David’s favorite is light, with floral highlights and lingering citrus. Stephen’s is smooth and rich, with a darker profile of chocolate and blueberries — in fact, the blueberry notes are so strong that he says, “if you don’t pick up on them, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.”
For the uninitiated, these descriptions sound reminiscent of the slightly esoteric qualities of fine wines. In fact, David and Stephen quite unfeignedly apply them to Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Ethiopian Harrar, two single-origin blends that they roast in their compact set-up using a roaster that reminds one of nothing so much as a slightly confused Little Engine that Could.
Roasting up to four thousand pounds per week, all packed by hand (with the help of two quick-on-their-feet assistants), and delivering to coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and subscribers near and far, Richmond’s premier coffee sommeliers do their best to cultivate a coffee experience that will have their fans noting subtle hints of cinnamon or rich, plummy notes in no time.
Defining the Blanchard’s Experience
In his ball cap and t-shirt, hefting totes full of green coffee beans, David Blanchard’s first impression is of rough-and-ready practicality. Beneath the surface, though, is a coffee Romantic.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always found the romantic side of coffee appealing. In my family, conversation and connection always happened around coffee — from a young age, my vivid childhood memories were formed in the context of that intoxicating aroma.”
Given this background, it’s no wonder that the story of Blanchard’s creation is one of daring and risk, passion and reward. Almost seven years ago to the day, after he had completed just three days of training in the art of roasting, David’s wife let him sell her car so he could buy a roaster and get started.
When asked if he was worried about not having experience before making such a big decision, David smiles gamely: “no, coffee roasting isn’t really that hard. There’s a low barrier to entry, but then you have to give it your soul..”
So, since that first batch of Yirgacheffe in 2005, David seems to have worked with tireless joy in the aromas of roasting beans. When he met Stephen Robertson — another coffee fanatic — they knew immediately they’d be the perfect business team.
Science and Art
Stephen jokes that the standard workday at Blanchard’s is simple: “We roast coffee and try to avoid burning things down.”
Despite the casual atmosphere, when beans are in the roaster, Stephen and David work with the concentration of scientists waiting for the results of a breakthrough experiment. Given that Blanchard’s primary commitment and trademark is a consistent bag of coffee beans, this isn’t surprising.
The size of the batch, the weather outside, the beans themselves, and the type of roast (light, dark, or somewhere in between) can all impact the length of the process, so David emphasizes that using one’s “ears, nose, and eyes” becomes critical to the process. Still, the basics of coffee roasting at Blanchard’s are basically the same 15-to-20 minute cycle repeated throughout the day:
Pour the beans into the top of the roaster, from which they drop into a rotating drum with tines that keep the beans moving at a consistent rate over the flames beneath.
Because the beans are largely hidden from sight inside the roaster, much of the process depends on careful listening. The roaster increases the heat of the beans at a controlled rate, until at 380 degrees the water in the cells begins to boil, causing a “first crack,” a popcorn-popping sound that’s audible above the clothes-dryer drone of the drum.
From there, the temperature continues to rise, and David listens for the “second crack.” From there, he’ll determine how much longer the beans need to stay over the flames to reach 450 degrees.
Once 450 degrees is reached, the coffee beans are dropped, in a gush of steam and heady aroma, out of the roaster into a sifter with a rotating arm. Depending on the darkness of the roast, they may be light and dry, or nearly black and glistening with oils released in the roasting process.
Once they’re roasted, the beans are packed by hand into individual bags to be sent to Blanchard’s lovers far and wide.
Local and Sustainable
Clearly the coffee at Blanchard’s isn’t strictly local; it’s coming in from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Still, the guys make their best effort to buy Fair Trade and Organic coffee beans whenever possible.
They also make good use of the nearly 20 pounds of chaff that result from each roast. A collector attached to the roaster collects the peripheral material, which can be donated to local farms for use in aeration. Right now, the chaff from your favorite bag of coffee is probably being used to grow hops for a local beer (Hardywood) in Richmond.
And when you’re done with that bag, don’t forget to recycle or compost it — they’ve got that base covered too.
The primary argument for local coffee at Blanchard’s, though, comes back to romance for Stephen. “Above all, we’re creating a special product and an experience. If we had a choice, everyone who drinks Blanchard’s would drink it with another coffee lover for the first time. That way, there’s a memory tied to the flavor.”
After hearing these guys talk about coffee, your blogging correspondent — a life-long coffee avoider — was almost convinced to buy a bag herself! They make an excellent case for coffee-making as a culinary art, a foodie science, and a lifelong passion.