A while ago, That’s Shanghai magazine published a special feature about YOMO Artisan Roast Coffee. In case you missed it in print, here’s the story about how we got started and what makes our coffee different from anything else you can find in China! Fresh roast delivered to your home or office.
Fired up to get you wired up
When Morris Nelson of Yomo Artisan Coffee Roasters shows me his operation, the romantic in me is a tad disappointed. I had envisioned a rustic warehouse – cracked stucco and exposed brick, stacks of bulging burlap sacks, copper cauldrons and perhaps even a few pack mules tethered out back.
What can I say? The word ‘artisan’ does funny things to my imagination. Instead I am taken to the second floor of Nelson’s Jinqiao storefront. A desk, two stainless steel washbasins and a few shelves stocked with zipper bags of unroasted pea green coffee beans – nothing special. In the corner I notice a steel drum hooked up to a propane tank. “So this is where it all happens?” I ask. “That dinosaur?” he says. “No. Don’t even photograph that thing. This is what I want to show you.”
He points to a gleaming steel and glass machine. “I just got this last week. This is the future of coffee roasting,” Nelson beams, “the fluid bed roaster. The beans are cooked by a continuous jet of hot air and the temperature is computer-controlled!” Apparently ‘artisan’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘luddite.’
Nelson pours in a small amount of raw beans, presses a few buttons, flips a switch and the machine issues a whirring hum like an industrial strength hairdryer. After a few minutes, I can hear a distinct cracking sound and the sweet, grassy fragrance of alfalfa fills the air.
“In the beginning I didn’t even have a facility.
I was roasting coffee on the balcony of my apartment”
“You’re witnessing the first crack,” Nelson explains. “The heat is releasing all of the moisture in the beans.” The beans gradually turn tan and release their chaff as they expand. Soon, a second round of pops and the air is heavy with the fragrance of toasted bread. “Second crack,” he says. “Out come all the sugars.”
Minutes later, he shuts off the roaster and pours out a hot batch of beans, covered in an appealing oily sheen. “This is how I do it,” he says. “Someone orders from me, I roast it fresh and I send it off.” He pours me a cup of Ethiopia Harrar and explains how he got into this business.
“My original career was in IT,” he says. “Coffee was just a hobby. My first roaster was a popcorn machine. I could roast just enough to brew a pot. My job took me to China a lot and when I was here, I could never find a good cup of coffee. So I just brought my own. Pretty soon, I was bringing pounds of coffee for my friends and colleagues here, too.”
That got Nelson thinking. He did a little market research and before long he had left his job and started roasting specialty coffees and selling them online in Shanghai. “In the beginning I didn’t even have a facility,” he laughs. “I was roasting coffee on the balcony of my apartment.”
So what exactly does ‘artisan coffee’ mean? According to Nelson, it’s a sense of place, what winemakers would call terroir. “What makes coffee really great is climate and soil,” he explains. Such variations throughout the globe will be reflected in your cup. This is why Nelson places such an emphasis on the origins of his coffees. Not only are many of them designated with country of origin, most indicate particular regions, even specific plantations. And, yes. There is a difference.
“Most people don’t realize just
how perishable roasted coffee actually is.”
But why does he roast his own coffee? Those familiar corporate caffeination stations on every Shanghai street corner certainly don’t roast theirs on the premises and it seems okay, right? “Wrong,” says Nelson. “Most people don’t realize just how perishable roasted coffee actually is.” In Nelson’s mind, when you get your coffee in a chain store it’s less than fresh. “In my experience,” he says. “It takes about two months to get a shipment of roasted beans here. And by then, they’re way past their prime.”
On the other hand, raw beans can keep for years in the right conditions. “I’ve got [raw] beans here that are five years old,” he says. “And when I roast them, the coffee will still be terrific.”
At the moment Nelson’s primary focus is Shanghai’s foreign population, those who come from countries with established coffee cultures as well as retailers and cafes that dwell in the shadow of the corporate chains. “But if you want a successful business here,” he says, “eventually you have to target the local population.”
Nelson has no illusions. Selling whole coffee beans to a nation of tea drinkers isn’t going to be easy. And while coffee is gaining in popularity, most locals who drink it probably don’t think much about what goes into making it. “I once had a customer complain that he put his coffee in hot water and nothing was happening,” he explains. “It turns out he just tried to steep the whole beans. It just goes to show you that you can’t assume too much about this market.”