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Iowa coffee roaster takes craft to new level

Iowa coffee roaster takes craft to new level

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WAVERLY, Iowa – Move over craft beer. There’s a new beverage brewing on the local scene.

Craft coffee is energizing java enthusiasts — like Erik Johnson of Waverly — to create their own coffee blends at home using a delicate roasting process.

“You can totally screw up a great coffee by poorly roasting it, and you can take a mediocre coffee and bring it to its highest heights,” Johnson said.

Over the last decade Johnson has grown and matured his roasting techniques. The craftsmanship behind each cup of the centuries-old beverage considers the flavor and origin of each bean.

Along with his wife, Becky, the pair are sharing their creations with other coffee lovers at Thinkwell, an online ordering system where customers can purchase customized coffee beans.

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Erik holds two of the coffee bean types that he roasts, Tanzania Peaberry, left, and Congo regular prep.

Roasting raw coffee beans, also called green beans, physically and chemically changes their properties, which affects the aroma and flavor. Based on the belief coffee is an art and roasting is a skill, each batch is roasted differently and the final temperature is recorded.

“With each batch I am activating a part of my brain, my mind, my spirit that is creating,” Johnson said.

When ordering a particular style of coffee, the customer – whether they know it or not – is choosing coffee beans with a specific origin and roast temperature. For most mainstream coffee shops, roast styles are referred to as “light, medium or dark,” but not at Thinkwell.

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A timer and thermometer help Erik judge when to end a batch to meet the desired flavor.

Instead, it’s all about the finish temperature, which tells a story on its own. It’s the temperature recorded when a batch of beans is finished roasting. That number then becomes part of the batch’s name along with the beans’ country of origin. 418 Honduras signifies a darker coffee, while 391 Burundi refers to a lighter coffee.

For coffee aficionados, it’s easy to hone in on preferred tastes. For beginners, the website offers a survey to help customers find a blend that suits them best at thinkwell.coffee/customorder.

Typical coffee shop operations rely on replicating the flavor so the customer knows exactly what they’re getting.

“Ours is the exact opposite of that. Each batch is unique,” he said. “Even if I try to roast it the same way two times in a row, it’s not going to taste the same. It’s going to be in the ballpark and most people won’t notice that and that’s fine, but at the heart of it, it’s not the same.”

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Erik uses a sample spoon, known as a trier, to observe a roast in progress as he monitors for change in color, aroma and other characteristics.

Erik began roasting coffee beans at home in an old popcorn popper about 10 years ago.

“When I found out I could roast at home a light bulb turned on in my head,” he said.

For the next several years, he acquired more knowledge and experience by working everywhere from small coffee shops to wholesale operations before turning his passion into a business.

In 2017, the Johnsons purchased Duos Coffee and Ice Cream at 805 W. Bremer Ave. They slowly began blending their coffee expertise — roasting their own beans and eventually dropping the ice cream – with Duos’ menu. In 2020, they changed the name to Thinkwell. Then COVID-19 hit.

“Overnight we had to re-create ourselves again,” Johnson said.

Restrictions meant to mitigate the coronavirus spread meant more ordering online and reducing contact with customers, so they quickly remodeled part of their home into a roasting studio and developed an online presence.

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Each batch is marked with bean type and ending temperature, two of the many elements that contribute to a batch's flavor.

Customers can order customized coffee beans through the website www.thinkwell.coffee or the Waverly Farmers Market website www.waverlyiafarmersmarket.com. For those who prefer the coffee shop atmosphere and wish to converse with the roasters about coffee and life, Johnson and his coffee can be found at The Junkery pop-up shop at 98 E. Bremer Ave. from 4 to 8 p.m. every Thursday.

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