Working for beans

Mocha Joe’s celebrates 20 years in a changing business

BRATTLEBORO — Gourmet coffee was a relatively exotic thing in Brattleboro in the fall of 1991.

Pierre Capy and Ellen Tucker set out to change that when they transformed Joe DeAngelis' shoe repair shop in the basement of 82 Main St. into a coffee house.

In honor of the previous tenant, the couple named it Mocha Joe's.

On Dec. 2, the coffee house celebrated its 20th anniversary by rolling coffee prices back to 1991 levels, giving customers slices of birthday cake (with mocha crème frosting, of course), and hosting an open house at its roasting facility at 181 Main St.

Capy, a native of Brattleboro, and Tucker, picked up their coffee expertise in the 1980s working for the Coffee Connection, a Boston-based roaster and retailer.

Capy's mother convinced him that the time was ripe for a specialty coffee house in Brattleboro and, after sampling the brews available in town, they opened Mocha Joe's.

“Starbucks was still a West Coast thing back then,” Capy said. “Those were the days when no one in town knew what a cappuccino was. Every latte was an education.”

When Mocha Joe's first started, Capy said he got his coffees from Coffee Connection. But when its founder, George Howell, sold the chain to Starbucks in 1994, Capy had to find a new coffee source.

That source turned out to be Capy himself.

He started the Mocha Joe's Roasting Co., and made his own coffee for the store. Later, as the word spread about the quality of his beans, Capy started to sell them to other retailers around New England.

The roasting business has grown to the point where it now provides about three-quarters of Mocha Joe's annual revenues. Twenty employees work in the roasting operation, which now sells to more than 100 wholesale customers nationwide.

“Quality is what has kept us in business,” said Capy.

He said he learned a lot from Howell, whom many credit with kickstarting the specialty coffee movement in the Boston area.

Capy has continued that education by traveling around the world in search of better coffee, often directly from the farmers.

This system, known as direct trade, bypasses the usual coffee supply chain. Capy directly negotiates with growers, who set the price independent of the commodities markets.

While Mocha Joe's offers help during the various stages of growing and processing coffee, the farmers have no contractual agreement to sell to Capy.

As a result, Capy said, the farmers have more control over what they earn, while Mocha Joe's has more control over the quality of the product.

Cameroon and Nicaragua are two countries where Capy is buying coffee under this arrangement.

Last winter, Capy and his family lived in Cameroon to oversee the harvest, milling, and export process, and to improve it where needed.

In Nicaragua, Mocha Joe's has worked with farmers and cooperatives to upgrade processing and packaging to keep coffee fresher, and more marketable, for longer periods.

Capy said that Kenya is his favorite country for coffee right now, and India is starting to become a coffee-growing country to be reckoned with.

The perfect cup

Given the 1,600 chemical components found in coffee, it takes a special touch to find the right beans, roast them properly, and get them into the hands of consumers at the peak of flavor.

Joceyln Peknik, the head roaster at Mocha Joe's, oversees the roasting of about 500 pounds of coffee per day.

Green beans go into the Probat roaster, a rickety-looking piece of German-made machinery that dates back to the 1920s, and was refurbished by Capy.

It takes about a half hour for the gas-fired roaster to heat to the proper temperature, about 500 degrees.

On a computer screen, Peknik monitors the roasting process, adjusting the heat and air flow as needed while the beans are spun over the roaster's burners and begin to crack.

For a light-roasted coffee, it takes about 15 minutes to complete the roasting process.

When the beans are ready, the roaster is emptied and the coffee cools on a metal tray with a spinning arm.

While green coffee can keep for up to two years, the shelf life for roasted coffee is short. Ari Reis, the sales manager for Mocha Joe's, said that after two to three weeks, the coffee's flavor begins to deteriorate.

As for brewing coffee, Reis said that freshly ground coffee should be used within 15 minutes. He prefers the infusion method of brewing, where hot water (198 degrees, just shy of boiling temperature) is gently poured over the grounds.

He said that he doesn't mind the French press method of steeping the grounds, but he definitely objects to auto drip coffee makers, especially their heating plates.

Leaving coffee in a heated coffee pot will destroy the coffee flavor in minutes. If you must use one to brew your coffee, Reis suggests using a thermal carafe to hold the coffee and keep it warm.

The last holdout

The sight of people pecking away at their laptops in a coffee shop is a common one. But not at Mocha Joe's. Capy was adamant about not having wi-fi in his coffee shop.

“I was the last holdout,” he said. “I wanted to have a place where people came together and talked, and were not engrossed in their screens. But everyone wanted it, and I aged out of the argument.”

This year, Mocha Joe's got wi-fi. But the small, cozy coffee shop has lost little of its vibe as a result; you'll find more readers than screen gazers. The pastry case next to the front counter, a prominent feature of Mocha Joe's since it opened, is still filled with treats. And the coffees remain varied and flavorful.

And although Capy spends more time in the roasting facility now than the coffee house, he sees his role as “making sure the quality of the coffee is excellent, and the equipment is working.”

“I'm not burned out on this yet,” he said.

“My goal has never been to please everybody,” Capy continued. “Our role has been to make the best quality coffee we can and educate people's palates along the way.

“Over the last 20 years, people have learned about what good coffee is, how to prepare it properly, and how to enjoy it,” he said. “We wouldn't have been able to have been around this long without the people who really enjoy a good cup of coffee.”

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