Every coffee has a story, and so do the people who make it. We asked head roaster, seminary student and Georgia Bulldog Nathan Fields to tell his.
Word on the street is you’re a big fan of motorcycles. Is that true?
Yes, I ride a 1978 Honda CB750. I've always wanted a motorcycle my whole life, but my parents were afraid I was going to wreck, so they never let me get one. When I was sixteen years old, I had already picked out my dream bike — a Triumph — and when I was finally old enough to make my own decisions and I was financially capable of purchasing a bike, I did. Honda’s CB line is known for riding forever and moving easily, but this bike shut down a week after I bought it and would not run at all.
So, I bought a membership at this local place called Standard Motorcycle Company. I knew absolutely nothing about engines or mechanics, so working alongside a couple of the guys in the shop who were experts helped me learn a little along the way. They also helped bring my bike back to life. I kind of knew this — it’s one of those things you look back on and say “that makes sense” — but I like taking things apart and putting them back together.
I’ve taken apart some dead coffee grinders sitting in Barnie's warehouse at work and was able to get them running again. If I can trust my life with this motorcycle, I can take apart a grinder.
Was this position with Barnie’s Coffee your first time roasting on a production scale?
Oh, it was the first time on anything past amateur roasting. I had visited Honduras a couple of years prior, and a friend who works at a coffee processing plant there had given me 60 pounds of coffee. I’d only asked for a small bag, and she came back with all this green coffee. But I took it home anyway and figured out how to roast on a little popcorn popper in my backyard. Looking back on it, I did pretty well. I had no idea what I was doing at all, but that got me moving in the direction of coffee roasting. I was already in the coffee world professionally, but that’s what piqued my interest.
What place did you have in the coffee world before taking up coffee roasting?
I started with Barnie’s Coffee & Tea Co. in Winter Park, where I worked for six months as a barista at their Park Avenue location. My coffee knowledge grew exponentially in those six months. I moved on to another local shop called Downtown Credo, where I worked for about a year and a half. It was great because while Barnie’s got me used to serve in a high-volume environment, Downtown Credo was a more intimate setting, and I could apply the knowledge I gained at Barnie’s to autopilot high quality at a fast pace and focus on refining my customer service skills. I moved pretty quickly into a management position there and soon after I took over running their flagship shop in College Park. Shortly after that, Dustin approached me and offered the roasting position here at Barnie’s. And here I am.
What was your life like before coffee? What were your interests and passions?
I wanted to go into service missions. Specifically, I saw myself working with orphans overseas, but the more I learned about the larger world and the systems within it, the more I saw coffee as a gateway to less fortunate areas of the world, even the ones in your backyard, so to speak. You can have an impact through coffee wherever you serve it — economically, relationally, etc. But you can also have an impact thousands of miles away by sourcing ethically and appropriately. Discovering that duality in coffee’s larger story is what helped transition me away from the idea of “formal” missions and into the coffee world.
What does Barnie’s Coffee & Tea do differently than other roasters that you can see the benefits from every day?
I’ve been here just over a year, and in the first nine-and-a-half to ten months I was just spending 40 hours a week learning the craft of roasting. For the past two to three months I’ve been taking over the green buying process, so now I’m the one who picks which coffees we’re going to bring in-house and in what quantities. Last April I went to the SCA Expo in Boston to meet new importers and establish some relationships, and I met some new Ethiopian importers who have direct connections with ten different local farms. It’s their first time importing into the United States, so we’re able to help those Ethiopian importers by building that relationship, who will in turn directly benefit those Ethiopian farmers. And it doesn't hurt that it’s just really good coffee.
As a green buyer, where are your favorite regions to look for the next great coffee?
My personal all-time favorite is always going to be Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. It holds a special place in my heart because trying that origin was my introduction to specialty coffee. It tasted like a blueberry muffin exploding in my mouth, and it was great. Other than that, my favorite coffee to the source is the Sumatra we have at Barnie’s Coffee & Tea. We also have a great Costa Rica we’ve brought in.