We wrapped up the year with a trip to Winchester, Virginia to visit Lone Oak Coffee Company, owned and operated by coffee aficionado Sam Kayser. You might remember Sam from our visit to Bicycles and Coffee in Purcellville last June, or as the roaster for our favorite shop here in Leesburg, King Street Coffee. We were intrigued by Sam’s story and his undeniable love of all things coffee, so we scheduled a trip to his roastery to focus in on him and his craft.
We arrived to old town Winchester in the afternoon and easily found the location, a one-level, converted auto shop. We knew that what LOCC might lack in curb appeal, they make up for in a quality product. The shop was spacious and full of light, and through recent renovations to transform the industrial building into a home for his roastery, it was clear Sam had bigger plans in the works for his new space.
Sam’s love of good coffee started with a cup of Intelligentsia, gifted by a friend. He still remembers the feeling he got when he took his first sip of the Rwandan blend:
“I didn’t know something so familiar could taste so foreign”
All of us can remember a similar experience when we learned that good coffee meant more than a bitter, scalding hot caffeine bomb to our system. In fact, my own realization of this was brought on by the subtle flavors of Sam’s roast.
Spurred on by a high-caliber bean, Sam started using his spare funds purchasing coffee and equipment to experiment with at home. His interest in brewing a quality cup for himself would unexpectedly turn into a career. While working in construction, he joined a band that would practice in a coffee shop and roastery. He quickly became intrigued by the intricacies of the roasting process and signed on as apprentice to the owner. Sam has now been roasting professionally for five years and recently moved into this larger space to accommodate his growing business. His new space in Winchester will allow him to add another roaster to his equipment, supply more shops, and host educational tastings, or “cuppings” for the enjoyment of the amateur and seasoned coffee connoisseur alike.
To our surprise, we were treated to a cupping of our own during our visit. A true craftsman, Sam was experimenting with a current roast to see if he couldn’t improve upon the flavor by tweaking the roasting time. Taking the beans out of the roaster at intervals of 15-20 seconds, he brewed four very distinct cups for us to slurp, which is honestly the only way to describe the tasting process. In a matter of seconds, the flavor went from bright to fruity, then full-bodied to dull and bitter. Sam would (and can) be much more descriptive about the flavor transformations. He even goes so far as to sample interesting and new foods in his spare time, specifically aiming to expand his palate to better discern the flavor profiles of his roasts. It is clear that Sam is constantly pushing himself to elevate his product, whether he is reading and researching his craft or fine-tuning his process through hands-on trial and error.
Our time at LOCC was a true education and we were grateful for a small peek into the complexity of roasting. Despite all that we learned during our afternoon there, it was the personality behind the roasting that stood out to us most. In the months since we interviewed Sam for this post, one phrase has repeated itself over again in my mind:
“Coffee is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be good at.”
What I would give for that level of certainty in my life! Sam possesses both the self awareness to know what his passion is, and the confidence to fully pursue it. It is rare to stumble upon someone who is so clear about their purpose, especially in their twenties. It’s this clarity paired with Sam’s near-obsession with mastering his craft that elevates him from roaster to craftsman. Take one look at his awards and nominations, and you’ll realize that the greater roasting community has caught on.
Two of Sam’s coffees received bronze medals at the annual Golden Bean coffee roasting competition and conference, his “Base Espresso” and “Kenya AA”. These were chosen out of nearly 700 entries from over 250 roasters in North America. During our visit, Sam mentioned he would soon compete at the U.S. Coffee Champs Regional Roasters Competition. He pointed out the bag containing his “blind” sample of beans needing to be roasted, which would later be brewed and cupped in Knoxville by four judges. We would later find out that LOCC placed fifth out of that group. He was judged on the quality of the roast and the taste characteristics of the brewed coffee, as well as a presentation during the cupping that would highlight the flavor notes, exhibiting his knowledge of green coffee. His success in the competition came as no surprise to either of us.
By finishing in fifth place, Sam qualified to compete in the National Coffee Champs Roasters Competition that will be held in Seattle during the Specialty Coffee Association Expo, April 21-23, 2017. Even more impressive, only the top 12 coffee roasters in the USA are able to compete. You can, and should, follow Sam’s journey via the Lone Oak Coffee Company Facebook and Instagram.
Thank you, Sam, for having the patience and kindness to spend your afternoon with two people who simply “like coffee”. More than being impressed with your work, we were inspired by someone with the courage to build a life around a passion. Best of luck next month!
*Written while enjoying several cups of Lone Oak, of course.