Here in Carson Valley, which is up in the mountains of Northern Nevada, you are guaranteed to find a good cup of coffee because this is Alpen Sierra Coffee Company’s territory. I sat down with the company’s founder, and master roaster Christian Waskiewicz to hear his story.
V. Good to talk to you Christian! I have heard lots of things about the history of your business, what is the real story?
W. I went to college to California State University in Sacramento, and on my commute to school we had this community coffee roastery in the suburb area of Eastern Sacramento. I quickly became a part of this coffee community, and actually ended up working behind the counter as a barista. I just fell in love with the whole business. I worked there for six months, and then I had a one way ticket to Europe after college to attend some family matters and just travel. So while in Europe, I happened to take a hike near Schladming, Austria, and this is where I had this entrepreneurial epiphany. I knew I would move to South Lake Tahoe one day, and I knew the place would really benefit from a specialty coffee community, so I envisioned the future of the Alpen Sierra Coffee company right there on the spot.
I spent that whole year traveling around Europe, studying the industry and taking mental notes on architectural design and the processes involved in the coffee business. Then I came back to the States, got some more experience working at the roastery where everything had originally started and then the end of the year came and I went up to the mountains. We opened our first coffee house in July 1991, so since then, we have been here in the Sierra Nevada region for 21 years.
V. How different is it to roast coffee at an altitude?
W. Well, I started my roasting career in Sacramento, which is about 600 feet above sea level, on a fluid bed roaster, and then, of course, I really refined my roasting on a drum style roaster at 6500 feet elevation. Although the thermal dynamic balance is much more sensitive, I found that roasting in high altitudes was favorable for positive sucrose development, so we produce really sweet coffee. Our customers love that about our product.
V. Does your remote location in the mountains make it harder to distribute to your wholesale customers?
W. That’s a very good question. We are in a region where being local is an extremely important element, so when we deal with wholesale clients, we achieve that intimate relationship with our delivery representatives by being there once a week as well as me personally, whenever I can. We really build up that relationship with them, and that’s extremely important because we are in an area that values that aspect. For example, if somebody orders their beans from San Francisco and not from us, they won’t have that degree of intimacy and support that we can provide here in the region.
V. What is unique about the coffee market being in a mountainous tourist area?
W. We are really seasonal, and the coffee market here is highly competitive. Contrary to traditional coffee business environments, for us summers are high because Lake Tahoe is extremely popular with tourists. As an example, my home town, South Lake Tahoe, has around 21,000 residents, but it swells to over 68,000 in July and August. On the flip side, we have our shoulder seasons, where we can actually regroup and get ready for the next big wave.
V. Interesting. Then what are some of the most popular drinks that people order during high season?
W. I look at all the innovation that is occurring just in the espresso segment of the industry, and we don’t really have enough of that high-end level of knowledge or even have an interest in it. So as far as a retail scenario, for the most part and especially when tourists are in town, we are banging on mochas and lattes.
V. What are you roasting on?
W. We are roasting on the San Franciscan SF-25, which is a 12-kilo roaster. We have two of these machines. In fact, I own one with the serial number 003, so it is the 3rd machine built by the original owner of San Franciscan. The gentlemen who founded the San Franciscan company was also a mechanic for Probat. The company has been recently sold to Bill Kennedy and the company is now in Fallon, NV which is 60 or 70 miles east of us. We bought our second SF-25 roaster in 2003 to complement the first one and run both in series.
V. Do you have something you would like to share with our readers?
W. Yes, sure! I am definitely very passionate about the industry. It seems that there are more and more producers in the industry and a greater world demand for specialty coffee, so it has become more of a challenge for us to secure good coffee. However, that in return sharpens our skills to stay ahead of the game, seek new channels of like-minded and like-sized professionals that are focused on quality and downsizing. It is an exciting time to be in the industry!