Hanging by the front counter of Ashland’s Noble Coffee Roasting is their latest medal as winner of the Good Food Award, which they say is the Oscar of coffee roasters for the entire nation — and one they’ve taken home six of the last eight years.
The Railroad District coffee house and roaster received its latest Good Food Award on Friday in San Francisco. This is more awards than any other coffee company in the country has received in the history of the program. Three such awards are made in the categories of beer, cider, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, coffee, confections, preserved fish, honey, oils pantry, pickles, preserves, spirits, and elixirs for each of five regions of the U.S. Noble and two others got the top award for the Pacific Northwest. Noble was the only winner in Oregon.
“I frankly can’t believe it” says Noble founder and CEO Jared Rennie. “This is a blind tasting by industry experts and anyone with high quality coffee is submitting. It’s really competitive. They score for a range of qualities, such as body, sweetness acidity, balance and overall flavor.”
Noble has been a finalist in the competition eight times, more than anyone else. They won this time with their Ethiopian Bishan Fugu. Last year, two of their Ethiopian beans each won the prize. Roasters are allowed to submit two entries each year.
Coffee roasters, like winemakers, have their own language to describe the flavors and feel of their favorite beans. Sampling a cup at the giant new training room adjacent to the coffee house, Rennie describes this year’s winner as “both elegant and complex, smells like wildflowers, grape jelly, very full-bodied, finishes with a nice cocoa flavor.”
Like previous champion beans, it’s available by the cup at the front counter.
Winning ribbons in blind tastings year after year is no accident and Rennie attributes it to using only organic beans — and to seeking out and developing personal relationships with growers in Central and South America and Africa who eschew monocrop farming, letting their bean bushes grow, unsprayed, in a state of nature and harvesting them by hand.
The market is depressed now, with regular old beans going for $1.21 a pound, but Rennie notes that, regardless of markets, they choose only growers who are environmentally sound, and support gender equity, health care and education of employees, with no child labor.
“There aren’t many of them out there, but we do find them,” he says. He also serves as a judge in the prestigious Cup of Excellence awards program, which evaluates producers — and gives him the opportunity to meet the ones who share his goals.
As a result, he regularly pays three to four times the fair trade price for beans.
Organic is more healthful, since it doesn't have pesticide or herbicide residue, but many people believe organic doesn’t taste as good, a misconception Rennie works to get rid of, he says. On a deeper level, organic is critical because coffee (along with cotton) is the crop most heavily laden with chemicals in the whole world.
“We’re trying to change that and be a pioneer in the industry. We’re trying to prove to the industry and customers that they can do excellent coffee without doing harm. In my travels (to growers), I’ve found that every producer will talk quality and responsibility, but not many can back it up.”
Pointing to rows of bags in his roastery, Rennie says, “To win in the Good Food competition, you have to have a fantastic relationship so you’re sourcing the best green beans and then, in those bags (of beans) is the potential. Our roasters pay a lot of attention. Six of our 20 employees do roasting. We are considered a micro-roaster. We do everything by hand in 20-pound batches, 1,500 pounds a week.”
In addition, he teaches a four-class education series at $25 a class, open to anyone, but free to his wholesale partners. It covers coffee chemistry, biology, history, roasting, strength, brewing, tasting, espresso, steaming and, of course, latte art.
Rennie, on his website, noblecoffeeroasting.com, says he’s worked hard to educate people in Southern Oregon about his practices, noting, “There are lines out the door almost every morning and you’ll find Noble Coffee on the tables in the Rogue Valley’s finest restaurants, in the rooms at the fanciest hotels, and in many of the local markets and grocery stores.”
Rennie tries to use or recycle everything in the process and that includes the fruit that encases the coffee bean (it’s really a seed, not a bean). It’s pleasant tasting and has caffeine, though much less than the bean. So, Rennie makes a drink with it, adding lemon juice and agave, then carbonating it. It’s delicious, kind of like kombucha and, like kombucha, packs a tiny buzz.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.