Roaster of the Month: Kat Melheim

Kat Melheim is a roaster, barista, writer, artist, and all-around coffee person. She has been roasting for five years but has been involved in the coffee industry for eight. Kat was born and raised in Minnesota, and got her start in coffee in Colorado, and just recently moved to North Carolina. She has been working in the roastery at Black & White Coffee Roasters since November. It was initially going to be a 2-month short term position, but it’s going well so she will be sticking around for a while. Before Black & White, Kat was freelance writing, interim roasting, consulting, and running her coffee/art publication – Coffee People Zin. (In fact, she is still doing all those things PLUS a roasting job now!)

How did you get into the coffee industry? What inspired you to start roasting?

My formal degree/background is in Social Work, but after a few years working with people in extremely difficult situations, dealing with systems and organizations that weren’t facilitating real change, and experiencing many secondary traumas myself, I needed something that was non-emotional, flexible, and relatively straightforward. So I got a barista job. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with coffee as a beverage and, more importantly, with the industry through the connections I made with other coffee people. After a few years as a barista, manager, and educator, I wanted to step back from customer-facing roles and try roasting. I got a job at Logan House Coffee Company in Denver, and had the opportunity to learn about roasting there. Not long after I started, we upgraded from two 2# Sonofresco roasters to the 15k Loring, and that really got me hooked.

What is your favorite part of being a coffee roaster?

My favorite part of being a coffee roaster is the constant opportunity for engagement. Every roasting machine is different. Every coffee is different. Heck, every DAY is different because sometimes the roaster is running hot or the coffee lost moisture or this or that. There’s always room for improvement, whether that’s making your coffee taste better or tightening up roastery protocols or working on your own palate development. And of course, there are endless opportunities to connect with other people, be it your customers, baristas, producers, or other roasters. For me, it’s this endless ability to continue learning and experiencing new things.

How can businesses and roasters benefit from hiring a coffee consultant?

A coffee consultant can be useful for many reasons – from planning roastery buildout to developing flavor profiles to clarifying a branding/marketing strategy, and so much more. Every consultant has a different perspective, set of experiences, and base of knowledge, so there are endless possibilities for how a consultant can help you and your business. As far as I see it, consultants serve two main functions – to teach you new things, and to help you fine tune what you’re already doing. It’s a good idea to know what you’re looking to accomplish with a consultant (and communicate your goals with them) so you’ll be on the same page and know when you’ve reached your goals.

If you want to grow your business, understand your coffee or machine, or just get a new/outside perspective on your offerings, hiring a coffee consultant is a great move. Basically if there is something you don’t know how to do, or you have questions about  what you’re already doing, asking an outside expert can bring you to the next level!

What are common mistakes coffee roasters make and how can these be overcome?

There are a few major mistakes I see coffee roasters making far too often. The first and most egregious to me is thinking there is one and ONLY one  “right” way to roast. Over the last decade or so, there have been a few industry leaders at the forefront, developing roasting concepts and spreading their ideas throughout the roasting world. I’m incredibly grateful for their innovations, observations, and teachings. They’ve demystified roasting, given us a common vocabulary, and generally split open the world of roasting with their books and talks and masterclasses. It is because of them that we have come so far in our understanding of coffee roasting. However, I see a lot of roasters viewing these theories as dogma, taking their word as infallible and definitive (ie: “You must have a development time between X and Y,” or “Never let your coffee ‘flick’ at the end of the roast.”) And I’ll see roasters criticizing other roasters (usually on the internet) about their Rate of Rise curves not looking a certain way or their charge temperature being too high or too low or whatever else. But of course, the only definitive way to know if a coffee roasted well or not is to taste it. A roast curve can only say so much. And yes,, there are guiding principles we can follow, but every roaster is different, and you need to find what works for you, your machine, your coffees, and your customers.

Another common (more practical) mistake I see is not being diligent with roaster maintenance and cleaning. It might not the most glamorous or thrilling part of a roaster’s job, but you’re putting yourself at higher risk for roastery fires if you don’t keep your machine clean. Not only that, but you could run into lower-stakes (yet still problematic) issues like reduced airflow, greater inconsistency batch-to-batch, and a loss of nuance or clarity in your coffees. CLEAN YOUR MACHINE!

If you could give roasters one tip to roast better coffee, what would it be?

I’d like to make a slight adjustment to that question – instead of how to roast better coffee, I want to talk about how we can better roast coffee. Oftentimes there is this idea that we should be roasting “the best” coffee possible. But what does this even mean? Is Ethiopian better than Colombian? Is washed better than natural? Is a light roast better than dark roast? All of these answers are personal – subject to our preferences and perspectives. And how do you know your preferences if you don’t taste coffee? So I’d say, the best way to roast coffee better is to taste coffee more! Taste your coffees. Taste the “mistakes” you make. Taste other roasters’ coffees. Try things you might not usually try. Develop your palate so you know what you like, what you don’t like, and why. And overall – enjoy yourself!

What would you say to women interested in becoming roasters? Do you feel like working in a male-dominated industry has advantages?

I have been extremely fortunate to avoid overt misogyny so far in my roasting career. I’ve been given opportunity, authority, and influence regardless of my gender expression in each of the roasteries where I’ve worked. However, I definitely still run up against sexism on occasion – whether it’s customers not believing I am the roaster, or delivery drivers assuming I need help maneuvering the forklift, or guys on the internet explaining to me what’s wrong with my roast curves when I clearly understand what I’m doing. There are small and insidious microaggressions I face while being perceived as a woman in the roasting space. I have heard similar stories (and far worse!) from roasters of color as well.

To all the women, BIPOC, minority, and underrepresented roasters out there – JUST ROAST. Roast the coffee you like, and find customers who like it as well. Connect with other roasters who want to learn, share, collaborate, and experiment. Get out there. There is no one “right” or “perfect” way to roast. Sometimes you’ll have to ignore the haters. Other times you’ll have to fight back. But overall, do your thing, have a good time, and keep moving forward.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m not sure! I’ll be roasting with Black & White for a while, and have no immediate plans to leave North Carolina. I’ve thought about creating an interim roasting service so roasteries could offer their staff maternity/paternity leave, vacations, extended sick or bereavement leave, etc. (So if you know anyone who needs a roaster for a few weeks to a few months, please reach out!) I’ve also considered traveling around to different roasteries, learning from the best roasters in the world, and perhaps documenting it somehow through a blog, video, or Instagram. I don’t have immediate plans for this, but I’d love to make it happen someday.

Outside of roasting, I plan to continue working on Coffee People Zine, my publication that celebrates the creativity of the coffee community. It’s a showcase of art, poetry, photography, music, and creations by people who work in coffee. It’s a lot of work without much pay, but the zine has given me so many opportunities to connect with people all around the world.

And I’d like to start traveling again. Whether for roasting, for Coffee People, or just for pleasure. I love being in new places and meeting new people, so this is a priority of mine, as long as it’s safe and responsible.

Overall, I just want to keep learning, experiencing, and connecting! Whatever I’m up to, you can follow my adventures on Instagram: personal is @coffeekathryn and roasting-specific is @roasterkat. And check out my YouTube channel while you’re at it – search for Coffee Kat and you’ll find me!