Coffee is the focus for the Carlson family of Houston, Minn.’s Carlson Roasting Company. They know what it’s like to juggle coffee in concert with other things — for three years from 2005 to 2008, they ran a coffee shop called A Little Looney, which also offered smoothies, toys, art, bicycle rentals and paint-your-own pottery, while running their own real estate business at the same time. Today, they recognize that to do coffee the way they truly want to see it done, it’s all about the roasting.
Back in the Looney days, Bob Carlson started roasting coffee at home for his own edification on a Behmor 1600 home roasting machine. Eight years later at the end of 2015, his craft and equipment having evolved to a place of professional performance and volume, Carlson Roasting opened for business, and today includes a growing volume of wholesale, grocery, online and custom and private label sales.
Things have blossomed to the point that an expansion is currently underway, as the company moves out of its founding 600-square-foot dedicated production space into a space three times that size.
The new 1,800-square-foot location in the cozy downtown of the Southeast Minnesota town is the former location of a full-service coffee shop, therefore it was already built out to accommodate some of the plans Bob Carlson has for the expansion. Carlson Roasting production, centered on the company’s robust North machine, will continue to occupy a similar footprint while the remainder of the space offers plenty of room for expanded green coffee storage as well as a public tasting room component, complete with artisanal, freshly-fried mini donuts.
“I just want it to be purely about the experience,” Bob Carlson told Daily Coffee News of the tasting room that will be kept intentionally well short of a café. The tasting room will offer flights of coffee, showcasing different origins or different roast levels and potentially different brew methods with individual coffees.
At previous public events and markets, Carlson said he’s found people to be a lot more engaged in trying new things when they’re presented in an educational format. “Some people discover a coffee that they never knew they liked,” said Carlson.
And yet, while coffee is and will always be the main attraction, a sweet bite is nevertheless a natural accompaniment. To that end, while the building will be branded as Carlson Roasting, underneath that will be posted “and Mini Donut Lab,” as the company will offer a selection of lard-fried and creatively flavored mini-donuts that could well prove to be a sensation all their own.
“It’ll be a nice pairing,” said Carlson, describing donuts both elaborately decorated and more straightforward, with adventurous flavors in the mix, such as a honey chevre donut or one with cream cheese frosting and lingonberry topping. “You could do anything with mini donuts.”
As tourism drops off with the onset of winter, the slower season will offer plenty of opportunity to dial in their processes and experiment with menu items before the next big uptick comes to town. Coffees will continue to be roasted on the company’s 1-kilo North machine, which Carlson actually finds to perform well even with batches up to 1.6 kilos. “The thing is so overbuilt, it’s just amazing. I get very good control, very good results,” said Carlson, who closely tracks his rate of rise and logs his profiles using Artisan roast-logging software.
Having already noticed that consumers in his region tend not to gravitate to lighter roasts, Carlson’s striven-for results generally fall into what he describes as the city-plus to Vienna range, which he then monitors for defects by preparing a regular, manually-brewed cup of coffee just as a consumer might drink, and drinking it slowly until it’s cold. “People enjoy a good cup of coffee over a long period of time. It’s really important to always make sure that some strange defect doesn’t show up at different temperatures,” said Carlson.
He’s also careful not to push a roast too far, and that the coffees he does take into the shadows are well-suited to the heavier treatment. “Not every bean holds up to that,” said Carlson. “We had two different Sumatras that were both from the same farm but different elevations. One of them would take a Vienna roast beautifully, and the other one just got kind of bland if you did that. But if you went more of a city-plus or a full city with the one that got bland, you get green pepper notes to it, really nice clean ones.”
Looking ahead, Carlson Roasting will continue honing its methods, dialing in their tasting room service and building its wholesale and other whole-bean retail channels while also continuing to contribute to local events and fundraisers. “One of the things I’ve learned living in a small town is that, in a big city, you can just hide. You can just blend in and disappear,” said Carlson, who’s Uhu Blend helps raise money for the International Owl Center, a major tourist attraction in Houston.
“In a small town, you really figure out that if you don’t step up and do things and make the community a better place, it doesn’t become a better place. And you can see the impacts of the things you do,” said Carlson, who’s also sure, for now at least, that there’s no need to go back down the full-on café route. “We have five kids. I want to keep life a little bit on the simpler side.”
The new roastery and tasting room soft-opened this past weekend, and will be open to the public from 8am-2pm only on Saturdays. A grand opening celebration will take place next month.