Hearing Napa native Chris Vecera and his wife, Beth, talk about roasting coffee is surprisingly similar to hearing winemakers talk about making wine.
A winemaker extols the virtues of how and where the grapes were grown, the fermentation process and which oak barrels were used, while the Veceras, owners of the specialty coffee-roasting company Naysayer, focus on where their beans were grown; how the “fruit” was harvested, dried and stored; and controlling temperature at every stage of the roasting process.
Unlike some other local coffee roasters who have coffee shops — Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co., Calistoga Roastery, Yo el Rey Roasting and others — Naysayer beans are currently available only through online subscriptions, wholesale accounts and special events (including the St. Helena Farmers’ Market). Customers and up for the adventure can pick up beans — whole or ground to order — at the couple’s small warehouse located on the southern outskirts of Napa.
A small family coming home
The couple met while attending Concordia University Irvine in Southern California. Chris had graduated from Napa’s Justin-Siena High School in 2007 and Beth grew up in Rocklin. In college, she studied theology and he studied philosophy. But coffee became their common interest.
“Chris ended up working at Bodhi Leaf coffee roasters, but during college we both worked at Peet’s and found that we loved the camaraderie and craft of making and serving coffee,” Beth said. “We always talked about someday owning our own place.”
After college, the couple married and started their family. They lived and worked in Southern California, where he taught and roasted coffee and she worked as an administrative coordinator at their local church. After their two children — Jaicee and Seamus — were born, the couple was at a crossroads. Should they continue on the safe route or take the risk of starting a new business?
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was really the only decision in the end,” Chris said. “We tried to get help initially with a Go Fund Me campaign but our goal was pretty aggressive and it never fully funded, so we ended up taking out a small business loan instead.”
Then he added with a laugh, “We’re from the millennial generation, so what’s another loan to us anyway?”
With their loan in hand they moved back to Napa, rented space and used their existing contacts in both Southern California and the Napa Valley to begin building their business. Less than two years later, they are fully functioning and receiving high marks from their expanding list of customers.
Roasting coffee for nuance
While many coffee drinkers lean toward thick, black brews, Naysayer blends are lighter and often more nuanced in flavor and aroma than traditional roasts. According to Chris, super-dark-roasted beans result in a coffee that includes caramel, toasted graham crackers and even bittersweet chocolate flavors, which might be comparable to a winemaker’s adding a ton of oak to a wine.
Chris said dark-roasted coffees can produce strong and intense aromatic profiles, but nearly anything reminiscent of the concept of “terroir” (where the beans were grown) is lost in the process. In contrast, lighter roasts result in brighter fruit flavors and can even have floral or herbal aromas.
“We love a roast that allows the beans to show where they originated from,” he said. “As you roast a coffee darker, it pushes oil (gets dark and shiny), which tends to eclipse terroir.”
A coffee style created with the Napa Valley in mind“Coffee, like wine, can be many things, and everyone has their preference,” Chris said. “And when people — especially people in the Napa Valley who often have a great appreciation for flavors and aromas — get a chance to try our coffee, we think they will be pleasantly surprised.”
To roast a coffee to keep its subtle nuances, temperature control is critical. As temperature is increased during roasting, coffee beans (like anything being cooked) go through a complex series of stages, each of which produces different flavors and aromas. Of particular importance is the Maillard reaction, named after French chemist Louis Camille Maillard who first described it in 1912.
As a protein-based item cooks (beans, meats, marshmallows, etc.) its chemical makeup changes. For coffee beans, as the temperature increases, water is forced out along the way, gradually reducing the amount of caffeine and increasingly shifting away from the “original” flavor profile.
“Controlling temperature during roasting is critical and so we use a high-tech roaster from a local company — the Loring S15 Falcon coffee roaster,” Chris said. “Not only are they one of the best roasters out there, but they are also local and much more environmentally friendly than many.”
The Loring Smart Roast was founded in Santa Rosa in 2003 by Mark Loring Ludwig. According to the company’s representative, Angie Sparks, Ludwig developed the roaster in response to an unreliable and inefficient coffee roaster. Today, the company’s products are found in 60 countries, but they are still made in the Sonoma County headquarters, where they employ dozens of welders, engineers, fabricators and office staff from the area.
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“Artisan roasters like Chris Vecera at Naysayer tend to [use] Loring roasters because they are a streamlined system, provide precision temperature control, use up to 80 percent less fuel than traditional machines and produce drastically lower greenhouse-gas emissions,” Sparks said.
The coffeeNaysayer coffee beans are sourced from small farms and producers around the globe.
“All of our coffee is direct trade, which is basically a better version of fair trade,” Chris said. “[Direct trade provides] a flat rate that goes to the farmer, something like $0.45 per pound above the current market price.”
He said that although they pay more for their coffee, it’s equivalent to paying more to grape farmers who have small vineyards but are using the finest farming techniques and growing grapes that are often the base of the finest wines.
Green coffee beans are delivered in small quantities to the couple’s warehouse, where they are roasted, blended and packaged for wholesale or for individual customers who order single bags or have subscriptions. And although there are light, medium and dark blends available, all of the coffees have the characteristic “light” roast, each with a complexity of flavors.
Like a Napa Cabernet lover who first tastes one of the more delicate examples of a Burgundy Pinot Noir, the experience can be a little perplexing at first. The lightest roast, Punchline ($17 for 12 ounces), has flavors and aromas of strawberry, cinnamon and roasted pineapple, whereas the medium roast, Realistic ($17), tastes of ripe cherries covered in chocolate and dried mint. Their darkest roast, Ease Up (a playful nudge to get people to take small steps away from more typically dark-roasted coffee) is smooth and has hints of milk chocolate, raspberries and hazelnuts.
Something’s brewingThe Naysayer approach to coffee brewing is not necessarily unheard of, but it is not common. And because of its adherence to focusing on the quality and subtle differences in flavor and aroma, their coffees — both hot- and cold-brewed — are becoming a welcome addition to many local eateries, such as Napa’s Bib Gourmand-Michelin-rated Gran Electrica that serves three different roast styles, including a nitro-brew on tap as their iced coffee.
“We are obsessed with it!” said Gran Electrica co-owner Tamer Hamawi, “We love to support local business, first and foremost. If the product is of high quality and its hyper-local like Naysayer, it’s a win-win. The fact that Naysayer is also run by the loveliest husband-and-wife team made it a no-brainer for us.”
Beyond the team and the general quality of the product, Hamawi also points to how the Naysayer coffee profiles fit with their food concept.
“We like its fresher, fruity and citrusy notes,” Hamawi said. “It’s light but full of flavor. It’s not like your typical dark-roast heavier chocolatey style, but it has a higher acidity which lends itself to our cuisine.”
Other local businesses are taking notice, too. Stone Brewery uses Naysayer coffee to make a Hoppee Beans Coffee IPA ($7.50 a pint with only eight barrels made).
“Naysayer and Stone share a thirst for quality that comes through in our products,” said Matthew Faulkner, assistant brewer at Stone Brewing Napa. “Taking ingredients in a new direction to surprise people is one of my favorite parts of the job.”
And surprise people he has. The resulting IPA is rich and complex with myriad flavors and aromas that would have any beer (and even wine) aficionados scratching their heads in delighted astonishment. The amber-colored ale does have a resemblance to coffee with sweet malt, caramel and espresso aromas, but on the palate this beer has elements of fresh tobacco, sandalwood, maple syrup and dried goji berries, finishing with a satisfyingly savory dark-chocolate finish.
Beyond these two venues, also look for Naysayer coffee at Contimo Provisions, Louis Martini Winery, Forge Pizza, Silver Trident Winery, Tannery Bend Beerworks, Browns Valley Market, Shackford’s and Rockzilla. It will soon be at Basalt, Velo Pizza, and Boardgarden.
Starting a conversation
Why did they chose the name Naysayer? Chris looked at his wife and two children. Surrounded by a tin-walled warehouse filled with the smell of roasting coffee and views of a sparkling high-tech roaster and a few burlap sacks of coffee beans from around the world, he grinned and reached out to grab his daughter’s small hand.
“There are a lot of naysayers out there — sometimes even in our own heads,” he said. “Our goal is not to say that our coffee is better than any others out there,” he said. “We just want to be a voice in the room — to have a conversation and let each voice be heard.”
To learn more or buy coffee there, visit https://naysayercoffee.com.