The process starts with a bucket of unroasted coffee beans, looking pale and a bit like fat little peanuts to the untrained eye.
Velton Ross pours them into the silver funnel that tops his blue Dierdrich roaster, a mammoth machine with portly tanks and a direct connection to the sunny outdoors through a silver ventilation system.
The beans rattle and clatter and the roaster wakes up and growls. Ross keeps his eyes on a small screen charting blue and brown lines that zigzag as heat and airflow change inside the machine.
“I love cafes,” Ross says. “But first I want to get the coffee roasting company going strong to where it’s making money or at least going solid.”
After that, who knows. Maybe he’ll set up a cafe or two in the 30-mile stretch between Seattle and Everett, where Velton’s Coffee is headquartered in the bottom of a brick building in the Lowell district.
There isn’t a sign for the company on the building’s exterior — just look for the blue door around back, Ross tells visitors. He’s the owner and lone worker for the start-up, which produces between 100 and 200 pounds of roasted coffee every week.
One day, he wants a staff to help with packaging and distribution. For now, it’s just him alone in the cement-walled workspace filled with bags of imported beans and coffee-shop music that comes from speakers.
Ross watches the coffee churn as he talks about his business, his industry — his beans.
The beans matter as much to a coffee roaster as grapes matter to wine makers, he says. Where they’re grown, when they’re harvested — it all factors into the coffee’s flavor. But how beans are roasted makes a difference, he explains. He can roast fast and aggressively or long and slow to manipulate how the final brew tastes.
Through a small window, the beans are just starting to turn yellow. They smell like cookies, not coffee — a homey scent Ross attributes to the caramelizing process that’s taking place inside the roaster.
You’ll learn things like that, hanging out with Ross. He and coffee go way back, back to 1989 when he worked at a coffee cart outside Tower Records in Seattle to help pay for college.
After that, there were a series of cafes, a coffee start-up in Hawaii he helped get off the ground, and a job managing Bauhaus Books and Coffee, an iconic cafe on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
He left a job roasting coffee for Top Pot Doughnuts &Coffee to found Velton’s Coffee in late 2007.
“I’d really found something I wanted to make a career of,” he says, sniffing a sample of the batch that’s noisily roasting, turning darker shade by shade.
“I’m in my 30s,” he says. “It was time to start thinking about what my long-term goals were. I knew this was something I could do forever.”
Equity from Ross’s Whidbey Island property financed the company at first, and he took out a small business loan more recently. The company’s founding coincided with Ross and his wife’s adoption of their daughter, soon to be 2 years old, from Guatemala.
It was a busy time and in some ways, a hard time, Ross remembers. He was starting from scratch with no clients, dropping off samples at cafes in an attempt to land business.
“That’s been a tough road for me, maybe I little tougher than I expected,” he says.
He doubts Velton’s Coffee would exist without his wife, Melanie, an optimistic woman who grew up in Everett and helped him find his Lowell-district workspace.
“She was definitely the one who said, ‘We’ll make it work,’ ” says Ross.
He points out that the beans have turned brown, and that they’re making cracking sounds. (That’s because water is escaping from the beans as steam, he explained.)
Velton’s Coffee is packaged in bags labeled “Seattle, Washington” because no workspace had been found when the stickers were designed. But though Ross lives in north Seattle, he says he’s pleased to be outside the fray of that city’s cafes and roasting companies.
If he does ever open up an intimate neighborhood cafe, it’ll likely be in Everett or south Snohomish County, an area he says is woefully underserved when it comes to independent coffee shops.
For now, he’s working on getting noticed, getting customers.
Sales have gone up steadily each month, but never by leaps and bounds. Most cafes are ordering less coffee now in the face of economic recession, but they’re still placing orders, Ross says.
He prepares to release this batch of Bonsai blend.
With a bang, the beans come cascading out into a silver basin, crackling and popping like a bowl of coffee-colored Rice Krispies cereal.
Good reviews have been starting to trickle in from online coffee authorities. Soon, Ross is adding two new blends for a total of eight. And he says it shouldn’t be too long before he’ll be on solid ground financially, maybe even turning a profit.
“I feel like I’m close now,” he says.