Coffee is a staple in the diets of most college students. Whether it’s sipping on Pierce Brothers in Pi Café or chugging Starbucks DoubleShots before an exam, we consume it almost every day of our lives. We deem it necessary to start our mornings, we go out of our way to purchase it, and we suffer withdrawal symptoms when it’s not available. Let’s face it: coffee is the elixir of life.

For some, this beverage is simply a means to get through the day, but for others it is something entirely different. Or at least this is the case for Zen Roasters’ co-owner Nicole Schless and roastmaster Jonathan Spindel, who maintain that the act of roasting and brewing coffee is nothing less than an art.

“There is a simple way of doing this, and then there’s infinite levels of sophistication,” said Schless. After a two-hour interview last week at this roaster, an in-depth discussion exploring the science of making coffee, and seemingly endless samples of several varieties, trust us when we say that their roasting techniques are anything but simple.

Spindel, a Wesleyan alumnus from the Class of 2011, explained to us the details of coffee and gave us an exclusive demonstration of the roasting process. He started off by explaining how Zen Roasters imports approximately ten types of handpicked, ripe beans from small farms in third world countries around the equator, a warm, moist environment that allows the coffea plant to thrive. This plant produces tiny red berries, each containing two seeds in its center, which we recognize as coffee beans. There are different methods of pulping the fruit and washing the beans, and the approach varies depending on the bean harvester or manufacturer. In addition to washed beans, Zen Roasters stocks a substantial amount of naturally processed beans, which are not washed but instead have the fruit of the berry fermented and dried onto the bean.

“My favorite type of beans are naturally processed,” said Spindel. “They’re kind of funky looking because they have a crusty sheath, which is fruit matter. More fruit on the bean makes the coffee taste fruitier.”

Wait a second—fruity? Why would coffee taste fruity? We know this is kind of counterintuitive, but if you consider the way coffee is made then it totally makes sense. In our initial disbelief, he had us smell an assortment of naturally processed beans, which did, indeed, have subtle hints of lemon and passion fruit.

While pouring some beans into the magnificent drum-style roaster on display behind the coffee bar, Spindel proceeded to tell us about the importance of quality roasting in the coffee-making process.

“There are so many ways that coffee can be bad,” he said. For example, over-roasted beans often look black and taste like ash, like an overdone steak. In addition, it is important to roast the beans in small batches to make sure each individual bean is being sufficiently cooked. Zen Roasters takes all this into account, roasting all their beans only five pounds at a time, unlike other chain companies that roast in 100-pound increments. They also try to perform each roast with the goal of highlighting the bean’s natural flavors. A light roasting, for instance, brings out a much lighter, fruitier taste, while a dark roasting gives the beans a deep, rich, chocolate or caramel character. Another important note is the amount of time the roasted beans are allowed to sit before they are brewed. Zen Roasters really takes their time with their products, and waits at least a couple of days before brewing so that the beans can release a sufficient amount of carbon dioxide and achieve their peak flavor.

The beans at different stages of roasting                             (left = unroasted, right = roasted).

So, what’s the best way to drink coffee anyway? Light roast or dark roast? Cream and sugar or black? Hot or iced? According to the workers at Zen Roasters, it’s kind of up to you; there’s no “best” way. The roast really just depends on personal preference, and the temperature at which you want to drink it varies with the seasons. However, if you’re a true coffee connoisseur and want to really savor all the different flavors of the beans, here is a suggestion:

“You should drink coffee not too hot and preferably black,” Schless recommends. This how you’re going to be able to taste all the different flavors, because it removes the mask of cream and sugar and eliminates the risk of hot temperatures desensitizing your taste buds.

At first, lukewarm, unsweetened coffee didn’t sound too appetizing, but that all changed once we tried Zen Roasters premium-grade products. We tried the citrusy Santa Rita; the earthy, spicy Sumatra; and the Ethiopian Sidamo blend, which had both great depth and richness as well as light, fruity notes. If you think this sounds at all familiar to a wine tasting, you’re not alone. Like wine, coffee is one of the most complex things that we ingest, and it merits the same amount of scrutiny. Schless, for one, really appreciates the direction the coffee industry is headed.

Left: light roasted beans, Right: dark roasted beans

“We can thank Starbucks for starting the specialty coffee industry,” she noted. “Before then it was treated as a commodity and people thought it was gross. People weren’t really getting into it as much until these days.”

Don’t worry if you’re not a coffee expert. We aren’t either, but our fascinating conversation with the people at Zen Roasters was enough to get us hooked on the idea of java expertise. Just stop by their retail location on 180 Johnson Street in Middletown and Nicole and Jonathan would be more than happy to talk to you. Or, you can attend one of their coffee tastings or coffee classes, which are going to start running very soon. Also be sure to keep an eye out for “roast your own” events, where you can pick your blend of beans, watch them roast, and bag them up as gifts for the holidays.

The workers at Zen Roasters are really hoping to expand their business to the Wesleyan community, and they will welcome any student who wants to just hang out and refuel on caffeine. The store features a lounging area complete with WiFi, a coffee bar in front of the roaster, and the most adorable dog you’ve ever seen in your life. Come down with a few friends, some homework, and maybe a mug. It’s a very relaxing environment and a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Main Street.

“We’re excellent hanger-outers, but we’re also really good at making coffee,” joked Schless. Even if the store is a little out of your way, you can still get Zen Roasters signature coffees at NoRA Cupcake Company, Luce, or at the Wesleyan farmers market every Wednesday. We’re also pretty excited about the prospect of “Buzz Bikes,” where Zen Roasters employees attach pots of their coffee to bicycles and ride around campus selling cups to students. It’s like an eco-friendly food truck! We’re definitely going to start keeping cash in our pockets for this one.

Jonathan Spindel (left), Nicole Schless (right)

Coffee plays a huge role in our lives, and it’s incredibly interesting to get a new perspective on it from the only roaster in Middletown. It’s also really nice to take a break from our usual morning pick-me-ups at Pi Café or Brew Bakers and experience a cup of gourmet coffee that has been carefully selected, roasted, and brewed to ensure the highest quality possible. Although they’ve only been located in town for less than a year, we foresee great things coming from Zen Roasters, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it became the new Wesleyan hot spot.

-Alex & Ari