February 6, 2003
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Dave Kohstall working at his coffee roaster at Back Chat Coffee in the MillWorks Business Center on Walnut Street.

Dave Kohstall of Back Chat Coffee—
Yellow Springs’ micro-coffee roaster

There’s no such thing as an espresso bean. Some decafs do taste flat. And fair trade doesn’t necessarily mean organic. The nuances of the coffee business can be as subtle and sophisticated as those of the viticulteur, and dispelling coffee myths is an important part of local coffee roaster Dave Kohstall’s job.

Burlap sacks of green coffee beans stamped with markings from East Timor, Peru and Malawi cover the floor of Kohstall’s roasting space at the MillWorks Business Center. An earthy smell, like browned toast, wafts from the corner of the room, where the German Probat roaster churns socially responsible and certified organic fair trade coffee beans from Chiapas. The temperature of the cast iron drum is 420 degrees Fahrenheit, just right for a 15-minute full city roast.

The smell of roasting coffee beans is not unfamiliar to villagers who frequented Back Chat, the restaurant and coffee shop in Kings Yard that Kohstall owned from 2000 to 2002. Though his restaurant closed last summer, Kohstall’s coffee roaster has never been busier. The business, now called Back Chat Coffee, distributes 34 varieties of hand-roasted coffee beans to stores and restaurants in the area and around the country.

There are four basic roasts, Kohstall explained, as the hot beans started to pop at what roasters call “first crack.” City roast is the lightest roast that extracts the least amount of oil from the bean and usually produces a more delicate flavor. The next darkest roast is Viennese, then French and finally the very dark and oily Italian.

“We tend to specialize in the dark roasts, but some people drink the stuff just before first crack, like Folgers and Maxwell House,” he said with a grimace.

Better beans generally grow at higher altitudes, Kohstall said. If it’s grown at a higher altitude, it’s a harder bean with more oil and more flavor. But good beans can also come from lower altitudes, and they generally taste best city roasted, he said as he scraped the now cinnamon brown beans out of the roaster bin.

“Most of the common low-grade coffee beans come from Brazil, or lately Vietnam,” he said. “Comparing a bean from Columbia versus Brazil is like comparing a grape grown in France versus one from Ohio.”

Because Kohstall knows his beans, his coffee orders have been growing. Back Chat Coffee now shows up on store shelves at Tom’s Market, Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton and in health food groceries all over Ohio and Kentucky. Many local coffee shops and restaurants such as Young’s Jersey Dairy, Central Perc European Cafe in Oakwood and 5 Walls Coffee House in Beavercreek also serve coffee from the local micro-roaster.

“What we do is unique,” Kohstall said.

What he does is also very personalized. After roasting each 20–pound batch by hand and bagging the coffee, Kohstall maintains quality control of his product. Everyone at Tom’s knows him because he comes in the store every morning to arrange his shelf and make sure the coffee is fresh. Whole-roasted beans last up to a month and ground beans up to two weeks; however, none of them generally sits on the shelf longer than a week at the most, he said.

Back Chat also carries decaffeinated coffees whose flavor hasn’t been compromised by the hot water and chemical treatment that commercial decafs usually have to go through, Kohstall said. Most Back Chat decafs have been processed with carbon dioxide and cold water, a German innovation that allows the bean to retain its flavor and still come out 99.9 percent decaffeinated.

“I got a guy in Florida who orders three pounds a month of the CO2 processed decafs because he likes it because it tastes like coffee,” he said.

Many good things in high demand are considered human vices. But how can a drink with excellent flavor that also promotes social equality be bad?

About half of the coffee Kohstall roasts comes from fair-trade plantations, mostly in Central and South America. International organizations monitor these growers to ensure that the workers are paid at fair and steady rates, he said. Organic growers are also monitored by international organizations, which often deal with fair-trade growers. Fair-trade organic coffees usually cost only a small amount more than other quality beans, according to the Back Chat Coffee Web site, backchatcoffee.com.

“There are not many people like me doing these decafs and fair-trade organics,” he said.

Other people must be noticing the quality of Back Chat Coffee as well. Kohstall spends 30 to 40 hours a week roasting 500 pounds of coffee beans, about 100 of which are for Tom’s alone. Kohstall gives his supplier in Minneapolis a lot of the credit. Cafe Imports sends him samples of award-winning coffee. Last year a fair-trade organic Nicaraguan Segovia coffee was one of the best of the year.

“It was a killer, best roasted full city,” Kohstall said.

He has only one more 70-kilo bag of it, and he is rationing it out carefully. But there will be other great coffees to come. Some will have a rich, bold flavor, some will be smooth, and then some will have a little acidic bite to them.

“When you drink an acidic coffee what happens is you pucker your lips like this, see?” Kohstall said.

Good coffee may start with the climate and the bean, but that is by no means the end. The type of grind should be appropriate for the brewing apparatus. Drip grind should be used for general purpose percolators, French-press grind goes with the French-press method, and espresso grind is for an espresso maker.

What makes espresso espresso, Kohstall said, is its extremely fine grind and the intense 213-degree steam that together extract the deep dark flavor of the well-known delicacy. And no coffee, no matter the type or grind, should be stored in the freezer after it’s been roasted, he said. It should be kept in a cool, dry, dark place in an airtight container.

Kohstall plans to set up more micro- roaster operations in other communities in the future. But he maintains each operation has to be overseen independently because of the quality control issue.

“They’re regional little things, if it goes,” he said. “Besides it’s no fun for me to mail coffee to someone in Bloomington, Ind., because I never get to meet them; I want to know who they are.”

Kohstall misses seeing the people who used to come into his restaurant to eat, meet and socialize, and to talk coffee. Though his current business is not a retail site, there was a lot of traffic in and out of the roasting room last week. Wholesale customers came in to pick up orders and coffee connoisseurs from other MillWorks businesses stopped by to fill their mugs with a complimentary cup of Back Chat’s own brew.

Kohstall likes nothing flavored, nothing sweetened, just a French-roasted Celebes with a little bit of cream.

“I deal in coffee because I like to drink it. I like the taste of coffee,” he said.

There is no myth in that.

—Lauren Heaton