The morning before I meet Tyler Liedman at True Stone Coffee Roasters, I drink approximately six cups of coffee. It’s the “free at work” variety, either a K-cup of Green Mountain French Vanilla or the hard diesel, pitch black from the Caribou Coffee pumps. It’s either plop, clunk, tap, coffee or it’s press, hold, keep holding, keep holding, almost there, one more little push to top it off, coffee.
By 7:30 a.m. I’ve gone for my first refill. By 10:00 a.m., I’m three or four cups in and finally feeling like myself. By 5:30 p.m., Liedman is schooling me on how the coffee gets made.
Liedman is True Stone’s Director of Operations, and my education that afternoon begins next to a big, red roaster at True Stone’s production facility in St. Paul. He begins by explaining how coffee beans are sent into this big, red roaster through a vacuum loader and heated in batches of 30 to 50 pounds. He estimates True Stone roasts 3,500 pounds per week; and, by that figure, about 175,000 pounds per year (the weight of a house-sized pumpkin, according to Gizmodo). It’s a lot to keep track of, but True Stone has record of every batch made in this machine.
He shows me a temperature probe wire that weaves between the roaster and a laptop on a little table nearby. The probe, he says, offers two readouts: the temperature of the coffee bean and the “rate of rise” – that is, how quickly the bean is heating up.
“Coffee roasts a lot of the same way that maybe popcorn does,” he says. “It has got a little bit of moisture inside of it, so you get it heated up [and] you get those particles excited. They start dancing around, they start evaporating, and eventually just like popcorn, the coffee will sort of pop.”
That pop – or “first crack,” as it’s commonly called – usually occurs when the beans are heated between 380-390 degrees Fahrenheit. The length of time beans are roasted after first crack varies depending on the blend. It’s actually the primary difference between a light and dark coffee – the shorter the roast time after first crack, the lighter the coffee.
Once the beans reach their desired temperature, they’re sent out into a cooling tray and pushed gently along its surface by a revolving door-like central divider. This helps halt any internal roasting that might be still happening.
Roasting times and temperatures from each batch are stored in a central database. This data can be called upon to help dial in a certain recipe, or as a reference point for a similar make. To date, Liedman says nearly 20,000 batches have been logged.
“The trick of being a good roaster is to be able to do that same exact roast profile time and time again,” he says, “hundreds of times in a row for whatever coffee that you’re trying to do and keep that flavor consistent.”
The God Cup
“I always tell people,” says Liedman, “if there’s anything you’re interested in, there’s a job for that somewhere in coffee.”
He got his first gig in the coffee business at 22 years old. Fresh out of college (he earned a Journalism degree from UW-River Falls), he had musical aspirations and was just looking for some part-time money to pay the bills. This was 2008.
Over time, coffee became the passion. Liedman would go on to open his own cafe three years later, Dewey’s Cafe, back in his hometown of Eagan. Dewey’s served True Stone coffee, and it was through that relationship he met True Stone owner Bruce Olson. Liedman sold Dewey’s in 2013 and joined the True Stone team shortly after.
“A big part of my job is writing about coffee and talking to people about coffee, and just being a communicator in that sense,” he says.
Along the way, he had what he calls “The God Cup.”
It happened at a Spyhouse Coffee location some 10 years back. He recalls an unexpected brightness, sparkling acidity, sweetness, with a depth and complexity that blew him away. “Oh my god,” he recalls thinking. “A whole new world,” he called it. While he’s technically had better coffee since then, he says he still judges every cup of coffee against that “God Cup.”
“Memory and experience are so important,” he says. “The first time you have that eye-opening experience, it’s kind of the thing that carries you throughout the rest of your life.”
The coffee business has undergone significant changes since even True Stone’s inception. Liedman says the industry was in the throes of what he calls “second wave coffee” around that time. Think of your big red gasoline can full of Folger’s as first wave; think of that Caribou pump and the Starbucks cup with a misspelling of your scribbled on it as second wave.
“Third wave, in general terms, is sort of when there was a more intense focus on quality,” he says. “More focus on sourcing and farm direct kind of stuff. Relationship-based coffees, more complex and interesting coffees.”
True Stone brings relationship-based coffees to the forefront through their Producer Select program. Being featured during the time of my visit was Jose Armando Portillo, who owns a farm in El Salvador’s Alotepec Mountains.
Unlike most rush-hour mass-produced brews, this coffee tastes like something that could actually come from the lush, paradisaical scenes you’re offered in the commercials. It’s a coffee you’ll actually want to let reach a consumable temperature, and reflect on as you sip. The Producer Select program seeks to feature coffee farmers who are doing great work, and this coffee is something special indeed.
Liedman is probably going to kill me when he hears I ground these beans with a Magic Bullet and brewed them in my $12 Mr. Coffee machine.
A Three-Tiered System
The world seems to have generally agreed to just call them beans, but they’re really fruit seeds. Did you know coffee is technically fruit? It’s true. The coffee fruit, when you see it on a branch, is bright-colored and round like a grape. The seeds within those fruits are what get roasted and made into our precious fuel.
While True Stone purchases most of their coffee through Minneapolis-based distributor Cafe Imports, they work with a couple of co-ops in Guatemala and an exporter in Colombia, too. Liedman has been to both of these countries and toured coffee farms in those regions.
“There is something that happens when you go down to the origin and actually see the cherry on the plant that creates this whole thing that this entire industry is built around,” he says. “That really sort of connects all the dots for you. “
Liedman calls True Stone a three-tiered company: roasting coffee, servicing equipment, and education. Along with roasting coffee, True Stone is a premier campus for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Up to eight students can be trained at a time in the coffee lab, and all levels of SCA certification training are offered at True Stone. Liedman leads the training programs and says over two dozen people have gained certifications through their program to date.
Liedman shows me True Stone’s Coffee Lab. It’s a research and development area, equipment showroom, and training facility all at once. A row of chromed-out, sleek machinery is lined up on a counter for you to see right when you walk in. At a thick wooden central table, a laminated sheet of paper has a pie chart with flavor profiles and characteristics. There are a couple of tables by the far door, and a row of coffee pumps on a shelf. If you ever wanted to just live coffee, your Heaven on Earth might look a lot like this room.
“Ten Years Ago Tyler would have dreamt of a room like this,” he says, “or not even been able to conceive a room that had all these coffee machines. It’s beautiful.”
In the absence of having their own public space, Liedman says True Stone puts a lot of faith and effort into helping their wholesale partners succeed. One such partner is Nadia Cakes in Woodbury, where True Stone’s signature blend was simply perfect with a triple chocolate cupcake.
“If someone decides to serve True Stone coffee, we want them to have equipment that’s in proper working order,” he says, “but also to have the person operating that machine to be as well-trained and capable too, so that when you walk into a coffee shop that says ‘We serve True Stone’ and you taste that cup, it’s as good as it can be.”
True Stone is located at 755 Prior St. in St. Paul, just a few paces away from roommates like BlackStack Brewing and Can Can Wonderland. True Stone doesn’t have their own cafe, but their coffee is available at several locations throughout the Twin Cities. More information can be found on the True Stone website or on Facebook.
Tyler Liedman’s title was updated after this article’s publication, and the temperature at which first crack occurs was added.