4 Unanticipated Ways Roasting Coffee Is Like Horseback Riding

Cream and sugar with that?

The entire coffee roaster looks a bit like a time machine ... so I took a photo of just the Dala horse decal on this big orange machine. Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

The entire coffee roaster looks a bit like a time machine … so I took a photo of just the Dala horse decal on this big orange monster. Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

Fun trivia fact about me: in my spare time when I’m not dishing up the latest and greatest horse news and humor for Horse Nation or actively taking care of my small herd of equines, I co-operate a small craft coffee roasting company with my sister-in-law. In the hours I’ve spent in the wee hours of the morning sitting next to the endless white noise of the roaster turning around and around, I’ve had plenty of time to muse over the art form of coffee roasting… and find plenty of parallels with the art form of horseback riding. You can take the horse girl out of the barn, but the barn has a way of cropping up in every other aspect of the horse girl’s life.

As if it’s not enough that our little company is already named after the Swedish dala horse, with our signature roasts called Workhorse, Darkhorse and Lighthorse, here are a few other totally-unexpected ways that roasting coffee is like horseback riding.

1. Things are seemingly needlessly expensive. I’m not going to throw out figures for how much was spent on the roaster itself, nor the 150-pound sacks of beans that we unceremoniously drag down to our roasting space every few weeks, but much in the same way that you’ve suddenly spent way more money in the tack shop than you thought was possible, coffee roasting is an expensive process. Okay, so you’re paying to import those beans from growing regions all over the world, much in the same way that the fancy new bit you wanted to try out had to be shipped in special from Europe … but if you, equestrians, have ever wondered just why things are so expensive, you’re not alone.

2. Furthering your education is critical for success. I love the question that crops up from time to time: “don’t you already know how to ride? Why do you still pay for lessons?” As all good equestrians know, there’s always more to learn, from reading discipline magazines to taking clinics from well-known trainers and judges, and the minute we think we know it all is the minute the horse teaches us a humbling lesson. Similarly, there’s a whole world for craft coffee roasting, from trade shows and seminars to internships and apprenticeships at well-known roasters. My coffee table (pun intended… I think) is piled high right now with back issues of two different roasting magazines — not to mention the horse magazines already collecting there as well.

3. Your car and your clothes develop a signature aroma. Halfway through my first year in my first career as a professional riding teacher and trainer, I stepped into my car on a winter’s evening and realized all in a single flash that I had developed the kind of horse-person car smell I had always coveted in other professionals’ vehicles. That’s perhaps a weird indicator that I was “making it” but that kind of combo scent of horse hair, arena dust, faint manure and dried sweat was a heady aroma that has never left the car since. The smell of the barn lingers in your hair, your skin, your clothing, your boots — you all know this. It’s one of the secret signs of our equestrian society and we’re proud of it.

Turns out, coffee roasting has its own aroma as well — and it’s not the nice “good morning” smell you might expect to receive when you first crack open a bag of your favorite roast. The smell of roasting coffee and the smoke that lifts off a batch when you first pull it out of the roaster defies description: it’s not at all similar to the smell of roasted, ground coffee but more of a burning vegetation smell. (Which makes sense, as the exhaust smoke is from an outer layer of the coffee bean heating up and then cracking off, burning slightly in the process.) Regardless of whether you love the roasting coffee smell or not, it lingers like campfire smoke in your clothing, hair and skin.

Since I am firmly ensconced in both the coffee and the equestrian world, imagine how delightful my car and clothing smell at the end of a day.

4. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, the process becomes more intuitive. When I was teaching horseback riding, one of the biggest joys came when students began to develop a sense of “feel,” or that nuanced, proactive timing that allowed them to make corrections and move with the horse without having to think about the basics of applying leg, steering or using their hands. While I know I have a long way to go as a coffee roaster, I’m starting to move past the point of following the basic rules of a roast recipe (“turn down the heat when the temperature reaches such-and-such a point”) and instead make decisions on timing and temperature based on experience and observation. Much like our riding becomes a source of joy and harmony when we work intuitively with the horse, our roasts are developing better body, color, aroma and flavor as we start trusting our instincts.

Horse Nation, you know I’ll always be able to draw a parallel between the horse world and whatever I’m working on at the moment (true story: I once compared handling a draft horse at halter to maneuvering a canoe) — I hope you find a little equestrianism in your day too!

Go coffee. Go riding.

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