Clay Eiland Is the Veteran Roaster of Dallas' Coffee Scene, and He's Not Slowing Down

All week, we're bringing you stories from Dallas' burgeoning roasting community. See other extended interviews in our coffee archive, or see them all in one place in this week's feature story, "Roasting Dallas."

Clay Eiland talks about his roaster with the beaming face of a dad describing his four-year-old's soccer goal. But unlike that goal, this roaster is deserving of the pride: It's a Probat UG22, out of production and much sought after among roasters. Eiland jumped on the chance to own one of his own when it popped up for sale a few years ago. He is a gadget guy at heart, always on looking for the finest coffee equipment, and the Probat is clearly his most prized instrument.

Eiland is the roasting game's seasoned vet: He's been selling Eiland Coffee Roasters coffee for a decade in a half. During that time, he has seen trends come and go and come back again, but also many gradual shifts, such as an seeing industry that leaned heavily on flavored coffees and very dark roasts give way to much lighters roasts and an increased interest in espresso.

"In 1999 I visited Café Vita in Seattle and had my eyes opened to what coffee could be," he says. "I will never forget my wife's face as she drank her coffee and realized that she didn't need or want sugar added, that it was great as is. They were doing so many interesting things up there with roasting and pulling shots and preparing drinks. I was really inspired to bring those things back home to Dallas."

Eiland roasts for shops like the much loved Murray Street Coffee in Deep Ellum, creates custom blends for businesses of all sizes, and sells directly to the public out of his small roastery in Richardson. In addition to roasting coffee, he sells coffee brewing equipment, some of his current favorites being Brazen for home brewing and Synesso for commercial espresso machines. Through it all, he has come to realize that everything old is new again.

"Everything is cyclical," he says. "The main thing new innovation allows us to do is focus on precision and repeatability, which is an exciting thing to bring to customers."

Eiland's favorite part of the job is helping customers and clients find the right coffee and brewing method for them. This often involves getting to the heart of what a customer truly likes about their coffee.

"When people come in and say, 'I only like French Roast because I don't get flavor,' I try to figure out what is really going on there," he says. "Do they truly like to taste the roast? Or do they want their coffee to actually taste like something beyond the roast? Usually it is the latter." So Eiland will then give the customer a few suggestions on bean and brewing technique and send them on their way. "When a customer comes back the next week and says they never knew a cup of coffee could taste so good, that always makes my day. To be part of someone's morning ritual and see their face light up when they talk about my coffee -- it brings a lot of satisfaction."

Eiland also weighed in on the variety of roasters in Dallas and where he sees his place in that spectrum. "We've gone lighter over the last 7-8 years. I wouldn't say we are light though," he says. "I hear people say we roast dark and that isn't true. I prefer to focus on body and sweetness instead the high notes that come out of really light roasting."

Eiland believes there is plenty of room for specialty coffee to grow in Dallas and hopes his body focused roasts will continue to find an increasing number of coffee drinkers that respond well to his style.

In addition to his daily responsibilities, Eiland recently took the time to become a Q Grader, which can only be attained after passing a rigorous weeklong 20-section exam on a variety of subjects related to coffee, most of which are related to palate. Types of exams included identifying different acids by taste, grading coffees within 1 point (out of 100 possible) of the instructor, and determining the level of sweet, sour, and salt that are simultaneously in several solutions. He was the only person to pass the test that week, he says; only 5 to 10 percent pass on their first try.

Eiland has also seen the growth of transparency in the industry, but he knows more is needed.

"Back when I started buying green coffee, there wasn't any transparency," he says. "We didn't know if the farmer was being paid a fair wage. Now you can put a face to the farm and know what they are being paid. When you pay the farmer a premium for a quality product you aren't doing them a favor. They have something you want, you need, you covet. Ideally, it is a transaction in which both parties benefit. Where we really need to get to as an industry is ongoing multiyear relationships between roasters and farmers so there is a commitment on both ends to sustainability."

Eiland says he looks forward to expanding their farmer relationships and hope to open their own shop in coming years. "I've have more questions today than I did 15 years ago," he says. "The more I learn the more questions I have. And that is really a really exciting way to spend each day."