I sat down with Silas, just as everything was winding down at 169 Mass Ave in Arlington, about a quarter till close. He was dialing in shots, trying to get a good taste of a new espresso in our line-up when we started. “Tell me about the first time you met Jaime” I asked.
“I was working at Pete’s Coffee at the time and had just gotten back from Central America.” Silas began, “I saw an article in the Boston Globe talking about east coast coffee shops that were pioneering good coffee and I didn’t believe it was actually true.” He specified what article he was talking about, “The one with the photo of Jaime looking really angry smelling some coffee.” He laughed to himself, his shoulders shrugging three times in rhythm. “I walked into Simon’s to check it out for myself and there he was, behind the counter, so I ordered an espresso.” And? “I was blown away at how not mediocre it was, I mean it was sweet and just, you know, tasted good.”
That was how Silas met Jaime Van Schyndel, owner of barismo, nearly five years ago in May 2006 when Silas was only 19 years old. That meeting sparked a conversation about coffee which has lasted over the years including multiple trips to coffee producing regions in the past year with Silas working as barismo’s green buyer.
I WAS BAFFLED THAT COFFEE HAD DIFFERENT TASTES BESIDES, YOU KNOW, JUST COFFEE.
“The first time I ever had coffee was the first day of my very first job at Pete’s Coffeeshop in Lexington, MA.” A smirk appeared across his unshaven face as he continued, “I had a mocha la-tte” stretching the ‘laaa’ as his shoulders moved again in rhythm with his muffled laughter. “When I started at Pete’s they had everyone who was new taste all of their twenty or so coffees.” The very first time he did a tasting he said, “I was baffled that coffee had different tastes besides, you know, just coffee. I noticed it the very first time I cupped.” He continued doing tastings at Pete’s and fell into the role of answering customers questions about coffee. “When I was first at Pete’s, my ideal cup was smooth, inoffensive, mellow, like Sumatras, Indonesian coffees, the best back then was India peaberry, if you could get that it was like the best of the best.” Silas would ask himself, “How does this hold up on the inoffensive scale?” He explained, “I would use language like ‘full bodied’, ‘low acidity’, terms similar to that to describe coffees.” Concerning coffees Silas disliked, “I hated our Kenyan coffees, the acidity in the coffee was so offensive to me.”
The next two years at Pete’s brought with it changes in management and a refocusing away from coffee, more about moving people through the shop, increasing revenue. Silas decided to try something new so he took a job at the Whole Foods meat counter in Bedford, MA. “Amazing job,” he said excitedly, “sampling good meats all day long, discounted cuts, it was great.” However his interest in coffee would not dissapear so easily. After some time the job of coffee ordering at the Whole Foods came up and with a bit of naieve confidence he took the job. After tasting the available selection of coffees he decided that the store should be carrying the entire selection of Terroir coffees roasted by George Howell, they stood out among the rest. Back then, Silas explained, most green coffee was still stored in jute bags, a tough dirty brown woven fabric, these provide no protection against moisture loss, hence freshness, or any other range of elements that fresh unroasted coffee encounters along its journey from the farm to the roaster. “George was vacuum sealing and freezing green coffees for freshness, perhaps the only one doing this at the time.”
I WAS LIKE, HOLY CRAP THAT TASTES LIKE BLACKBERRY! … THAT WAS A CLEAR DEFINING MOMENT, THIS IS WHAT COFFEE CAN BE, AROMA CAN BE FLORAL, BERRY, CITRUS, VERY COMPLEX.
Upon discovering Terroir coffee, Silas began making visits to the roastery to taste their coffees. It was there Silas says that he first really tasted a Kenyan coffee. “I was like, Holy Crap that tastes like Blackberry!” Silas said excitedly as if he was saying it for the very first time. He was completely amazed that coffee could actually be different in nuance beyond just acidity. “What I learned from Terroir,” Silas shared, “was that previous Kenyans I had were roasted dark, killing off the lighter flavors.” That combination of savory notes from the dark roasting with the acidity of the Kenyans, produced that acrid unpleasant sour taste he was turned off by. Beyond progressive packaging of green (unroasted) coffee, George Howell was also roasting lighter than Silas had previously experienced, especially important with acidic, or floral and bright coffees. Silas remembers, “That was a clear defining moment, this is what coffee can be, aroma can be floral, berry, citrus, very complex.”
The Bedford Whole Foods however, was not on board with Silas’ palate. They explained to him that he needed to order more of a popular brand selection. Silas admits, “I had no idea what I was doing”, realizing afterwards that they mainly wanted someone to maintain the selections, merchandize well, and just sell coffee. Whereas Silas mainly wanted to share what he found to be great coffee. After about three months, he moved on from Whole Foods. Between his time at Pete’s and his experience with Terroir coffees, Silas says, he eventually, “Put two and two together and realized, there’s a guy who tastes coffee for a living, then buys it. When I realized this job existed, I thought it was the coolest job ever.” Silas then broke out into a smile and laughed again, “Boy was I wrong.”
Silas took his first trip to a coffee growing region during the late winter, early spring of 2006. He wanted to visit every country in Central America and work on a coffee farm. During his three month trip he backpacked from Belieze to Panama City, and got the chance to work on an organic coffee farm for two weeks through the WOOF program. The farm was located in southern Costa Rica near San Isidro. This trip was a chance to learn Spanish, have some fun, and spend time figuring out what he wanted for himself. Silas knew at this point that he wanted to work in coffee, but he wanted more than he was getting from places he had worked at previously.
SPENDING TIME ON THE GROUND AT ORIGIN HAS SHOWN ME THAT EVERYONE ELSE IN COFFEE IS JUST ABOUT AS CRAZY AS I AM.
His time traveling and working on a farm did show him how important the entire coffee chain is, “everyone in the supply chain has to do a good job, or else the final product comes out less than it could be.” Silas Explained, so when he returned from Central America that May and read about people pushing for quality at the barista end of the coffee chain he had to see it for himself. Soon, through that first meeting with Jaime, Silas found himself in like-minded company, cupping and discussing coffee with a half dozen or so people from the area. This group was a seedling, the beginning of what would eventually grow to become barismo.
Silas eventually returned to work at Pete’s Coffee and says he enjoyed the management at the time, but did not like how dark they were roasting. While some of the members from that cupping group were tinkering with equipment and planning cafes and roasteries, Silas was once more on the move. He decided that he needed a change of scenery, a different pace, still wanting to stay close to coffee, Portland, Oregon was an obvious choise. He arrived in Portland in September of 2007. Silas worked at various coffee shops during his time there, the experiences ranged from “bad” to “good people who did not care much about coffee” to “great people that were coffee focused.” However, his best experience by far, he says, was The Annex, a space connected to a busy Stumptown shop which held two free cuppings a day. “Sometimes I was there every day of the week.” He reminiced, “Coolest shop in my mind, it was all free and I met a lot of people I now buy coffee from.”
Silas, once again on the move, made his way back to Massachusetts, where the seedling that was barismo began to look like a healthy growth. Jaime, at barismo, was eadger to have Silas join him. Not quite sure what role he would fit into at barismo, Silas instead went to work at Hi-Rise on Brattle. Jaime continued to ask and finally Silas told him in response that he would only work for barismo if he was their green buyer. Shortly after that conversation, Jaime offered him the job, Silas says, “It was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to.” At the beginning of 2010, just a few weeks after being offered the job with barismo, Silas embarked on his first trip as a green buyer.
Not quite the romantic job Silas imagined it to be, green buying presents a wide range of interesting challenges. However, the realities of the job do not seem to have changed his mind that he belongs in the coffee world. “Spending time on the ground at origin has shown me that everyone else in coffee is just about as crazy as I am.” Silas joked, laughing once more in rhythm with his shrugging shoulders.