Coffee Roaster Interview: Jared Rennie of Noble Coffee Roasting

Oregonian’s MIX Magazine, July 2013

Jared Rennie finds great satisfaction in a cup of good coffee. So much so that he left a career in teaching to launch a coffee business in a small town that many believed couldn’t sustain another independent coffee roaster. In 2007, he began building his dream in his Ashland garage with a Probat L12 roaster and a pallet of green coffee from across the globe. Two years later, he opened Noble Coffee Roasting in Ashland’s historic and artsy Railroad District.

Completely focused on organic and fair-trade coffees, Rennie and his team roast and brew year-round, shipping orders from Miami to Los Angeles and winning awards along the way. We sat down with Rennie to talk about coffee as a change agent, the simple pleasure of an exceptional cup of coffee, and what sort of coffee concoction he drinks on a Friday night.

You worked in coffee roasting through college and then taught high school Spanish for eight years. What brought you back to coffee?

Why not? There’s so much about coffee and the coffee industry that’s really intriguing. It’s incredibly multifaceted. There’s the international trade aspect of it, the social and environmental responsibility piece to it and, of course, the cuisine aspect as well. I really enjoyed teaching, but a few years in I questioned whether I wanted to do the same thing for the next 30 years. So, I asked myself, ” ‘Where else can I grow?’ ”

What does a cup of coffee mean to you?

I really enjoy the simplicity of serving something to someone that they love. Serving somebody a really well-crafted cup and seeing how much that gives them joy, it’s wonderful. People come here because they want their days to be better. This is a small luxury and to be able to provide that for people is remarkable. It’s like when you cook, and you make something for someone and they love it — that’s the best.

You and your wife own the business together. How did you convince her to take the leap?

In a way, she convinced me. I had always talked about it. At one point she said: “What would it take? Why don’t we just do it? What’s the worst that can happen?” We decided the worst thing that could happen is that we would go bankrupt. But we are both still young. The worst-case scenario just didn’t sound that bad. It was worth the risk.

Your business began kind of like a wine garagiste — roasting coffee in your garage, and then making espresso drinks for … free.

When we were in the garage we got everybody to know our product by giving away little half-pound samples. While were remodeling our downtown building, we would open the alley door three days a week for two hours a day and we previewed free drinks. It gave us the opportunity to practice making drinks for people and get feedback. It was fun. If I had all the money in the world, I would love to be able to just make free coffee for people.

How is Noble Roasting different from other independent coffee roasters?

We focus 100 percent on organic coffees, as well as hitting the quality benchmark that only the greatest companies hit. There’s a cupping protocol through a program called The Cup of Excellence, based on the 100-point scale scoring guide. We only buy coffee that scores 85 or higher. All of the milk we use for our espresso drinks is certified organic.

What made you want to work exclusively with organic, fair-trade coffees? Was that the plan from the beginning?

In the high-end coffee industry, organic and fair-trade coffees have a pretty bad reputation for being low quality. From the beginning of Noble Coffee, we set out to create an amazing product in terms of quality, but without causing harm to the land where it’s grown or to the people who grow it. Coffee is the number one most chemically laden crop that we consume. These synthetic chemicals cause a lot of harm but coffee can be grown without them. We want to prove that a stellar cup of coffee can come from beautiful, healthy farms where people are treated fairly.

You just returned from judging your fifth Cup of Excellence (known as the Oscars of the coffee world) in Honduras. What were you most struck by?

I’m always struck by the incredible differential between wealth — what a base level of existence is in the United States versus a base level in the developing world. We work with people who are really working very hard and trying to improve their lives and give their kids greater opportunities. The communities we work with are trying to improve access to things like clean water, health care and education. It’s really exciting to be able to work with some of these producer groups and help them achieve a more dignified life. When we pay a fair price for coffee, it can really change lives. I’ve experienced that every time I’ve traveled and am motivated by it daily.
On a hot summer day in Ashland, what’s your favorite cool-down coffee drink?

Our cold-brewed coffee. We typically do a rotating single origin so anytime you come in, it’s going to be different. You might get a Kenyan Kia Ora one day, which we actually won a Good Food Award for. We brew in small batches here and serve them pretty darn fresh.

It’s Friday night, party time — what’s your coffee-inspired drink of choice?

We have a beer that we created along with Standing Stone Brewing Company — a concentrate of our mocha java blend added to their oatmeal stout. It’s pretty remarkable how much it transforms the beer and makes it sweeter and crisper. A lot of times you think coffee is going to make it deeper and stronger – it actually makes it sparkle.

When we asked to take your portrait, you didn’t want a photo of just you — why was that important?

There are all these stories about me starting in my garage. That’s the story of the first couple of years. But since then the reason that people know about us is because we have a really strong team of people. In that photo you have Peter McCarville (retail manager); Marjorie Gosling (wholesale manager); Reed Bentley (roasting manager); Carolyn Rennie (my wife, and manager of HR and accounting). Also, everyone in that picture is a solid barista.