Aspen Times Weekly: The Bean Whisperer |

Aspen Times Weekly: The Bean Whisperer

by Amanda Rae


Rock Canyon Coffee Roasters

P.O. Box 159, Carbondale

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Aspen Emporium and Flying Circus

315 E. Main St., Aspen


132 Midland Ave., Basalt



El Jebel Winter Market

Tastings, Saturdays at 10-2

Dec. 7 to Mar. 15

Eagle Crest Nursery

400 Gillespie Dr., El Jebel

970.963.1173" target="_blank">Sections-ATW-ATW_NeedToKnow_Body">



335 Main St., Carbondale 970.963.7316

Hyatt Grand Aspen

415 E. Dean St., Aspen

970.429.9100" target="_blank">Sections-ATW-ATW_NeedToKnow_Body">

M&M Catering & Cooking School

305 F AABC, Aspen

970.544.4862" target="_blank">Sections-ATW-ATW_NeedToKnow_Body">

The Blend Coffee Company

1150 Colorado 133, Carbondale 970.510.5048" target="_blank">Sections-ATW-ATW_NeedToKnow_Body">

If Willy Wonka had churned out coffee beans instead of chocolate confections, he might have sounded like Craig Fulmer does when describing the wildly distinct nuances of each varietal.

Early one morning in the laboratory of his fledgling Rock Canyon Coffee Roasters — a garage attached to the bungalow he shares with his wife, Heidi Johnson, off a dirt road somewhere between Basalt and Carbondale — Fulmer pats a pile of bulging burlap sacks. Each contains about 100 pounds of seemingly identical, pea-sized, pale-green coffee beans. What a visitor can’t see, however, is the wondrous world of aromas and flavors that can only be extracted by someone like Fulmer, a hobbyist coffee roaster turned dreamer of dreams.

“The Guatemalan, a few minutes into the roast, you could swear someone was cooking bacon,” says the 43-year old former financial planner and software developer in a soft, slightly excited tone. “The Ethiopian smells like someone’s baking blueberry muffins when it’s roasting. Some have beautiful floral aromas, grapefruit, orange. Once in a while you’ll get a bag with really nice chocolate, like s’mores. And most all beans go through a woody, grassy phase, (as if) the farmer next door is cutting hay. That’s part of the fun: you take this agricultural product, put your own spin on how to apply heat over time, and go from graham crackers to flowers.”

Fulmer launched Rock Canyon Coffee — with little more than a half-pound tabletop roaster — in April 2012, shortly after the Washington natives relocated to Colorado after 10 years in Boston. “The first day I had to roast 10 pounds, I was screwed,” Fulmer says with an easy laugh. He upgraded to a custom-built, state-of-the-art Diedrich Manufacturing 5-pound commercial batch roaster this past March; completed an advanced training course at the factory in Idaho; and, following a summer of serious networking at area farmers’ markets and online, has secured a steady following of retail and wholesale customers who are just as passionate as he is about where their coffee comes from and how it’s handled.

Johnson helps spread the gospel of Rock Canyon Coffee during tastings at the Aspen Emporium and Flying Circus’ monthly open houses in Aspen and Basalt and soon the El Jebel Winter Market; thanks to the couple’s caffeinated energy, the beans are featured in a slew of area venues, including the Hyatt Grand Aspen, which just awarded Rock Canyon the contract to supply 200 pounds of coffee per month.

Anyone can buy a bag of green coffee beans and attempt to roast them, be it in the oven, on the stovetop in an iron skillet or wok, or in a hot-air popcorn popper, but results can be wildly unpredictable. Fulmer, an espresso fiend since college, started with the latter, “reading on websites and just incinerating the bean, doing nothing but turning it into charcoal.” He burned through five conical appliances before Johnson, perhaps out of pity but maybe partly out of exasperation, bought him the half-pound roaster for his birthday one year. “Through an enormous amount of error and trial,” Fulmer says, “you learn what not to do.”

A few factors contribute to the quality of professionally roasted, boutique coffee beans such as Rock Canyon’s. First are country of origin and source; through a Seattle importer, Fulmer buys organic, rainforest-certified, and direct-trade beans as often as possible, sidestepping fair-trade auctions so that farmers in Third World countries get a bigger slice of the global price. Storage and time from shipment to shelf factor in as well; Rock Canyon roasts and ships on the same day. But what really sets brands apart is the cook: how much heat is used and when, for how long, and what kind. Fulmer’s 5-pound batch roaster uses conductive heat: instead of an open flame, beans tumble within a rotating horizontal chamber of quarter-inch carbon steel, warmed from the outside by infrared burners. Because of the technology’s even temperature distribution and fuel efficiency, these types of roasters are preferred by countless other companies around the world. The critical variable, then, is the man behind the machine.

“Get four bags of beans,” Fulmer says, “bring them to Ink!, Defiant, Back Alley and me, and you’ll get four different espressos. They’ll all be darn good, but you’ll have a preference as to which one you buy. We’re different people; we interpret flavors and smells differently.”

Fulmer at work resembles a chemist at times, a DJ at others. Throughout each roast cycle —which typically lasts between 13 and 16 minutes, depending on the style achieved (light, medium, dark, espresso) — Fulmer is constantly consulting handwritten notes and adjusting knobs that direct gas pressure, drum speed, and airflow. Every 30 seconds, Fulmer takes a temperature reading; at the same time, he twists a small chamber extending into the spinning roaster to capture and remove a thimbleful of beans, which he brings to his nose. Through smell — of a greenhouse, graham crackers, caramel — and by listening, Fulmer can determine where beans are at in the cycle.

“I add gentle heat to the beginning of the roast, make sure the waters and sugars as well as the chemical compounds in the bean have a chance to heat up, really develop,” he says. “At a certain point, water bursts out of the bean as steam, and you hear the ‘first crack,’ the starting point for the caramelizing of the sugars. That’s the critical point in the roast. If we ever talk about our roast profiles with any other roaster, that’s where we keep our secrets, so to speak.”

It’s also where the roast can go wrong. During an educational coffee-tasting brunch hosted by M&M Catering & Cooking School to celebrate its new partnership with Rock Canyon Coffee, Fulmer presents Sumatra, a robust coffee that diners call out as tasting of dark chocolate and cinnamon — characteristics similar to those that wafted through Fulmer’s garage.

“I roasted it into the realm of a dark roast, but I stopped before I burned it,” Fulmer says to the crowd. “There’s a point when the cell structure, the walls, begin to burn, break down. That’s when you get jet-black, oily beans, like you get at your local global roaster shop.” He takes a sip of the Sumatra. “As you swallow the coffee, what’s left in your mouth are the oils in the coffee itself. If you don’t burn those, you’re left with a nice pleasant, buttery flavor in your mouth.”

Burn those oils, and beans can quickly turn rancid during storage.

“One of the things I like about Craig is that he’s very conscious of not stretching the roast,” says Wade Newsom, owner of The Blend Coffee Company in Carbondale, which features Rock Canyon Coffee on its pour-over bar. “It’s important to find that sweet spot, where you are getting the most flavor out of the bean. When the roast gets stretched, it can take on burned, smoky characteristics. He will throw out batches of coffee if they don’t meet his standards. The guy is super passionate.”

Fulmer hopes to share that passion with the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.

“I think coffee is a comfort food,” he says, back in his kitchen over Americano. “The smell of coffee triggers good memories for people. Having a cup of coffee is also a community building activity: we’re sitting here, chatting about how we came to be, over a cup of coffee.”

“In fact, Craig and I first met, 16 years ago, over a cup of coffee,” Johnson chimes in. She notes that the ritual of making and enjoying coffee, not unlike a Japanese tea ceremony, is Rock Canyon’s reason for being..

“There’s a feeling and emotion behind why people choose to drink our coffee, versus a Nescafé or Keurig drinker who just wants caffeine,” she says. “It’s this backward hippie movement. A pour-over takes time and effort —the Chemex’s heyday was 1973!”

What’s more, Fulmer cites what he believes to be a growing consumer backlash against global chains such as Starbucks, Seattle’s Best and Peet’s.

“People finally understand it’s no longer boutique coffee,” Fulmer says. “It’s a publicly traded, multinational corporation that will, at all costs, rape the supply chain to make a buck and serve stockholders. That’s not what I’m about.”

Instead, he’s focused on craftsmanship. And just as home cooks might want to meet the farmers who grow their food, coffee drinkers relish a similar relationship with their roaster.

“You make a phone call, and four hours later you have a warm package of coffee — how much fresher can you get?” says Andreas Fischbacher, chef-owner of Allegria in Carbondale and one of Rock Canyon’s first commercial espresso customers. “Craig is absolutely a coffee guru. I’ve had a lot of education in the last year, and I really do like the product: it’s flavorful, rich coffee.”

Wonka similarities abound: the charmingly eccentric, analytical Fulmer toils in a secretive, somewhat solitary profession.

“It’s not a spectator sport,” Fulmer admits. “I had to train my landlord to leave me alone when I’m roasting because I have 5 pounds of product that could go bad if I miss something.” He seems to savor this time, tweaking batches in his garage and sharing coffee with neighbors before computerized roasters, warehouses and staffers bound by nondisclosure agreements are involved. Yet Fulmer hints to bigger goals.

“Apple Computer started in a garage,” he says. “Why not Rock Canyon Coffee?”

Wake-up call

“Part of my mission is education,” says Craig Fulmer of Rock Canyon Coffee Roasters. Here are a few of his top tips on brewing, storing, and enjoying his small-batch beans.

• Don’t store coffee in the freezer! Instead, place in an airtight container and keep out of sunlight, on a kitchen counter or in a cupboard.

• Do pre-rinse paper filters. Dust and residues can taint the flavor of your cuppa. Those using automated machines can do this in advance; allow filter to dry before grounds are added.

• Do filter your water. “Coffee is only going to be as good as the water you brew,” says Fulmer, who uses a Brita filter at home.

• Do let coffee “bloom” when using French press or pour-over methods. Wet grounds with a splash of water and watch ‘em bubble: froth–created by carbon dioxide–indicates freshness. Wait a minute before adding remaining water.

• Don’t drink coffee when it’s piping hot. “A fresh Americano with water straight out of a boiler is too hot to showcase the flavors,” Fulmer says. Scorched taste buds ain’t pleasant, either.

• Do clean your machine every month. Coffee oils in crevices attract dust particles, and water mineral buildup can clog and damage coffeemakers over time. Add a tablespoon of citric acid — found in the canning aisle of the grocery store — to warm water and allow components to soak, preferably overnight. Rinse thoroughly before the next brew cycle.

• Do clean coffee storage containers between uses, to eliminate residual oils that can turn rancid over time.

• Don’t be afraid to experiment. “You can run any coffee through an espresso machine,” Fulmer says, as long as it’s finely ground. “I’ve got a customer who likes the tart, tangy, citrusy flavors of medium roasts as espresso. My Sumatra, a dark roast, makes great espresso. Barundi medium roast: beautiful espresso.”

Amanda Rae and Chemex Coffeemakers share a birthplace: Pittsfield, Mass.