Release Date: Jan 30, 2017
Vaughan sits down with Devin Eiring, head roaster at Verve Coffee Roasters, and chats all things coffee on a bright sunny day in front of the Verve store in Shinjuku. Photography by Nik van der Giesen.
Vaughan: Welcome to Japan, Devin. Is it your first time? What have you done so far?
Devin: Thank you! Yes, it’s my first time, and I’m here for about 2 and a half weeks. I’ve had three segments of my stay. First for SCAJ; I was invited by Cropster to come and join them as a representative of Verve and as a Cropster ambassador. After SCAJ was over, I took 5 days off as vacation. I had a close friend fly over from New York, and we just hung out and explored Tokyo together everyday – which was great… And since he left, I’ve been doing a handful of different things with Verve. I did four two-hour long brewing and tasting demos that were open to customers. The whole theme was arranged by one of our Japanese staff. It was a good opportunity to connect with our customers in a way that I never would’ve been able to otherwise.
V: How’s Tokyo been? And has anything surprised you?
D: The city is so massive but it is the cleanest place I’ve ever seen in my entire life… There is no trash anywhere – I really don’t know how it is possible. Also, the trains are so silent even though there’s a million people in there. It’s very different!
V: What’s your impression been like of the coffee scene in Japan? Did you have any pre-conceptions beforehand and has that changed now?
D: Well, I’d heard a lot from Colby Barr and the baristas that we had sent over to work here. So, I did expect that it was going to be a great coffee scene over here – and it’s definitely lived up to my expectations. I’ve been to a ton of cafes, I‘ve had a lot of really nice coffees and I don’t even think I’ve seen it all…
V: Sounds like you’ve done a huge crawl! Any standouts?
V: What’s your impression been of your Shinjuku store? It’s Verve’s first overseas store. Does it marry well with the aesthetic back home?
D: It’s really great. When you walk in, it really feels like you’re in a Verve back in California. The staff are friendly and welcoming… the coffee is good and everything feels as it should be.
V: And what’s your impression been of the Japanese baristas working at the store?
D: The staff have been great. Everyone is doing a great job with the coffee. The noticeable difference between Japanese baristas and American baristas is just the highly intense level of attention to detail.
V: Have they been excited having you here?
D: They’ve been really excited to have me here and they’re all eager to give me coffee and are open to feedback. No matter who is on bar everyday – everybody is like “try my espresso, try my pourover, try my batch brew.” That’s cool. I think everyone wants to know how they’re doing and how their coffee is tasting.
V: When you’re on the other side of the world roasting coffee and then sending it to Japan, how do you make sure baristas are kept up to date with everything?
D: Since we’ve opened, we’ve actually been sending baristas over from California for 3-month stints at a time. Having that link and that connection has been a good thing. There are still some challenges, and there are still some communication things that we can figure out and get better at.
V: When I chatted with Colby in May this year, he mentioned that you guys are working on getting a roaster set up over here… has that happened yet?
D: We’re getting closer! It’s another reason why I am here!
V: Can you tell us about your background and how you got into coffee and then the road to becoming head roaster at Verve?
D: Like most people I started working in cafes as a barista. I went through Stumptown’s wholesale training at a cafe in Portland in 2009 and I was impressed and kind of drawn to coffee from that point on. When I moved to California, I was able to get a job with Verve and I worked in the cafes in Santa Cruz for about a year and a half, before starting work in the cupping lab once a week. And I simultaneously began as a production roaster around the same time. I naturally progressed from there.
V: Can you tell us about a day in the life of Devin?
D: It varies depending on what I have to do. I typically come in, take care of some boring inventory computer stuff that I need to do. I’ll roast for a couple of hours. I’ll cup for quality assurance everyday. Later in the day, I might do some more cupping or I might need to do some trial roasts. There’s a never-ending list of things that I need to do.
V: Let’s talk about roast styles at Verve. For our readers who have never tried Verve coffee, what can one expect?
D: As far as roast level goes, I’d say we’re on the medium to light side. But the goal in what we’re trying to accomplish is to accentuate these positive qualities in the coffee that we’re getting our hands on. We’re looking for coffee that is sweet, clear and vibrant and it becomes my job to make sure that those flavors aren’t lost.
V: Where do you source your coffee from? Is it direct or through green bean wholesalers?
D: Amanda, our green bean buyer and director of coffee travels a lot and we get a ton of stuff direct trade. Of course, we go through some importers as well – but it varies.
V: Are head roasters usually involved in sourcing beans?
D: Well, I’ll cup with our green bean buying team when I have time, and I have a say and offer my opinion. But it’s more looked after by Amanda.
V: What style of coffee do your beans best fit?
D: I think one of things that makes Verve really great is the spread of what we can offer. We carry a pretty large single origin menu at most times. And I think our coffees are consistently good. Our blends hold up really well as espresso or batch brew or even if you want to take some home to make pour over at home. They hold up really nicely no matter what decide to do with them.
V: Is there a worst fit?
D: No, I’m not going to say don’t do this and don’t do that… If you want to buy our coffee and enjoy our coffee, you should do what you want with it and I hope it works out well. And if you ever need guidance or advice, we’ll help you out!
V: Can you talk to us about single origin verses blend? Is it one or the other?
D: No, it’s definitely not one or the other – consumers will always figure out what they like… Some people will only like blends, others will only like single origins. We offer a big range and it’s definitely up to our guests to pick and choose!
V: How many roasters are there at Verve working with you?
D: Currently it’s me and 3 other guys. We’re a team of 4.
V: And what types of activities do you do as a team to develop roasters working for you?
D: Well, I’m training each roaster one by one… we’ve done a few group field trips to vary our coffee scene happenings. We’ve also done a few “blind roast offs” in which we all roast coffee however we like, and then cup it, taste it, and score it together. I’d like to find more time to do stuff like that, you know, round table discussions, science and philosophy chats – it definitely helps us all become better roasters and better coffee professionals.
V: How do Verve roasters work with Verve baristas? Is it a chain of hierarchy?
D: There’s no hierarchy. Of course though, a lot of baristas in our cafes might look to us when they have questions about coffee or quality in particular- because we are checking in on the coffee more closely everyday… and just because we have a closer connection to the information behind the coffee itself.
V: Does quality become more difficult to control the bigger the company gets?
D: I think that’s a natural growing pain that most companies go through. For us though, we’re only roasting coffee in one place. Having said that though, opening a cafe in Tokyo has been a check for us in regards to how to bridge that quality gap in the cafe setting. Until we actually expand and start roasting somewhere else, I’m not quite sure what to expect.
V: It’s great when everything is within hand’s reach right?
D: Yeah, our cupping lab, our roasting floor, production floor, our training lab, offices – everything is there in the same building… Currently it’s good and we’re on top of it, but I will expect some challenges when we expand.
V: And finally, how do you communicate the value of a cup of coffee at Verve to customers?
D: We try to talk about our farmlevel to streetlevel initiative a lot – which I’m sure you’ve heard about. It’s Verve’s direct trade buying model. The farmlevel digest book that Colby did, which is available in all of our cafes, is a good and informative way for customers to visually understand where we get our coffees from. It’s just as important for us to educate our staff on what makes each coffee special – as they can pass that information on to customers directly.
V: Thanks so much for your time today, Devin! We look forward to seeing you back in Japan or visiting you one day in the States!
D: Pleasure! Thanks, Vaughan!