Friday February 14, 2014 | 09:52 AM

Matt's Coffee wood roaster and containers of beans.

In the Root’s newest series on coffee, we will be looking at some of the craftsmen who make up Maine’s rapidly evolving specialty coffee industry. Their coffee is the antithesis of the water-soluble instant coffee you will find in grocery stores or the over-roasted cup from the corner Starbucks. Part one of the four-part series can be found here

For this series The Root is working with Anestes Fotiades, the Editor of the Portland Food Map and someone who appreciates great coffee.

In the first two articles of the coffee series we spend time with Matt Bolinder of Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee and the popular Portland coffee shop Speckled Ax.

Following is an edited version of our conversation.

The Root - You have a Ph.D. in English Literature. How/why did you make the transition into being a coffee roaster?

I think I sort of saw the writing on the wall as I was doing my program. It was going to be really hard to find a tenure track job in this area. I’d done a little bit of home roasting, but with an electric roaster. I was sort of making a career decision by buying the wood roaster I use now, even though I was still teaching at the time and taught for the first four years I was running Matt’s Coffee. It was big enough to grow into, and I still have a lot of capacity.

** As a nod to Bolinder’s background in English literature he named the coffee shop after a mention of a speckled ax in a story in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

The Root - Why did you decide to heat your roaster with wood?

I’m an outdoors person. I’ve always been around wood stoves. (note his interest in wood pile photos) and thought it might be good to differentiate myself from everyone else out there and it seemed to make sense in New England. I think I like things that are a little trickier, or more difficult or a little antiquated.

The Root – What are the different ways of processing the coffee cherry?

Historically most Latin American and South American coffees are washed, it’s called a wash process. The coffee is picked, it’s run through a depulper, the fruit on the outside of the coffee cherry is removed, it’s washed to remove fruit mucilage from the surface of the bean, which is also covered in parchment. It can be wet or dry fermented, there are different approaches people take. The idea is to basically you are cleaning the coffee so that you have just the bean, which is the seed of a fruit. Water also helps you sort coffee. When you put coffee cherry in water, some will float and some will sink and it allows them to sort the desirable from the undesirable.

There’s also a natural process, which derives from Ethiopia... called the dry process. A coffee cherry is picked and it’s dried like a raisin, the fruit shrivels up on the coffee, and then it’s removed through a depulper. No water is used in the processing of the coffee. Traditionally, coffee processed this way has been sold to the local market. The higher quality coffees have been washed, because when you dry stuff with the fruit on it can take a little more care to make sure you are turning it in order to dry it evenly. Ethiopia during the dry season it’s hot and you’ve got fruit under the hot sun, there’s fermentation that can occur. It can start to essentially rot and impart these off-fruit flavors to the coffee.

The honey process is halfway in between. Brazil was the country that started doing this. When you dry coffee naturally, it can impart heavier body. Theoretically it gives you a little more sweetness, a little more body, a little less acidity. All those things have historically been what people look for in espresso. Body, sweetness, not much acidity. You want it to be chocolaty and smooth not sharp and tangy, so it’s a safer way to process coffee in a climate that’s not really dry than a full natural.

You remove the fruit when you pick the coffee cherry, but when you run fruit through a depulper there is still a lot of sticky fruit mucilage that’s like residual fruit on the outside of the coffee. The honey or pulp natural that fruit mucilage is left on the coffee and when it’s dried in the sun as it heats up it starts to liquefy a little bit - liquid will start to run off the corner of the patio, but it’s tacky it looks like honey.

Anestes – In addition to getting more body in the process, do some fruit flavors or some of the characteristics in the fruit ending up in the bean?

Any natural, especially like Ethiopia’s produced a lot of fruit vapor - that fruit imparts flavor to the bean, which is kind of mysterious in some ways, because the bean is covered with parchment, there’s like this protective layer, so the fruit doesn’t come in actual contact with the bean, the seed itself. It’s sort of interesting that you get this even after you subject it (the bean) to 400 temperatures at 15 minutes, it’s still there.

There are also some naturals that are really, really good and when processed correctly you can get incredible fruit flavor that’s clean. People started to become infatuated with that type of coffee – clean naturals, because they were fetching high prices. People were like this is really good, I can’t believe coffee can actually taste like this, it tastes somebody added strawberry syrup to my coffee. So, places in other parts of the world – specifically Panama - and El Salvador was doing some at the time also. I’m not an expert, but Panama is not a good place to do this kind of experimentation, but there are a lot of wealthy people who own the farms, they are technologically savvy, their tapped into the world market, it’s not remote. They started processing coffees naturally, and some of them were really good. Because Panama can be humid, it doesn’t have the hard and fast wet season and dry season like some of these other countries do and the wet season can come on quickly. Some people were getting in trouble because they decided to create natural processed coffees and then all of a sudden it rains for a week or clouds set in and the coffee is not drying the way it’s supposed to and so coffee that could have been really good is almost undrinkable. It has lots of fruit character, but smells like a dumpster behind Hannaford.

Anestes – So it’s risky, but some of them were making it work and that encouraged the rest of them to give it a try?

Yeah, because there were some coffees that were fetching $50 or 60 lb. You could really do well if you processed immaculately in this particular way and you could also ruin it.

Anestes – How does anyone learn how to roast coffee?

Number one it’s not rocket science. Generally speaking there’s a spectrum of tastiness and accessibility when you roast a coffee. You go light or you go lighter in temperature for a shorter time period you’re going to get brighter flavors like more florals more delicate stuff, less body and generally speaking less sweetness. You go a little bit longer you’re going to increase sweetness while preserving most of the more delicate stuff and most of the acidity. Go a little bit further than that you get more body you get maybe even more sweetness, but it becomes a little more generic you start to lose some of the more nuance stuff, you go further than that you start to lose most of the inherent qualities of the coffee. You can get perceived sweetness or bitter sweetness and more body and then everything starts to fall off the map. You get more roast. The coffee actually becomes thinner, because you are roasting the fats and lipids out of the coffee, so you’re not getting more body – the coffee actually have less fat in it.

Anestes – About a year ago Bard and Tandem bought the same coffee. It provided a great opportunity to try two cups of coffee that differed exclusively from different roasting styles of those companies.

Roasters have to make a choice. What do I want to accent in this coffee. Do I want to err on this side or accent the lighter, sharper, more delicate notes. Do I want to go more roasty or do I want find somewhere in between where I’m kind of having my cake and eating it too. Some coffees they don’t have a lot delicate stuff going on, but you can increase sweetness and make them more yummy if you hit a certain spot. Other ones like washed Ethiopian coffees that can have a lot of acidity I would never choose to feature them as a dark roast. It defeats the purpose if you are trying…I like light roasted washed Ethiopian coffees, because they are all about acidity and florals and citrus and delicate spices. But if you roast it dark, which I do for our mocha java blend you get this really interesting pungency that you don’t get if you roast a Bolivian or something else dark.

Anestes - Are coffees from different parts of the world at their peak at certain times of the year?
The general rule of thumb is summer is Central America and Ethiopia. Winter is South America and other east African countries.

Matt has started have fun experimenting with green coffee beans and barrel conditioning using Allagash Brewery wooden barrels.

The Root - How choose which coffee to pair with each barrel?

Allagash White Ethiopia Sidamo
In Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, traditionally spices are added to coffee during the ceremony itself, so I liked the idea of adding spices to coffee. Even though it’s not traditional, there’s a little bit of a traditional element to it. I’m just doing it in reverse order I’m adding the spices beforehand, and they’re not the same spices obviously. There’s historical precedent even though it’s unique and experimental it still has a little bit of a traditional element to it.

Brazil Double Bourbon
I chose the Brazil because the varietal is yellow bourbon and was going to go in a bourbon barrel. I liked the play on words. I also wanted to try it as an espresso, and Brazil is traditionally used as espresso because it’s relatively low grown and sweet. You can use it as espresso with a relatively short roast that’s undeveloped. The trend in specialty coffee now is to use higher grown washed coffees for espresso and we do that a lot in our shop, but in order to do that you have to roast the coffee differently. High grown coffees are very bright and sharp so you have to lengthen the roast profile, generally speaking in order to mute some of that acidity, but I was afraid if I used a high grown coffee in a bourbon barrel and I was trying to mute the acidity I’d end up roasting away all the bourbon flavor.

Almost half a millennium ago traders from the Dutch East India Company transported coffee in barrels, so Bolinder’s experiment is in itself a nod to history.

Benjamin Franklin supposedly said of coffee “Among the numerous luxuries of the may be considered as one of the most valuable. It excites cheerfulness without intoxication; and the pleasing flow of spirits which it never followed by sadness, languor or debility.” One would think the Founding Father would have enjoyed a cup of Bolinder’s experimental barrel-conditioned coffee and surely appreciated the name he chose for the coffee shop.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog,

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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