Montana Roaster Hits the Sweet Spot: Lincoln’s Valler Coffee
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
When roaster Jason Valler talks about “the sweet spot,” he is referring to the sublime sip of the collective, the tasty culmination of choice beans, compatible environments, and stringent roasting methods.
In order to achieve such lofty goals at Valler Coffee, the specialty-craft roasting company he owns in Lincoln, Valler first must hit upon the best of beans.
Top of the Crops
“We start with the top five percent of beans grown on the planet,” says Jason Valler, owner of Valler Coffee. “All of the beans that we roast have been graded and rated and purchased from quality farms all over the world. There is no higher grade out there that we could get.”
Valler Coffee is equally minimal and masterful, holding firm for its sixth year in the craft-coffee market, with four roasts of Central and South American bounty: Guatemalan, Mexican, Peruvian, and Columbian.
There are no blends in their supply, a dazzling signal to avid coffee consumers that Valler is a serious producer. (Some house roasters will add a batch of subpar beans to their premium ones, to skimp on cost and extend the stock.) And on top of this, all of the beans at Valler Coffee are single origin, certified and licensed as organic.
The company has experimented with roasting beans from a plethora of places, including Africa, Indonesia, and throughout the Americas. It didn’t take long, however, for Jason to discern that beans grown at high mountain altitudes similar to Lincoln’s were best suited for the assignment. Specific climates of Central and South American beans, it turns out, roasted especially strong and bold and smooth. There were no acrid aftertastes, only velvetiness, and the results yielded pervasive chocolate, caramel, nougat, and nutty flavors.
High Altitude Roasting
“We roast here at about 5,000-feet,” says Jason. “Beans that are high altitude like the ones that we use have heavy vitamins and minerals because they are grown in super-rich volcanic soil. Whereas low-altitude beans generally come from the lowlands that have been washed by the rain, and they don’t tend to hold their nutritional properties.”
An upper elevation lets Jason roast at a hotter temperature for a longer period of time than most other roasters; on average, he says, between five to eight minutes. Every coffee bean has a short window for heating. If the roast is premature, the bean will be underdeveloped and acidic; if it’s roasted too long, it will be charred beyond drinkability.
“Beans that are dense and hard can handle our high-temperature roasts to pull out the most delicious flavor. We found that sweet spot – and we roast according to that. We cup every batch, to make sure that it’s sweet and delicious and worthy to process and sell. If it is biting or bitter, we throw it in the garbage and start a new batch.”
Time intensive and exacting, the products from Valler Coffee are an essential gift for the picky coffee lover. Indeed, there is a reason why, after five years of brewing, Valler Coffee produces a line of just four roasts. They’ve perfected their limited number of choices with a simple formula: matching high-grade beans with labor-intensive roasting methods.
“Beans are roasted over a doubled-wall stainless drum spun over a gas flame, more like how it was done in the old days, grounding, roasting, or brewing…There is a cult underground of coffee roasters who are following a lot of those old ways: rich, strong, craft kind of coffee, instead of an electronically-run product. Doing it by hand allows the beans to develop fully all of their really amazing tones and the complex flavors of the regions that they come from.”
The difference is analogous to the contrast of microwaving popcorn, or hand- popping it over an open bonfire. While some coffee roasting equipment is automated and easy – you push a button and then you walk away – the cast iron roaster that Jason works with takes much longer to heat up, and when it does, the heat from the propane flames is gradual, balanced and in harmony.
Now heading a family of seven, Jason Valler and his wife Tiana arrived in Lincoln from Washington state in 2006. While operating an ice cream shop as a side business, Jason bought a four-pound specialty coffee-roasting machine.
“I was intrigued by it. I felt as if we were really good at it without any experience. There were plenty of burned and underdone batches. But, again, it came down to finding the sweet spot. The longer roasting time at high altitude started to make sense.”
Finicky doesn’t even begin to explain this roaster’s relationship with his beans. Jason learned how delicate and sensitive that association is after he moved the roaster a few blocks, restarted the machine, and noticed that the slight change in altitude messed up all of the preset calculations of his roasts. The subsequent recalibration, caused him to dump about 120 pounds of overdeveloped or underdeveloped beans.
“The flavors and recipes had to be started all over again. I learned that it is a relentless pursuit, and if not, you are not going to hit your target. We had to go through a couple of hundred pounds of coffee to get the recipes and roasts right again. But it’s a love affair. And part of that love affair is keeping the same standards continually, and respecting the small window to get that coffee out.”
Above all, coffee is a time-oriented product. It’s most likely that by the time that you’ve opened your large tin of average ground coffee it has lost virtually all of its natural gases and oils.
Because of this degradation, Jason said that he won’t order any batch of beans that was picked more than six months before the time of purchase, maximum. Ideally he would be cooking beans that were harvested within an even shorter duration, closer to 45 days.
“We roast a couple of days a week and deliver the next day. So, what you are drinking should’ve been harvested within 45 to 90 days, if everything went right, perfect scenario. It’s an important thing that we are getting coffee to people as fast as we can after it’s been roasted since beans stale out and lose potency, lose gases, and they deteriorate.”
A well-architected, fine-tasting cup of coffee at or from Valler Coffee encompasses the very best of the trade. Hard work and cream of the crop vetting prompts the appreciation of every sip.
“Just today, some people came out from Great Falls for a cup of coffee. That, to us, really reinforces what it is that we are doing and motivates us to keep doing it. Whether the feedback is close to home, or in Missoula, or somewhere else across the country, such response feels good.”