NEW ALBANY – I smelled the rich, aromatic scent of the roastery half a mile south, on Hwy. 15, and inside the store, Beth Merritt waited for the “first crack,” when the raw, Ethiopian coffee beans, roasting and rolling around the tumblers, hit their sweet spot, and began yielding their smooth, fruity deliciousness.
“That smell is the best billboard for us,” said Dan “The Coffee Man” Skinner, who has roasted beans from across the globe since 2004. “Ethiopian has hints of strawberries, blueberries, and cherries, from the fecund soil in which it grows,” Skinner said, as he put a cup in my hand and insisted I sit down.
Mouth-watering, Southern flavors, that seemed unfeasible for coffee, were also part of his menu, Skinner said, like blueberry and sweet potato.
I felt like a rookie shortstop at the first day of training camp.
Beth Merritt was busy monitoring formidable-looking roasting machines, impressive contraptions that turned over beans like clothes in a washing machine.
“As I hear the cracking slow down, much like popcorn in a microwave, I lower the temperature, turning down the air and gas on the roaster,” Merritt said, as she pulled a spoonful of the darkening beans from the roaster for a sight test.
A five-degree variation could have catastrophic results, she said.
The roaster pulled in rushing air, blowing the chaff from the beans, as the seedy goodness cooked to perfection.
“The bean will applaud you, if it’s roasted right,” Skinner said, listening to the cracking of the coffee beans in the roaster’s output tray.
Skinner looked around his shop, at 739 Hwy. 15 North, a barely detectable, tin building, and pondered the history of his product.
“They say coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by a goat farmer, who noticed that his goats got lively when they ate the berries of a certain plant,” Skinner said, whimsically, looking at the twin roasters in his shop, as beans turned under the sweep of the tumblers, changing colors, from their native green, to a balmy, familiar brown.
Robusta coffee, as Skinner explained, is a lower-grade coffee, with a higher caffeine level. Arabica is a higher-grade, more desirable coffee, despite having less caffeine.
Burlap bags full of beans from Nicaragua and Brazil, and from across Central America—16 countries, in all- were stacked against the clapboard walls of the shop, ready to be roasted. High Point would roast them at nine temperatures, according to customers’ tastes. The beans were destined for bulk orders, or just scooped, roasted and sold to any old Joe who walked through the door.
“Despite any grievance I have against Starbucks, the company really elevated Americans’ tastes in coffee, and helped create a market for the high-quality products we offer today,” Skinner said.
I was used to Folgers and Maxwell House, the kinds of run-of-the-mill coffees I grabbed on my way through the box stores. I had no idea of the deliciousness of premium products. Skinner introduced me to a different world of coffee goodness.
“We carry coffees from 16 countries of origin, and we roast at wide range of temperatures,” Skinner said, as he leaned over a freshly-roasted batch of Guatemalan beans, cooked to a medium roast.
The smoky, deliciously earthy flavor of the beans made me swoon.
“We sometimes blend the coffee beans before we roast them” Skinner said. “We might add beans from Sumatra, or Costa Rica, or Brazil, and roast them to request.”
Skinner got into the roasting business in 2004 after a friend persuaded him to attend a roasting school. He learned the ins-and-outs of the roasting trade, including temperatures, beans, and the timing to know when to pull the steak off the grill, as the old saying goes.
“It really is an art,” said Merritt, as she turned the valves, shutting down the gas and air on the roaster, and released a lever that let the fragrant, roasted beans spill into a hopper, ready to be bagged. She would not tell the roasting temperature or exact cooking time—trade secrets, she said, smiling.
Skinner considers his roastery the oldest in Mississippi. He and his staff roast 1,200-1,500 pounds per week, shipping their delicious concoctions to individuals and businesses from New York to New Orleans.
Skinner scooped a handful of raw, pale green beans, and held them under my nose.
“We only use beans that rank in the 80th percentile and above for quality,“ Skinner said. “About 10 percent of the coffee beans harvested in the world meet those standards.”
On the shelves surrounding the roasting machines, clear, plastic bags of roasted beans sat ready for sale—with a curious feature. They all had small, clear valves.
“That’s to let the coffee de-gas,” Skinner said. “Roasted coffee gives off gases for about 48 hours.”
One of the myriad places to which Skinner and his team sell their coffee is Strange Brew Coffee House, with locations is Tupelo and Starkville.
“High Point’s coffee is roasted the same week that we buy and serve it, which means a lot,” said Strange Brew owner Katelyn Reed. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called on a Saturday morning, maybe before a Mississippi State home game, and Dan has come through for me every time.”
A bouquet, as Skinner described it, is the best way to encapsulate the aromatic blend that identifies good coffee.
“It’s not dissimilar to fine wine,” he said. “After you’ve roasted coffee for a while, and developed a nose and palate for it, you can sense it, smell it, feel it.”
Skinner refilled my cup, patted me on the shoulder, and cautioned me not to be shocked by the infinitely deeper, richer, more robust flavor of my beverage, so far beyond the plastic shavings I was used to brewing from box stores.
“You’ll come around,” Skinner said, as he reinserted the wooden-handled testing spoon into the roaster, and returned to his own mug.
High Point Coffee Roasters’ coffee can be found in New Albany at AC’s Coffee, Sugaree’s, Calico Mushroom and Reed’s Market.