Friday, November 7, 2008

A small klatch of women roasters

Coffee finds its feminine side

Express Staff Writer

Liz Roquet handles some coffee beans in her office, just north of Ketchum. Photo by David N. Seelig

The business of coffee, and the drinking of it, has always had a distinct masculine personality. But some women are finding it an attractive business to go into, and are turning its macho-ness on its head.

Among the coffee roasters in the Wood River Valley, several women make it a full-time profession. Sue Martin roasts coffee for her café, Zaney's River Street Coffee House in Hailey. The Hailey Coffee Company is also a café with its own roasting facilities and blends of coffee.

But Liz Roquet of Lizzy's Fresh Coffee and Britt Peterson of Grace Organic Coffee are both young mothers who decided to just roast and sell their products.

Lizzy's Fresh Coffee opened its office and roasting space in Ketchum in September. Being in business is a natural for Roquet. Her parents came to the U.S. from Austria in 1966 to work at Poor Richard's Konditerie in the Sun Valley Village. Her father, Fred Pendl, ran it for 12 years before opening his own shop in Ketchum, Pendl's Pastries.

Roquet grew up in the café helping out with her three sisters, one of whom now has a Pendl's Pastries in Driggs, Wyo.

"We were the chocolate shleppers, dipping chocolate and making sandwiches," she said. "We lived on pastries. Thank God I was into sports."

After college Roquet came home to work at Smith Sport Optics for 14 years in operations. She then worked for Icebreaker. Her husband, Lee Roquet, who had worked for cafés and for another roaster (K&K Coffee) taught her the basics of coffee roasting.

"We roasted in a popcorn popper," Roquet said. "We did that all the time. It's not great but at least it's browning the beans. The thing about coffee is that it's a baked good. It has a shelf life of about two weeks. It's perishable—the flavor drops off, and then just deteriorates. Coffee tastes like crap no matter what it is when it's stale. You have to buy it and use it fresh. I learned to appreciate that."

Roquet was so inspired she signed up for a roasting class through Diedrich, a coffee roasting and equipment manufacturer in Sandpoint, Idaho.

"I made Lee come with me for the three days in Sandpoint," she said. "We realized how little we knew. He had learned from a guy who said 'here's what you do,' so it was fun for him too. I began roasting coffee and giving it to friends and neighbors. That's totally normal—I'm the daughter of a baker. So it was a hobby."

That was when Icebreaker relocated to Portland.

"It was the right time to start my own business," she said. "My mind was going all over the place for the right fit. I have my business skills. This is something I love. If you don't have a passion for what you do, you're crazy."

Roquet has hit upon something unique. Her idea was to make coffee fun and give it a modern approach, and to sell it completely on-line with a degree of consumer participation.

"I didn't want to be the guy in the garage," she said. "And I didn't want to do café like Zaney's and Hailey Coffee. That's not the life I wanted. The business itself is also a passion, strategizing, planning, making things work."

Lizzy's Fresh Coffee is "fun and cheeky," she said. "I'm not a coffee snob. I want to share it. My labels change constantly and I have a label photo contest monthly. The winner gets a free bag of coffee each week for four weeks."

Customers can also create custom labels for gifts, weddings, special events and companies. Her Web site is fun and interactive, but with special arrangements she does sell to locals from her office.

She creates five different kinds: Bad Dog, Swinger B*day, Easy and Sunriser, which she makes from beans acquired from two importers from all over the world. In fact, on her wall is a map of the world showing all the places her beans come from and which blends use those.

"The blends are all different," Roquet said. "Not strong like people expect. When people say it's strong they mean something other than taste. It was perplexing me. I asked people to show me what they were drinking, and what they were identifying was actually just the taste of old coffee."

Another part of the appeal of her business is its environmentally clean apparatus. The Diedrich is attached to a catalytic oxidizer that keeps the emissions out of the air and out of the facility.

Roquet is a one-person show. She comes in four mornings a week and fires up the roaster. Then she roasts for an hour or so 25 pounds at a time. She does the packaging and is done by late morning or noon. Even non-coffee drinkers are amazed at the taste of Lizzy's. While still bitter, there are qualities such as cherry, orange, chocolate, citrus and smoke in the dark roast.

Easy Tiger, the decaf, has "a nice chocolate, caramel taste," Roquet said, sipping a cuppa. "It's a happy place. To feel joy out of a little cup of coffee, and to share that with people and have them enjoy it, it makes me feel good."

Grace Coffee was also born out of the mind of someone who had grown up around the business. Britt Peterson's father, Kirk Peterson, is the owner and roaster of K&K Coffee, made in Hailey.

Like Roquet, she also grew up in the area. Now a single mother to a 4-year-old, Peterson thought starting her own blend might work well with her schedule. She's been creating the entirely organic Grace for nearly three years.

It is sold at several places, including Atkinsons' Market, Iconoclast Books, for whom she created a singular brand, the Elkhorn Market, the Boise Co-op and City Market in McCall. It's also served at several restaurants.

"I just wanted a little bit of work," she said. "My dad said I should just do my own. Our whole visual angle is definitely different. There aren't tons of female roasters. I use East Timor beans, for instance, that I love, and kind of play around it.

"It is an art form. You listen to it as it's popping and whatnot. It's also visual, but my dad is colorblind so my blends tend to be on the lighter side. Even though we roast in the same place, it's a baked good. One person's chocolate chip cookies will taste different from others."

Peterson also wanted her coffee and her label to reflect her own femininity. Some friends in Boise did her graphics and her ex-husband Todd (Mabbutt) did the sketch.

"It's supposed to be me. I wanted it to have a young artistic appeal," she said. "It's growing even in this slower economy. For me being a single mother it's still manageable. "

Forget the prissy art of tea drinking which has already been discovered by men everywhere; coffee and its air of mystery is now women's work.

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