If you’ve come to Greenstreet Coffee’s cafe, you’ve met many of the baristas and probably the owners at some point too. But unless you’ve joined us down on Alter Street, you probably haven’t met our lead roaster, John. And if you haven’t met John, you may not understand what our coffee is all about. Fortunately, you’re about to meet John.
So how did you get into the Philadelphia area?
Well, it’s a long story. I started in TV and film production in and outside of Chicago. I had worked in Philadelphia before for feature films, but then I got tired of working in film and television, so in 2008, I moved to Yosemite National Park and I worked there for a year. From there I moved to Hawaii and I lived there for about two years. And then I was tired of living in Hawaii, and my friend who had hired me to work in Philadelphia in the past let me know of an opportunity of a feature film last summer and I came to Philly to work on that and I was planning on coming back to the mainland at some point.
How did you go from all those different assortments of jobs to roasting coffee?
So that transition began back in Chicago before I had gotten back from Yosemite. I lived next door to one of the roaster techs for Intelligencia Coffee. Our little neighborhood was really tight-knit, and he taught me everything I knew about coffee for years. And he got everyone free samples all the time, which was really great. I really fell in love with single origins, especially Ethiopian and El Salvadorian. I had a v60 pour-over at the time. Before that, it was like, Dunkin’ Donuts, and in Yosemite, it was just pillow packs. It was awful. And then I moved to Hawaii, and even though I lived in Kona, the coffee was incredibly expensive. I wasn’t making very much money, so there I learned about growing coffee, the cultivation of coffee, and roasting coffee. Eventually I moved to Puna, which is great for growing coffee.I lived in Puna and we grew coffee, it was Arabica: typica, and cacao, and others. We harvested beans, processed the beans, and we roasted coffee in a baking sheet in the oven, and traded with people and got coffee from every region in Hawaii.
Do you feel like there are major differences between the beans from different regions on the same island?
Yeah, you can get the differences between a South American coffee and a Sumatran coffee just on the same island. That’s because the entire island is just one huge volcano. The winds come from the east to the west, so as the humidity hits the mountain, and the wind goes up, it starts to compress and turn into rain. The east side of the island gets over 200 inches of rain a year. It’s all rain forest over there. On the Kona side, the west in the shadow of the mountain, there’s may be 10 inches of rain instead. So Kona coffee is known as being super intense and super caffeinated, because it’s always sunny, there’s no tree cover, no cloud cover, it’s just fertilized and watered from the other side of the island. And at different areas of the island, you get different amount of rainfall, and different soil types so you get very different coffee types. I lived on the Kona side and also the Puna side, I lived at elevation at 6,000 feet, was homeless and just rode my bike and spear-fished for a while, it was great.
So after Hawaii, how did you get into small batch, artisan coffee in Philadelphia?
So I came back to the mainland for economic opportunity, and Philadelphia, an awesome city to live in during a recession, was doing good. I left for Yosemite in 2008, right before the recession hit, and had basically a government-union job for a year, and then lived in Hawaii, where I was like, who cares about work? So I came back to Philly and was pleasantly surprised. My girlfriend, Molly and I, were both able to find work pretty easily. Once we had both found work, I started getting into the local coffee scene. I like to support local economies. When I lived in Hawaii one of my jobs was to work for local co-ops, trying to help people get their food to market and provide sustainable local communities. So I looked at my luxuries, which included coffee, and thought, this is something expensive, that I don’t need, but I would like to support local artisans by buying. We searched online for local coffee roasters and found nothing. There was some information but it was hard to figure out who was carrying local coffee, where it was, was it good, and how to get it.
So eventually I tried to find Greenstreet coffee roasters, which was a difficult, because it was before the retail store opened up. So I came by one day and I just walked in. Tom was in the back, and he saw me walk in, probably looking a little shady. Someone had just tried to steal a bike from the roasters, so Tom was on high alert when he saw me. Eventually I talked him down and was like, I’m interested in good coffee. So we talked about coffee and local coffee companies and I eventually bought some coffee. And I came back every week to buy more coffee, and just kept talking to them about my experiences and everything I knew and had done with coffee. I met Chris and we immediately started talking about types of coffees, the market for Greenstreet Coffee and I began to help out with bagging at the roaster.
I don’t quite remember how and why and when I started roasting the coffee, but that eventually happened. I feel like I was able to solve problems for the business by roasting and beans and now I feel like I know a lot more about roasting than before. During the last couple weeks, I’ve roasted much of the coffee, and the last couple weeks we’ve had record weeks. We’re selling a lot of coffee, and the quality of the coffee is getting better and better and better. And our control of that quality and how we make things better is only going to get better.
That’s a pretty radical transition, from film and television production in Chicago to Coffee Production in Philadelphia.
Well, I studied improv Chicago at Improv Olympics and Second City. So I’ve really taken on improv as a lifestyle choice. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and I like to do a lot of things. And I like to have a workplace where my bosses give me an opportunity to do lots of things and work on the fly and put on a lot of hats and taking them off and passing them on. Chris is really great to collaborate with. I feel like I really work well with Chris because he really shows his humanity, which I love and is great to work with. And I love Tom’s personality. He’s so outgoing and great to work with no matter what. He always remembers people names and is always there to pump up your attitude and energy. They’re very different, and I don’t know how, but it works. We’re selling record coffee amounts and have some of the best coffee in Philadelphia. And the things I need to thrive, are here.
Given that you’re doing a really good job at it, do you actually enjoy what you’re doing?
Yeah. I mean, the roasting process is very difficult. You’re doing math in your head the whole time, you’re listening to a machine to know when things are going wrong or right, you’re making hypothesis, you’re carrying out these experiences. You’re cranked to the walls on caffeine at all time. It’s fun, it’s really cool, but it’s a lot of hard work.
There’s been a lot of talk in the field, especially because Philly is so new on the coffee scene, about “third-wave,” sustainable, organic coffee. As a roaster, what are your thoughts on all these terms?
The coffee industry in Philadelphia is ever changing and we’re involved in the roasting and the brewing and the serving of coffee. Before it gets here, there are farmers, who are generally living in family farms need to purchase seed stock, they need to fertilize, irrigate, hire people to prune, remove pests, pick coffee, dry their coffee, and process their coffee. That’s very expensive. How it’s been done is they take out huge loans, and then hope they can sell their crop for a profit. The price of coffee right now in the commodity market is lower than what it costs to produce it. What it does to the coffee growers is it keeps them in abject, horrible poverty.
Another simultaneous process is third-world development. So children whose only options was to take over their father’s coffee farm- now these kids have the option to move to the city and become a software engineer, or work in hospitality. We were talking with a collective manager from Costa Rica when were in Rhode Island, [for the MANE conference], ad he was saying one of the biggest troubles facing coffee
cooperatives and the coffee industry in general is that the average age of a coffee farmer is 55 years old. And they’re going to retire and their kids don’t want to do their jobs, because they won’t make any money out of it.
Who is making money and who is mindful enough to know they want to keep sustaining the way they make money are the people who source and import coffee. And those people are really driving the desire to be sustainable and to have direct trade relationships and encourage micro-lot coffee farming. And that’s profitable to the importers. What they’re trying to do is change the way people think about coffee, and I think that’s really good that that’s happening.
Written by: Emma K. Thorp. email Emma at email@example.com