Out of a nondescript kiosk in the parking lot of Connect Telephone and Computer Group on Central Avenue, Gary Theisen Jr. brews coffee that just barely “eludes perfection.” As barista and roast master for Revel Coffee Roasters, Theisen strives for a flawless cup of coffee, in keeping with the name of his business.
“It’s revel coffee because revel means to ‘take great pleasure or delight,’ so I want to continually offer exceptional coffees that one can take great pleasure or delight in,” he says.
He selects optimal beans, roasts them for favorable expression and then brews an extraction that highlights what Theisen calls “the intricacies” of the coffee. He says the coffee should “ideally expose the utmost sweetness and origin in the cup.”
Theisen developed a taste for coffee early on.
“I actually started drinking coffee when I was a 2-year-old,” he says. “I had asthma and coffee helped open my bronchial tubes.”
At 15, he worked at Todd’s Plantation Gourmet Coffee Roasters downtown. There, he crossed paths with a customer who roasted green coffee beans in a popcorn popper, which later inspired Theisen to experiment with this technique.
These days, Theisen has a roasting operation in a warehouse on the West End, processing a “couple hundred pounds” of coffee per week. He roasts samples that vendors send him and then blindly evaluates the brewed results. His goal is to “try to find coffees that are exceptional and unique.”
“Coffee is a chemically complex seed,” Theisen says, and “coffee is capable of having more taste intricacies than wine.” In the world of coffee, coffee cupping or coffee tasting is the practice of observing aromas and tastes of brewed coffee. For example, Revel Coffee Roasters’ Guatemala Acatenango Gesha coffee is described by “Coffee Review” like this: “Delicately brisk yet lushly complex. Lavender and violet, peach, tangerine, roasted cacao nib in aroma and cup. Brisk though juicy acidity; full, syrupy mouthfeel. Flavor saturates a crisp resonant finish.”
“Coffee Review,” which bills itself as “The Worlds Leading Coffee Guide,” has been reviewing coffee since 1997. It gave Theisen’s Gesha coffee a nearly perfect 94 points. The scores generated from these sources give the roast master an idea of how his product compares to others out in the world. Theisen’s Throttle Espresso, Kenya Gondo and Ethiopia Natural Aricha have also garnered 90-plus points.
“Gary has the best coffee,” says Meisha Essex, a regular customer. “I get the single breve and we order our beans from him. We stop to get lattes a couple times a week.”
Gary Theisen Sr. stops by “two times per day for an Americano.” He says of his son, “I helped him get into the business, but he is the master. My side benefit is we get really good coffee.”
Using a Chemex coffeemaker invented in 1941 by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, Theisen brews a cup of Gesha to illustrate how coffee is “ephemeral, volatile.” With this drip technique, coffee is brewed through a scientifically designed filter and non-porous glass. Even before adding ground coffee beans to the reservoir, Theisen pours hot water through the filter to get avoid imparting any paper characteristics to the flavor profile. He weighs the coffee to obtain a 16-to-1 ratio of water to coffee beans. Gesha, also spelled Geisha, is a unique coffee and “coming into popularity,” he says.
According to Theisen, a good cup of coffee should become better as it cools. He uses the term “monolithic” to describe freshly brewed hot coffee, saying the taste is overwhelmingly flat and uninteresting at this stage. As the brew comes down in temperature, nuances such as jasmine, citrus and cacao nibs evolve along with other notes. To provide a platform for comparison, Theisen suggests tasting several coffees side by side.
Theisen roasts his beans to “expose the potential of the coffee.” This is why he chooses beans with no flaws. He believes that many commercial roasters over-roast their beans to hide imperfections.
“There is a certain amount of quality that comes from the original bean,” he says. “When I get a new coffee, I roast it light. Then I look at its potential. When coffee is roasted dark, it breaks the cellular level of the bean. It then looks like a sponge. The roasting is taken so dark that there is no structural integrity and oil comes out. This is why it goes rancid so quickly.”
On the package of whole coffee beans that Theisen sells, he provides cupping notes and information on the place of origin. Though he does not want to over-generalize because each coffee is unique, his recommendation for storage is, “It is safe to attempt to use the coffee within three weeks.”
He advises keeping the beans in an air-tight container at room temperature and out of the sun. “If coffee is stored in the refrigerator it can absorb flavors.” He also discourages storing coffee in the freezer, because condensation occurs when the beans are thawed and frozen.
Theisen admits to gravitating toward “solitary crafts” with “elusive perfection.” He plays golf when he has a free moment, saying golfing and roasting coffee both involve “constantly trying to hone your skills.”
With coffee roasting, he says, “I have been basically self-taught. Most is trial and error and experience. It is not something that can be taught. You must learn it over time.”
Another source is the Internet, and from the recent GoodWorks Barista Jam here in Billings, Theisen gathered with other baristas, roasters and industry experts to share ideas and exchange knowledge. Theisen’s customers also contribute a broad spectrum of interests from which he learns a great deal.
As Theisen continues “eluding perfection,” the world of coffee drinkers will revel in his attempt to create cups of coffee for delightful pleasure.