All week, we're bringing you stories from Dallas' burgeoning roasting community. See other entries from the series in our coffee archive.
Kevin Betts and Ryan Smith are chasing the perfect cup. This never-ending pursuit eventually pulled these two brothers-in-law into forming Novel Coffee.
Both have been involved in the coffee industry for several years but began home roasting separately. Betts would buy 10 pounds of green coffee and meticulously explore every permutation possible, while Smith's approach was more about trying as many different coffees from as many different sources as he could find. Andrea, Smith's wife and Bett's sister, suggested that perhaps it was time they work together to build a company. One day, while cupping an Ethiopian Natural, they decided to make her suggestion a reality.
Smith says it was a slippery slope that started with a love of coffee and resulted in a full-blown business. "You make something in your home and think, 'Wow, this is really great,' and the next thing you want to do is share that with everyone you know," he says. "It wasn't a business model in search of a craft; it was a craft in search of an outlet."
The name Novel rose to the top of a long text thread comprised of potential names. They had been looking for something was simple and thoughtful without being too cute. "There is a little bit of a double meaning with the name," Smith says. "On one hand, our coffee program is constantly renewing itself as new coffees become available throughout the year. Then there is the novel as in storytelling. We really wanted to put the idea that coffee has a story to tell at the center of our brand. We want people to understand how the story of a farm affects the flavor in the cup."
Smith's inclination to try as many coffees from many sources as possible serves him well as Novel's green coffee buyer. He works closely with a variety of people on the ground at the places of origin. "Logistically it would be easier to have one importer that supplied us with everything, but I look for people that have good relationships in their respective regions so we can be closer to the coffee and identify the most spectacular coffees for sale that season."
Once Smith has picked the coffee lots that Novel will offer, Betts gets to work with the roaster. While Novel is focused on the sensory experience in the cup, Kevin pairs that with a lot of data points during the roasting process to provide feedback about what is going on with the coffee.
"What's amazing is that you get very little feed back from the roaster, basically temperature, time, color, and smell," he says. "So you have to read between the lines to figure out what physical and chemical processes are happening in real time. How quickly you do certain things during a roast catalyzes certain reactions at the expense of others." Betts' meticulous data collection allows him to look back after tasting a particularly good cup and see exactly what he did to bring out those qualities in the coffee. "I'm just trying to understand all the different components to green coffee and how they react with each other to achieve a certain flavor. So it isn't just a matter of loading the coffee in, turning it up, and cooking it. It is more about figuring out the role I play in balancing the proportion of certain reactions to achieve the profile I want."
Don't mistake Novel's coffee geekery with snobbery. They aren't trying to talk you out of you cream or sugar, but instead hope you discover something new and unexpected from their coffee. Instead of a balanced cup, Novel hopes you get dimension in their coffee. " Often when people talk about balance, what they really mean is safe. What we really want a coffee that has a dynamic range and lights up the tongue from front to back. A coffee that is clean and vibrant with all the elements working together.
Novel's attention to detail means they hand sort their coffee after roasting, a move which has received some flack from others in the industry who perceive this step as too laborious or a reflection of the quality of their beans. But Betts and Smith aren't worried about what others think. "There are certain defects that won't surface until the coffee has been roasted and if we got that in our cup we would both be so disappointed. So how can we pass that on to other people?"
Here in the Dallas area, Novel is available in shops like Method, State Street Coffee, and Roots. They have also gained some fans in the Northeast, even being served alongside beans from George Howell, which the pair considers a great honor.
Even though they are relatively new, what keeps Novel going is what got them into roasting in the first place. "We are never satisfied with what we are doing," Betts says. "We are always trying to get better. I love that there is never 'an answer.' By the time we feel like we are getting close to figuring out a coffee it is usually time to move on to something different. Coffee is such an extremely complicated beverage and I think the industry in the beginning stages of figuring out how it works, and it is exciting to be a part of that."