Meet Our Roaster: Alec Risch

In Blog, Meet Your Barista // on March 24th, 2017 // by // No comment

Tell me a little bit about your job – for those who don’t know, what does a head roaster’s job at Heine Brothers’ entail?

I’m the Head Roaster and green coffee buyer for HB.  Most of my day is spent in production, or overseeing production (i.e. quality control, inventory management, and facilitating communication among my staff or with cafe managers).  I’m also the liaison between HB and our importing co-op, Cooperative Coffees.  Specifically, I am on the Sourcing and Quality, and Cooperative Impact committees.  Depending on the projects we’re working on it takes only 5-10% of my time, but that work drives how we maintain relationships with our farming partners, and how we impact their lives beyond simply cutting a check for green coffee once a year.

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What does your day-to-day at the Roastery look like?

It depends on the day, but you might find me roasting, cupping coffees, responding to emails, sitting in meetings, or training new baristas.  No matter what I’m doing, no matter what time of day, I probably have a cup of coffee in my hand.

 

What sparked your interest in specialty coffee?

Working as a barista was a really flexible option while I finished my undergrad work many years ago.  I’ve stayed with it so long because coffee is really interesting, and a lot of fun.  I’m really lucky in that what I do satisfies so many of my needs.  I love food science.  I like to travel.  I don’t have to sit in a cube all day, every day.  I know that the work I do directly affects other people here and all over the world.  And, by and large, “coffee people” are excellent people.   With few exceptions, I owe all my closest relationships to coffee, and I’m okay with that.

 

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How did you get into roasting?

Like I said, I started as a barista.  Basically, I just kept taking any position that came open in the company.  Within about 4 years I was roasting.

 

You also work with a group called Ignite Louisville here in town to develop a program for homelessness prevention – could you talk a little bit about that?

Ignite Louisville is a leadership development program run by the Leadership Louisville Center.  There’s a service component to the program whereby Ignite members work with local non-profits to solve a problem.  Since October of last year, my Ignite team and I have been working with the Family & Children’s Place to strengthen their Family Stabilization Program.  

 

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Family & Children’s Place works to “prevent and stop the trauma of abuse, violence and neglect, and to help child victims and their families recover and heal.”  Partly they tackle this problem by running a homelessness prevention program; the Family Stabilization Program (FSP).

The FSP helps homeless individuals and families find affordable housing, then supports those families with case management so they can address issues that may have led to homelessness in the first place.  The idea is to “stabilize” the family by housing people as quickly as possible, and then follow up with customized support.  That could look like treatment for mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, parenting and life skills, job training, etc.  The key to the entire program is getting people into permanent housing so they have the peace of mind and freedom to focus on the other aspects of their lives that need attention.  I’m sure you can imagine how impossible it would be to go to school, work, attend AA or NA, if you were living in a car or cycling in and out of shelters every evening and morning, taking your children and all your worldly possessions with you everywhere you went.

 

 

How did you get started with this program, and how can others get involved?

The focus for myself and my Ignite team has been to increase access to affordable housing for the Family Stabilization Program. Without getting too deep in the weeds, the program is funded through HUD which provides vouchers to pay for housing.  Those vouchers don’t pay for a lot, so connecting clients with affordable housing has been difficult for Family & Children’s Place staff.

Ultimately, we want the waiting list for FSP to be zero.  To meet that goal we’ve been doing a lot of outreach to landlords and property managers in the Metro area.  We created a marketing packet that explains the FSP, the service it provides to our community, and how offering affordable housing to FSP clients is mutually beneficial for them and landlords.  Educating landlords and property managers about this program will increase the pool of available housing, and decrease the amount of time a family spends in a shelter or on the street while looking for a home.

Anybody who rents apartments or houses in the Louisville area can help this vital program.  Over the past five months it’s become obvious that there are lots of vacant apartments and homes in this city, and lots of people are happy to fill them with tenants who need the extra support of programs like FSP.  For more information on the Family Stabilization Program I encourage people to visit hopetohomes.org or familyandchildrensplace.org.

 

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You’re also speaking at the 360 Fair Trade Convention & Expo later this month – what are some of the issues you’ll be speaking about?

At the 360 Fair Trade Convention & Expo, I’ll be co-presenting with one of our exceptional Cooperative Coffees staff people, Monika Firl.  She’s going to talk about the relatively new Co-op Coffees Impact Committee, and how we’re using it to work with our producer partners all over the world to address climate change and issues of sustainability.  I’ll be chiming in with why Heine Brothers’ chooses to be a part of the co-op, and what it means for us to be able support farmers as they work to make their businesses sustainable in the same way we want ours to be.

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Obviously both sustainability and Fair Trade are extremely important parts of Heine Brothers’ mission – how do you feel like you get to promote these in your role as roaster?

In addition to participating in the Fair Trade Conference and speaking publicly whenever I get the opportunity, I speak to every new barista we hire.  In total, I spend about four hours with every barista talking about Fair-Trade, Cooperative Coffees, and what our partnerships with our coffee growers looks like in the real world.  Most people think of wages first when you ask them what Fair Trade means.  It’s important that our employees know that how much we pay for a pound of green coffee, while fundamental to the partnership, is only half of what it means to have an equal, sustainable relationship with the people who literally make it possible for this company to exist.

I know that it doesn’t mean a lot to every barista, or every customer, but how we do Fair Trade is one of the pillars on which this company was built.  Personally, having met coffee farmers, and having spent some time on farms and in farmers’ homes I wouldn’t roast for a company that didn’t reinvest in the farmers as much or more than Heine Brothers’ does.

 

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Lastly, do you have a favorite coffee we roast?

We’re getting into a really fun, and delicious time of year.  We just received our Peru Coyona earlier this month.  This is a coffee from northern Peru that’s produced in small quantities.  I can’t get more than our annual allotment, even though I’d love to buy twice as much.  It came in a little late this year, but all reports indicate it’s going to be excellent; super fruity and dark chocolaty.

And, as the weather gets warmer I start salivating thinking about the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe and Washed Sidama coming down the pipe.  Those are my absolute favorites to brew iced in the summertime.

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