea of forming direct trade relationships, and then empowering coffee-growing communities, rather than exploiting them, by teaching the farmers how to evaluate their coffee. [To] develop a vocabulary for it, so when they speak to guys like me, there can be some sense of confidence and trust built. It just landed in my head, and I called it Project Eden, because what I was starting begins in a garden and ends in a garden. Coffee is a garden type of thing.”
Don adds that being eco-friendly and socially responsible has always been his goal, but that after his conversation with Juan, “I just felt like I had to do something—that was the eye-opener of how raunchy the systems can be.”
The Road Ahead
Several times a year, Cox co-leads a group of students from a supply chain class in the College of Business at ASU in Boone, taught by Dr. Ken Corley, and they take the future business people to Costa Rica to learn about the coffee business. He is also enlisting the efforts of some other ASU students to help him with an upcoming fundraising bike ride from the mountains to the sea that will raise awareness and dollars for his Project Eden venture.
“This year, I am going to ride my cargo bike from the top of Grandfather Mountain to Wrightsville Beach, with 100 pounds of Costa Rican coffee, to create some kind of crowd-sourcing, Kickstarter-type of campaign to raise money to get Project Eden going,” he says. “Hopefully I can sell some of the roasted coffee that I will have so I can offset the trip a little bit. I am a fat man on a big bike, dude, and that is a lot of miles— it is going to hurt. I have a Social Entrepreneur class at Appalachian State, taught by Mr. Jesse Pipes, that has kind of adopted Project Eden. They are putting together the pitch, putting together the route, and getting ahold of universities and bike clubs that might be interested. We are going to try and make it work. I’ve got one more ride in me, and I’m going to really try and make it count.”
In the meantime, the art of roasting great coffee is still at the heart of the Bald Guy Brew Coffee Roasting Company.
“You don’t sacrifice quality for profit,” said Cox. “Specialty coffee properly roasted sells itself. I don’t need to hype it because it is just good. The cup speaks. The cup will sell itself. If it is crap coffee, you’re pouring it out. If it is great coffee, you’re buying another cup. Most of the money I make comes from putting my coffee in large bags in large quantities and selling it to people. The Farmers’ Market is still a big draw, and now we have a big online following (www.baldguybrew.com) because of all the tourists that come here and then go home, so we ship all over the United States.”
He adds that in addition to his Valle Crucis location, he’s also at Bald Guy Brew King Street, on the main street of Boone. His specialty brews—of which there are many; mostly single-origin, geographically speaking—are also featured at numerous eating establishments in the area. Among them is The Gamekeeper Restaurant, located near Boone, which has been awarded six AAA Four-Diamond ratings.
“We go way back, as Don and Shannon are two of the most wonderful people on the planet Earth, and I think you can taste that in their coffee,” says Ken Gordon, who is co-owner and co-head chef of The Gamekeeper Restaurant, along with his wife, Wendy. “It is one thing to say you are going to buy from a fair trade farm in South America. But it is another thing to go there to see what they are doing, to work with them, and do as much as you can to create a system between them and the people that are selling the coffee.
“He has put his time in, for sure. But you can buy the best fair trade beans in the world and still burn them. Don takes the time to do it right. I love Don, but if he was bringing junk through the door, I’d apologize and go with a different vendor. It is a win-win situation. He is a genuine person who does it right, and he looks out for the best interests of all involved.”
That sums up the coffee roasting approach of Don Cox: Do business ethically at all levels, and create some of the best-tasting coffee in the world.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “it is about legacy, and not about what you got buried in and how much you had. It is about what you did and what your family can be proud of.”
It is about when your boys can stand up and tell people that their old man tried to make a difference: ‘He didn’t have a lot of money. He didn’t have a trust fund. But he had a desire to see people treated better, so he hopped on his big-ass bike and rode across the state.’”
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