Our Coffee - "HOW DID DIN START ROASTING COFFEE?" by Nancy Rommelman, Ristretto Roasters
This is the question I hear most about how Din Johnson, the owner of Ristretto Roasters and my husband, got into the coffee biz. Din’s coffee odyssey began in 2000, when we were still living in Los Angeles, and he brought home a coffee roaster the size of a small popcorn popper. Soon, we were receiving regular mail deliveries of little pouches of green beans with names like Tanzanian Peaberry and Guatemala Huehuetanengo. After he worked all day as a contractor, Din would come home and, by night, fire up the tiny roaster, which, if I recall, made a noise like a very tiny hair dryer. And did we drink good coffee? We did, if not much of it, a half-cup of beans not going very far.
A few months later, I came home to find something that looked like a small aircraft engine sitting on the counter. I started to see less of my husband, occupied as he was in the basement with the roaster, and on the Internet, drilling deeper into coffee culture, and on rare occasion – this was Los Angeles, where most people drink truly execrable chain coffee and call it good – another coffee roasting aficionado. If memory serves, Din even went to a coffee convention up in Seattle.
This was the same year we decided to relocate to Portland, where Din had grown up. In the fall of 2003, we bought a house in Northeast Portland, which Din remodeled and made beautiful. Our first year here was tough: Did Din want to continue to be a contractor, which meant working eight months of the year in the rain? I asked him, if he could do anything, what would it be?
"Roast coffee," he said, and it was decided: he would roast for a wholesale-only business, based in our garage. He bought the Probat, on eBay. Din and his sister Hillary wrote a business plan; we got up some money from family and friends, and Ristretto Roasters was born. We found the location on NE 42nd Ave., and for five months, starting in May 2005, Din did everything: he painted walls and finished the floors and built the furniture; picked out and installed lights; moved in the roaster and helped build a truly epic afterburner, the system which essentially incinerates the smoke that comes from roasting. He hired our first two baristas, Rachel and Katie, and on opening day, September 17, 2005, the four of us stood in the 600-square-foot café, smiling and ready to introduce to the world Din’s hand-crafted, medium-roasted coffee. I think we sold $57 worth of it that day. It’s gone up from there.
In the three years Ristretto Roasters has been open, the word about Din’s work; the philosophy of roasting each type of bean to the peak if its individual perfection – i.e., a Panama Honey is not an Ethiopian Harar, so why would you treat them the same? – has spread, through the city and beyond. The people who are coming into Ristretto’s orbit, the bean suppliers, the farmers, the cuppers, the roasters; the ever-expanding number of cafes that buy their beans from us – is extraordinary, making you realize what an enormously rich and exotic world is coffee, one we are privileged to be part of at this moment, when, at least in Portland and (slowly, slowly…) the rest of the nation, people are coming to appreciate how truly great their morning cup can be.