Today, we bring you the first of a series of interviews with some of Tucson’s favorite coffee roasters/owners. First up, Exo Roast Co.
EXO was founded by Chris Byrne and Doug Smith and they have been roasting coffee for about 20 years. They were close friends in college and then reconnected in Portland, Oregon many years later. Doug had developed a deep interest in coffee fueled by his time working and living with coffee farmers in Mexico. Chris was roasting on a small machine in his garage, inspired by the dynamic roasting culture that existed in Portland at the time.
They started roasting small batches individually, then connecting on the weekends to compare roasts and improve their techniques. The two regularly cupped with Stumptown Roasters at their coffee lab and developed their skills over several years before deciding to move back to Arizona to open EXO. So, I suppose you can say that they mutually taught themselves with some help from experienced roasters.
I recently chatted with Amy Smith of EXO and dove more into why they do what they do. If you’re into coffee at all, I think you’ll like learning more about one of Tucson’s first specialty coffee shops.
Our original intention was to roast delicious coffees and later to develop a cafe to showcase them. In fact, the initial EXO cafe was built around our existing roasting operations, which is why our Probat roaster is still front and center at that location.
We've always been interested in doing things slowly and doing things that take careful attention and care. Roasting is just that. Plus, you can control the outcome. When we started, the trend was still for over-roasted, oily beans. We wanted to see something different where you could actually taste the terroir and processing of the coffee rather than just the roasty roast profile.
We source from all major growing regions and favorites include Guatemala Huehuetenango, Colombia Huila region, Ethiopia Guji region, and overall, Mexico including Oaxaca, Chiapas, Colima, Puebla, and Vera Cruz. We love coffee from Burundi, El Salvador, and even Sulawesi when we can find high-scoring coffee from those regions. That has become rarer over the years due to politics and climate change.
Our favorite place to source is Mexico. We have invested in relationship buying or direct trade in Mexico for many years now. We love Mexican coffee and love to support a network of exchange with our close neighbors.
Yes. We've sourced in Colima and Oaxaca, have visited farms and processing centers in Colima for several years, and have good relationships in that state as well as in Jalisco. We've sourced in Oaxaca, too, and traveled there several times.
We are working on a project to source coffee directly ourselves and through "near-shoring" by trucking it up ourselves rather than working with cargo ships and large warehouses on the California coast. Our hope is to bring in small shipments of beautiful coffees from Mexico and share what Mexico has been up to in terms of growing and processing coffee.
When you buy from smaller coffee roasters, you are more than likely engaging in a practice that helps small landowners and growers stay in business. If you know the roaster and can ask them about their buying practices — all the better. Then, you know where their values are and what they know about the supply chain. You can't get that at Safeway or Starbucks. It's not just about the quality of coffee or roast profile — what matters is what the roaster is doing to help coffee growers stay in business. You are also probably getting a fresher product with more quality in the cup.
We tend to develop coffees for longer and roast on the medium-light side to bring out brown sugar characteristics. We're that kid at the campfire who slowly rotates the marshmallow around the flame until it's golden brown, soft, and gooey.
A finely tuned tongue. Also, a coffee refractometer and a TDS meter are each essential — especially a TDS meter that allows you to properly assess your water as our water in Arizona is very hard. Shop around for Coffee Refactometers online.
Despite the fact that we share customers and maybe are competing with one another, we know we can call up another roaster and ask for decaf beans when we run out, or bags when our supplier is late, or ask for their transparency around wages, tips, and best practices for HR situations. We've helped roast one another's coffee on the rare occasion our roaster is out. We all called one another and supported each other during COVID. Tucson has a wonderfully collaborative coffee community. I also love that my employees go to other coffee shops. I buy coffee from other roasters. We just work together and I hope it's always like that.
At our two locations and proudly roasting for Food Conspiracy Co-op now for 11 years! Support your local Co-op, food, coffee, or otherwise!
EXO Roast Co. is located at 403 N. Sixth Ave. and 196 W. Simpson St. For more information, visit exocoffee.com.
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Torey Hayden is a Tucson native that loves the small-town feel the city brings. While she never moved away like many locals do, she loves to travel and explore. She graduated from the U of A in 2007 and pursued...