We have been thrilled to serve Liquid Moon from Unity Coffee out of Los Angeles, CA this month as our featured guest roaster. Liquid Moon tastes like nothing we've ever had and for good reason according to Unity: "On our most recent visit with the Villatoro family, we were once again given the opportunity to assist with their production. We collaborated with Milton on this experimental anaerobic natural processed lot. By first floating the [coffee] cherries before adding them to oxygen-free tanks, we hypothesized that we'd obtain a cleaner, fruiter, brighter & more complex cup. When Milton deemed the fermentation over, the moon was at its peak overhead. We drained the [coffee] cherries and carried them onto the roof to dry on raised beds under the pale light of the moon, loving every second of this roaster/producer collaboration."
We caught up with Adam Strauss, roaster & co-founder of Unity Coffee, to chat more.
How/when/why did Unity Coffee get started?
Tyler & I started as employees for a coffee company in NYC called Pushcart around 2013. Adam was either a barista / shop manager / coffee educator, and Tyler was a barista / operations manager. We started roasting in 2014, which was great - roasting for a small internal chain allows you to have full control of your own program, without worrying about what your wholesale partners may think. In 2017, a perfect storm happened - Adam moved to LA for personal reasons, the owner of Pushcart wanted to get rid of the roasting program, and Tyler & Adam wanted to venture into being business owners. We were able to hit the ground running, roasting for as a wholesale company for Pushcart as we pursued Unity under our own rules. There may be a more romantic way to describe our start and our drive for full control of a roasting program with assuming more risks, but honestly I just think it is cool we built a good repore for a few years before starting on our own.
Your tagline is “vibrant coffees from producers we love,” and we want to know more! What makes a vibrant coffee in your opinion?
"Vibrant" started truly as a cupping note. We built our reputation on lively, jammy coffees that screamed. As far back as 2014, I was touting naturals and cool varietals and putting microlots in the main espresso blend. We bought our first anaerobic in 2015 and I've been preaching since. This doesn’t have to be a conversation about how so many roasters who shunned these types of coffees are now proudly serving them, because honestly, nothing makes me happier to see roasters across the world take risks for the sake of their producing friends. Yet, that is what we initially meant when we say "vibrant". However, as we become more sophomoric, and advance as a notable roaster, I will say vibrant can be more about the story. Stories can be vibrant, and for it to be our coffee, the story has to be vibrant. Even if I am buying a coffee for a cafe partner who wants something more "toned down" (read: the opposite meaning of the initial "vibrant"), we can still make sure that story comes from a home full of life (read: the new definition). Most of the coffees I buy, I could wax poetic all day about the amazing farmer, the cool house they live in, the cute town nearby, what separates that farm's process, the way their soil is, and now, why harvest 5 is different from harvest 4. This intense storytelling for me is what currently is defined as vibrant.
What do you look for in a producer partnership?
We look for a few things. Most importantly, tbh, is a gut reaction. You'll be at a producers conference with 20 producers...what makes you find the one you want to work with? It's gut. It's weird. Like Daniel Muñoz & Yensy Galindez from Los Naranjos. So many amazing producers and farms from that association. It was overwhelming. But something about hanging, talking, and speaking with those two, I felt it. It certainly helped that in cupping 40-50 coffees blind, their coffees by far stood out to me. No joke. Coincidence? Guts? I do not know, but that's the first magic ingredient.
Everything else from there is based on longevity and a technical assessment. Does the farmer / exporter / importer system seem stable? If just one of those people collapse, you can't get that coffee again. And then you're just heartbroken. I have plenty of these. People I bought from and gut connected with, only to lose them in the ether.
I like to work with farmers who aren't jerks, or if they are, it is well deserved. This may be a hard one to hear as a consumer, but it's true. I've met a few farmers who are salty or mean or not open to a connection. Those aren’t my people. I have met farmers who are mean in the funniest way, and those are people that even though are difficult, I do enjoy working with them. Coffee is super difficult and when you get to this level there are a lot of emotions. You can't always keep them in check at the door. Sometimes even lives are on the line, and you have reason to get worked up. Or at the very least, play a prank on someone. I had a prank pulled on me one time and instead of being mad, I fell in love with that producer. However, that grower / exporter / importer system failed, so....see above.
I look for producers who want to improve. This could be quality, quantity, quality of worker's lives, or anything. I always want to improve. Nothing is ever good enough. So I am drawn to producers who have that drive.
Lastly, we now look for producers who want a year-round connection. The internet really shortens the gap between farmer and city roaster. There are producers I talk to weekly, if not daily. They become your actual friends. Life becomes more of a movie and less of a photo. It's four dimensional. And that's where all the rest falls in line. Whether it is buying something for their kids, working on a sewage treatment plan, or simply securing next year's coffee, you're just always connected. Literally sometimes it is "goodnight." Or jokes, or selfies, or dreams of the future. COVID has us all f*cked up. As of early 2020, any random roaster was probably "on an origin trip." But how many were re-visiting friends they look up to, or starting that spark for decades to come? A green buyer I really look up to gave me that advice, even though I was kind of already doing it. Just add your producers on whatsapp. If they don't want to do that, maybe they aren't the right fit for your relationships program. If they can't do that, buy them a f*cking phone. You're not cutting anybody out - you are still looking for that grower / export / importer system to be intact when you need to move coffee over, have proper QC, have agronomical support, etc. But yea add them, too. Be homies with your exporter. They are super busy....but probably awesome people you want to send selfies to and hear from since we aren't travelling any time soon. It isn't about taking a plane down to origin. It is about having a lasting connection that even a global pandemic can't destroy.
How would you describe the Unity approach to sourcing and roasting (and running a business in general!)?
I feel like I talked a bit about that in the last question, but now we can focus on my customers. As the green buyer, I frame everything in terms of buying coffee from a grower. Yet, as an owner, and as a general human, you have to be sensitive to your customers. I like to view us as a support system. I learned the hard way that being a wholesaler is NOT the same as roasting for your own shops internally. You can't demand things from your customers. So the approach is that we are here for our cafe partners. I'm always begging them to utilize us. Whether it is replacing gaskets, training a new barista, engaging in our offerings, or showing them the roastery, you need to show up for your people. Sometimes there are accounts I think should contact me for help, but they don't. The approach is not to demand anything of anyone, not to expect people to behave how you want them to behave. When they want your help, you'll be there for them. When they want to figure it out for themselves, maybe they find joy in that.
In terms of roasting, you should learn a few different styles if you ever want to grow. You'll reach a wall if you only have one style, and you'll get stumped by a coffee trying to force it on your style instead of letting the coffee tell you where it would like to go.
The most important thing you can do as a roaster is quality control, and learn how to correlate your QC to your roast curves. It's the only way to make sense of the dark art of roasting. Maybe over time you'll realize that you prefer coffees to crack at 9 on spro vs 8, or you only love short development, or whatever it is. But touching buttons on a screen and frankly just tracing Cropster curves will not make you a good roaster. Especially if or whatever reason you need to go on a new machine (or you service your current machine) and now you need to start from scratch. If you don't know how to toast what you're roasting, you may as well save the gas and go do a color by numbers.
I also think that you can't roast a coffee better than it is. So in order to be a good roaster, you need to be a good green buyer. This isn't just "buy high scoring microlots", but a whole logistical situation. You need to know when coffee is harvesting and when it will fade and how much to buy and where it is stored and all of that. Getting not-screwed up coffee into your roastery is a miracle, and happens less frequently than we would all like to admit. Certain trucking companies and warehouses will screw up the most precious microlot. So yea, to be a good roaster you need to be a good logistics coordinator / buyer. You need to have a team you trust. The moment you screw over an importer....will be the moment you stop having that good coffee. So pay your bills, have constant communication, don't try to go around them.
What are some of your favorite coffee shops in your home bases of Brooklyn and LA?
Right now in LA I am loving Play coffee in Fullerton. The vibe of the baristas is always happy, they are always asking questions about varietals, important questions, while tinkering with things like black salt. They carry a lot of exceptional coffee and I am humbled they carry us on the regular.
I would recommend going to Syndicate in Sierra Madre to try our coffee. They buy our most "vibrant" offerings without hesitation, and let us do dealer's choice each week with what we are excited to roast. To me, this is the dream way a wholesale partner could be. No fear, all passion, and crushing quality.
I'd recommend The Palm in Burbank, as their aesthetic is super on point. We have a drip blend for them that mixes a lighter roast and a darker roast. It tastes great! This ties into something I said earlier (or failed to express eloquently) that you need to master multiple methods of roasting, and be able to ultimately deliver something that makes your customer happy. For me, I get to source coffees I am in love with, and pursue the challenge of roasting them to the spec that is more someone else's preferences than my own. I love the end result, and this shop simply slays.
I love Alchemist Coffee Project, even though they only very rarely carry my coffee, and frankly many times the baristas don't remember me, even after several years. But as a Ktown resident, I do think that's the spot.
Lastly, Coffee Commissary. Last year, we moved toward partnering with them for their entire program moving them from a multi-roaster to a company that roasts internally. This was perhaps born from stepping up for them as one of their partners - we brought them to origin, sourced exclusively for them, and used to do a custom label. Now it is a true collab, and I am so so super proud of where they are at. It reminds me of the days of Pushcart, knowing you can buy a pallet of coffee and not worry about selling it. We are bringing some of our existing growing partners into this fold, and using this as an opportunity to branch out and secure them coffees completely different than the Unity program. We are about to put a Rwandan washed and natural on that I am so excited about. This will be a community we can connect with ultimately as a Commissary relationship. to me this is so exciting.
For me, for NY, I really miss High Collar. Yuki is so good at customer service. You ever just post up at a beautiful bar and just hang and drink coffee? That was the best. My other shop I miss and has grown immensely since my last visit is Coffee Project. Watching Sum go from that epicly humble spot in the EV to multi locations and a roastery is so enjoyable.