Coffee beans key to brewing a business

Amye Buckley

The perfect cup of coffee starts with the beans.

Or at least that’s how Rick Willis of Jive In Java in Neosho, Mo., thinks of it.

Willis headed to Kansas City, Mo., to pick up beans from six different countries, and by the next morning, a batch is rolling around inside the drum of his roasting operation.

“Some of your beans have a really nutty flavor, and some have a really fruity flavor,” Willis said.

Soil and altitude change their taste. Willis buys mostly free trade, and his signature brew, Java Blue, is totally organic. Many of his other blends are mostly organic.

Twin burners trained on the drum keep the coffee beans hot, and when they get close to finish, he starts to listen.

“When we roast like this, it has a pop, like popcorn,” Willis said.

The first pop makes for milder coffee, the second for a darker roast. The beans can burn if they get too hot or are roasted too long.

“It’s timing,” he said. “There’s an art to this.”

Large operations may roast 2,000 pounds at a time, but Willis goes for a smaller batch, air roasting 35 or 40 pounds of beans at a time.

“You get over that, you can’t control your roast,” he said.

His morning batch is set at 410 degrees, and when the beans drop into the bin below, they may be as hot as 480 degrees. It’s a Mexican dark roast.

“I could take the same mix of beans and roast it to a lighter (roast), and it would taste different,” Willis said.

Willis brews specialty blends and private labels. If a company has a logo, he offers a specialized coffee blend to match.

“We’ll do a blend for you, and we won’t make that for anybody else,” he said.

Bolder, better beans help make the coffee. Where it may take 3 tablespoons of his coffee to make a full pot, it could take up to six of some store brands, Willis said.

“They use old beans,” he said. “Their deal is to keep their costs down.”

In 2002, Willis started Jive In Java in Joplin, Mo. The former farmer moved from Oregon, found a chance to start a coffee business and jumped in. He came with his own roast recipes.

“I always liked coffee, and I was curious about it,” he said. “My dream has always been going into roasting.”

That dream was what business partner Patsy Tyner –– she was running a coffee shop of her own last year –– asked Willis about.

“I didn’t understand why he didn’t roast it himself,” Tyner said

While she admits she’s not a coffee guru, but as an ICU nurse of 20 years, she’s consumed a lot of coffee.

“We called it our vitamin for the day,” she jokes.

Neighbors call when Willis starts roasting coffee. He can roast between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds of coffee in an eight-hour shift.

“He wants it to be all fresh,” Tyner said.

The two are almost finished setting up the new Jive In Java roasting operation inside their new 3,500-square-foot building. Office space is in a neighboring building, but inside the roasting operation, they will have a storefront, shipping operation, climate-controlled room to store the beans, roasting and flavoring stations and, eventually, space for training coffee entrepreneurs.

Baristas, Willis said, make good money, but there are nuances to making coffee. First you must pick good beans, but the roast, grind, brew and assembling the final drink are all part of the final cup, he said.

Dull blades in a grinder can burn the beans, Willis cautions, and pulling the grinds and packing them for a cup of espresso is something that takes skill.

“It’s an art,” he said.