Interview with Derek La Paz of Mill City Roasters
I got the chance to speak with Derek La Paz from Mill City Roasters about all things coffee and roasting. Derek brings a really unique perspective to his roasting and I can say I learned a lot from what he had to share. He has a wealth of knowledge and doesn’t want to keep it to himself. Take some time and read what he had to say! Thanks Derek!
How did you get into the coffee business and how long have you been in it?
Well there are two ways to look at it. I started out in the culinary arts right out of High School and started working in kitchens right away. Coffee is part of the kitchen environment, but at the time I didn’t recognize coffee as a culinary artistic ingredient. I was just something I would drink so that I could perform as a line cook, at a higher efficiency. It took me a while to actually get into coffee, at one point I was a chef and started really thinking about my career, but I wasn’t super motived to go back to the kitchen. I always had a long term goal to open up a restaurant, but I didn’t have any front-of-house experience. So I’d been going to my local Starbucks just to hang out and think through this transition and one day they posted they were looking for an assistant manager. At that same time my interest in coffee peaked and I started seeing coffee as a culinary tool. So I applied, the interview went well and I was hired back in 2004.
How has your background in the culinary arts shaped your experience in working with coffee?
It has been the biggest impact into my coffee career. Being a chef, I learned a lot about flavor combinations and really what the customer wants. When you are in that type of market, you are constantly trying to figure out what the next trend will be, always keeping the customer involved. But more so, my background in working with different flavors and flavor combinations, has made a huge difference. Learning to make a certain dish is very similar to making a cup of coffee — what is your goal with the cup? What’s the main ingredient? What are the sub-ingredients? What reactive qualities do you want? When I think of a cup of coffee, I think of the same things. What are going to be the main flavor attributes? How do I want to develop the flavor and acidity? Things like that have really helped. Also really having that language to describe different flavors has been important. 10 or 12 years ago this wasn’t the case in coffee. I would be cupping and mention that the coffee had the scent of roasted bone and people would be like, “What?” And I’d be like, “What you guys have never made stock before??” But you know, now all that is normal. People are more diverse now which just shows how far things have come in that sense.
What are you doing in a normal day at Mill City?
Start out the day with morning meetings to go over what to accomplish and then straight to email for customer service. This stuff usually sets my day — whether it’s roasting stuff or Artisan software issues, basically helping the customers. After that it really depends. Unpacking roasters, shipping roasters, being a small company we all kind of work everything together. But a day like today we don’t have that, so I’ll spend 2 to 4 hours working with different greens. Some days I’ll call Cafe Imports and ask for something like six different Kenyan coffees and sample roast those, let those rest for 24 hours and then cup them all. Then I’ll determine what we like and move forward with production roast and cup it again. Re-roast that coffee to develop different flavors and from there put that green up on the website for sale.
So it seems that your passion is centered around roasting, how do you stay motivated to get better and progress in that part of your job?
It goes back to the kitchens. My motivation has always been me because I am just driven to have different culinary experiences every day. Since I was a kid it’s always been this way, I remember that I would throw temper tantrums when my mom wouldn’t make what I wanted for dinner. I would go to my room and just not eat dinner because I just didn’t want to eat what I was being given. That’s just how I’m wired, I’ll drink a cup of coffee today and just think, “Oh this could be different in this way, or if the farmer worked with a washed instead of a natural processing it could be this way...” There’s always something I am riffing off of that could make it taste completely different. Being present in life and using all the inputs that you get in breakfast, lunch, dinner, gardening or wherever it all helps with the coffee I am roasting or tasting. Ultimately I am just motived to constantly be better.
It seems that your ability to taste has been developed by all these past experiences in the kitchen and coffee in general. What advice would you give someone who is trying to get better at that?
For me, it’s really about being open and present I life in general. The perfect example is that people usually like to eat different meals in front of the TV, which is totally cool, but instead of doing that, you could try eating in a quiet space where you can better comprehend the flavors you’re tasting. You’re not going to better as a taster if you are distracted. You might have a happier life enjoying your shows, but being a better taster would mean doing the opposite of that. But more than dinner, it’s life in general, just being more present. Going to the farmers market, walking up to different tables with things you’ve never tried before, talking to the farmer and try different fruits and vegetables. Working with different fruits is a great way to get a new baseline for different flavors. Tasting the meat, the rind, the skin and really identifying all the different flavors and why they taste that way is a great way to take those skills and apply it to coffee. Then go and try it with coffee at your local cafe - taste it hot, cool and cold. Write them down and really try to understand what you are tasting. Ask your barista questions and get better.
When you got to a coffee shop, what are you looking for? Are your more analytical or do you just enjoy it for what it is?
It all really depends. If I go into a shop I’ve never been to, I go in open-ended. I really want to find out what the shop is trying to accomplish. Is it third-wave, community driven…what is the shop trying to do? I wouldn’t judge a shop that is more community driven on it’s extraction of an espresso shot because that’s not what they are about, I never want to be judgey about a new shop. My favorite coffee shops aren’t necessarily the shops with the best coffee — it’s more about the whole package. If it’s my Sunday coffee shop, Maeve’s, it’s really about community. Saying hi to people, knowing the people, it’s more about the people aspect. Now when I go to a place like, Dogwood, it’s a higher end roaster with the best equipment — I go there to learn more about my craft and to gain perspective on how they roast their coffee. I go for the most nuanced, seasonal single-origin coffee at those places and just see how they do all the different steps of the roast.
Best cup of coffee you’ve ever had?
Tough question…Where I used to work, some roasters would meet for a weekend and we would bring our coffees and just taste the different offerings that other people were roasting. Everyone would bring their best, most exciting coffees and it was just really fun! There was this naturally processed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and this was about 8 years ago and there wasn’t a lot of this coffee out, there were a lot of Harars, but not a lot of natural Yirgacheffe out there. It was a natural Idido, that they had just developed there. They brought this coffee to the cupping table that weekend and I still think about it to this day, it was amazing. Just for your perspective, I was making concord grape jam that same week, super pungent aroma, and when I broke the crust of that coffee, it had that same smell — incredible. And when I went to taste it, not only was there that floral, grape taste…there was this note of effervescence. This crazy reactivity and I thought I was crazy! I had a 96 point Gesha on the table that I roasted, and it wasn’t even close to what this Yirgacheffe had…incredible. Then someone else said, “Did you pick up on that effervescence on that cup?” And I was like, “Yes, I’m not crazy!” I still think about that coffee, it was crazy dude.
If you are brewing at home, what are you using?
Chemex. All about the Chemex with the square paper filters. I like nuance and acidity in my coffee so the Chemex is perfect for that. I would love to have a nice espresso machine but I’m not quite in that tax bracket yet, and even if I was I think I would rather have a little 500 gram roaster on my counter instead.
One tip for a newbie in the roasting game?
Well here are three: Consistency. Work on one variable at a time and see what works for you that way. Limiting your variables and staying consistent. Another tip would be to focus hard on first crack. Be religious about recording first crack, time and temperature every time. Make that an ingrained part of who you are as a roaster. Really use first crack as the beginning of how your coffee is going to taste. Also search out critical feedback; talk to your local cafe, mail your coffee to a professional…anything to get some good feedback to work on your craft.
Best three coffee shops in Minneapolis?
Tough question…so I’ll answer this as what is best for me and what I am looking for in a shop:
- Maeve’s: Like I said before, it’s all about community, when I leave there I am always in a better mood.
- Bachelor Farmer Cafe: It’s busy and trendy but they always have different coffees in there. They have good food and it’s always quick.
- Sun Street Breads: For me it’s about the espresso and they have the best training of their staff in the coffee shops. The roaster sets the protocols and the restaurant has to follow those exact steps so you know no matter who is pulling the shot, it will be a great cup.
Last question, if you aren’t roasting, what are you doing?
Uhhhhh (laughter)…thinking about roasting or eating. I spend a lot of time working on my motorcycle and honestly I get really into video games. Right now I am deep into Destiny 2, waiting on Red Dead to come out, but it’s a lot of fun and time spent just diffusing time and relaxing.