A year ago, Jesse Nelson was just a home-roasting coffee geek with big dreams. In a matter of months, Nelson rented a windowless studio in the back of a ramshackle motorcycle shop in Fremont, bought a shiny new Diedrich coffee roaster, and went to work on the arduous task of turning some sketches and tasting notes into his own little business. Now, four months after Conduit Coffee Company opened, Nelson is living the dream: supplying his single-origin and espresso blend to a handful of cafes and grocers around town and single-handedly caffeinating the Fremont Sunday Market's shoppers.
Nelson's 284-square-foot workshop is his office, his art studio, his chemistry lab, and his church. He even sleeps on the couch from time to time. To say that Conduit is his labor of love is a colossal understatement.
Watching Nelson work with Kushli--the name he's bestowed on this beautiful Diedrich roaster--is a little like watching a romantic interlude, and not just because he readily admits to kissing her from time to time. On a normal work day, he starts roasting around 11 a.m. The magic happens in less than 15 short minutes: a batch (generally five pounds, though Kushli can handle up to 10) of pale green, rock hard beans are dumped in the top; switches are flipped, knobs are twisted, and Nelson performs his delicate dance to control the temperature that's applied to the beans at certain intervals to bring out subtleties in the beans; those little green pebbles turn a beautiful, earthy brown and start to audibly pop, a process called the first crack that signifies this single-origin from Guatemala is nearly done. When Nelson decides the beans are done, he pulls a lever and they spill out onto the cooling tray, where he personally combs through the batch with his hands and pulls out any misshapen or poorly roasted specimens--his own quality control.
Conduit's beans come from an importer who specializes in Central and Latin American coffee. They're not certified organic or fair-trade, though Nelson disparages the benefits of both--these farmers may not have the money to get certified, but they produce excellent beans. "The bottom line is you can't have a really exquisite product if you abuse the land," he says. "There's a lot of care and appreciation. That's very important to me. I think if you just put love into it, you get the best coffee regardless."
Love is something Nelson has in spades. When talking about Conduit, a name he came up with because "as soon as you think you know everything about coffee, you don't know anymore," he speaks a lot in the royal "we," though it's really just him, in his cozy closet of a studio, listening to KEXP and alternating between roasting and tasting. Sure, his girlfriend helps with bookkeeping and his friends come over to help him hand-stamp and bag the beans, but Nelson's the guy roasting and tasting his product, the guy delivering orders to Ken's Market uphill by bike, the guy manning the Fremont Sunday Market booth (and occasionally working the bar at the kiosk), and the guy answering customer emails and wholesale inquiries. He's also the guy experimenting with his fledgling company's product, something he says he can do because they're so nimble. "It's really fun to play with this stuff," he says. "We're small enough and have a small enough clientele that there's not a huge impact if I screw up."
But don't expect Nelson to screw up anytime soon. His attention to detail has led to an exponential increase in demand over the last four months, and if his lively Espresso Locofocos wins next weekend's America's Best Espresso competition at Seattle's Coffee Fest, you can bet he'll be putting in extra hours in the studio. The hours, the permit paperwork, the surly motorcycle neighbor dudes--they're all just a small price to pay to be doing what you love.