Interview with Heart’s Wille & Rebekah Yli-Luoma
We sat down with Wille & Rebekah at their Hawthorne roastery to chat about Wille’s move from professional snowboarder to roaster and find out what makes Heart beat.
Rebekah: My name is Rebekah Yli-Luoma. I work for Heart Coffee Roasters. I don’t really know what my job title is. I guess CEO maybe. I don’t really know what it is.
I oversee the cafés. I deal with a lot of personnel. I also am pretty connected to the roastery as well. With the people that work here … I work with the people.
Wille: She’s a people person.
Rebekah: I’m a people person. Not just that. That’s not all I do. So we kind of wear a lot of different hats. But that’s my main focus with the company.
Wille: My name is Wille Yli-Luoma, I am the founder. I wear a lot of different hats.
I will receive quality green coffee, roast profiles, and all the equipment that we have for the cafés, direction where we want to go with the coffee.
I have other people working under me. I have Alex (who’s in charge of the QC), but I oversee all of it. When I’m gone, he kind of takes over.
And so, right now, I’m trying to get away from buying green coffee and teaching some of the other guys to do it. It’s just hard. Anyone can cup coffee. Bur then there’s the experience of how to deal with exporters and people at source. There are a lot of different variables that come to play, not just tasting the coffee.
Q: How did you get started?
Rebekah: I was there the whole time. I was not working actively at Heart until about eight months into the café opening. How did I …. I don’t know how did I start. He just –
Wille: I needed someone else.
Rebekah: Needed me to help. And I was like, “I’ll come in for a couple of weeks and clean some stuff up.” Then I came in and I was like –
Wille: Still here.
Rebekah: I guess I’m gonna be here for a while. I like coffee a lot. I like business. I like people.
Wille: It’s actually perfect because I’m not as good with people, so I leave all that to her.
Rebekah: So yeah. I think because there was a need for that with the company it just, I fell into it. It’s been ongoing. It’s not boring. There’s nothing boring about it.
Q: How did you move from professional snowboarding to roasting?
Wille: I was still snowboarding when I started. So, coffee was always kind of like a hobby or a passion. Actually, I went a little bit too far I would say. It became an obsession.
I bought a home espresso machine. Then, I bought a nicer home grinder. Then, I bought a commercial grinder. Then, I bought a commercial espresso machine. This is all in my kitchen.
Rebekah: I had really great cappuccinos in bed.
Wille: I started buying different roasters’ coffees. Just making coffee at home and I was really, really into it. Then, at one point, I was like, “Maybe I should open my own café.”
I was really into biking. I was like, “Maybe I’ll open a café where I like work on bikes and sell coffee.”
Then, the more I started thinking about it, I was like, “I’m getting kind of old for snowboarding.”
My body was kinda starting to hurt. I was kind of just wanting to move on from it. And, in the summer, we were doing a build out. Then, I was doing roasting at the space.
We were suppose to go on a trip to Chile for K2. I didn’t really want to go. I wanted to stay and get better at roasting and roasting more coffee. I was so focused on the project.
I realized I didn’t really like the roaster I had bought. There were so many problems with it. Then, I kept looking online. I found this other roaster I really wanted. I was like, “I’m not sure if I can buy that right now or whatever.”
The next day, I was leaving for Chile. I went to the airport and, as I’m checking in, I just got this really bad feeling. As I’m checking in! Usually, I get when I’m about to hit a jump and I don’t want to but I still do it, I get hurt. I got the same feeling when I’m checking in at the airport. I just don’t want to do this and I don’t feel good.
I got to the counter. I talked to the lady she’s like, “Aww you’re a little bit late. Your bags are not going to make it on the next flight.”
And I was like, “I’m not going to go.”
As I walked and I took a cab home, I got a call from the marketing guy. He is like, “Hey you’re not coming.”
I’m like, “No.”
He’s like, “Well, get on a plan tomorrow.”
I’m like: “No.”
He’s like, “Well this is gonna cause some problems with your contract.”
I’m like, “It’s okay.”
I just called Sweden and this guy in Sweden who was working at Giesen and that’s how I got my roaster. I purchased this roaster instead and I decided to stay home.
Flew over to Europe to test the roaster because I just didn’t really like the coffees that was getting here from the Northwest. I thought there could be something else introduced in the market, a little bit lighter roast then what was happening here. More interested in buying the green myself and then roasting and being in charge of it.
Wille: The whole buy thing I scrapped and decided to focus on roasting.
Eventually, my passion went from brewing coffee to roasting coffee. For the last eight years, I’ve been going back and forth.
I really love brewing coffee. I really like roasting coffee. Then, I like cupping sample roasts from sourcing. To be good at it, you have to know all the aspects of it. If you feel like you’re a little weak on one of the points, it is just really important to focus on that.
Most of it’s just quality and amounts to relationship coffees. At the same time, we do not buy the coffee because it is a relationship coffee. It has to be good. So, sometimes one of those coffees don’t make it back on the menu next year. Just purely based on quality.
We cup for quality and just try to find the best coffees. That’s all we’re going to be tasting for several months in a row when we release new coffee. We roast the coffee, figure out the roast profile.
I try to find good coffees. Pretty simple.
Q: What is the Heart Coffee flavor?
Wille: We look for sweet and clean coffees. Clean meaning we try to stay away from all the natural coffees that people are supposedly really into. Natural processing coffee isn’t really the same as natural processing wine or other areas. They let the coffee ferment. The skin in a cherry ferments on the bean and it doesn’t produce nice flavors 99 percent of the time.
We just buy washed coffees. We want to be able to roast the coffee so you can taste where the coffee’s from without knowing. If you taste a coffee and know this is from Huehuetenango or this is from Ethiopia or this is from Kenya without knowing. Then, I feel like we did our job well.
The goal is be able to showcase the different profiles for the coffee and not just add something with the roaster or mask the flavors. Trying not add anything except roast the coffee so it extracts and tastes good.
There’s a very small window for roasting coffee. I don’t think it’s like people talk about being like this art form or whatever. I think it’s kind of crap. There’s really a small window were it tastes good. Either it tastes roasty or under-developed or baked or scorched. The window were it taste good is super small. It’s much more science driven as far as what temperatures, what times, how does the coffee extract.
Q: They say your coffee has to pass a lot of tests before being served. What are the tests?
We try to gather as much data as possible from all the cafés from here and then work off that. I definitely think that we were … I don’t know if its any more just us. I think there are more people going in that direction.
But, I would say seven years ago, we were probably the only ones in Northwest that was even using refractometers and just measuring our coffees and really putting energy into it.
We’ve been using Cropster since 2012 and I feel like a lot of people now the last couple years jumped on like, “Oh, maybe we should start recording our profiles.” I do think we were early adapters in that. I think that’s the future of coffee right now.
The people that want to get better and be serious, they just know that that’s what you gotta do. It was hard, though, because most professional athletes are used to a different lifestyle. Going from that to coffee. Just no money in coffee. If you really want to make money don’t get into coffee. It’s really a passion thing. You really gotta love it. There’s some money, but you’re not going to get rich off it. If you are a big company sure you can make money.
Wille: But really, I think we’re going to see a lot of small roasters go out of business the next couple of years. There are too many roasters that are popping up. There’s not enough of a market for it. Even us, you know, being around doing it for seven years…it’s not easy.
It’s not like I’m driving around in some fancy car. It’s a lot of work. But, I love it. I’m really into coffee and this part right finally like we have enough data and things we gathered through out the years. It’s starting to make more and more sense to me and I think this is the time it’s the most interesting. And also having a good communication with the farms. We can start, with confidence, giving them advice on how we want coffees to be processed or dried without being scared that we are going to mess up their crop.
You know, when you first tell someone to do something, you have to commit to the coffee and buy even if it’s bad. Now, I’m pretty confident the information we’re giving them it’s not going to mislead them or produce worse quality. If anything, it’s going to be the same or better.
Q: What’s the focus in the next years?
Rebekah: We are opening another café, probably early summer. And, right now, we’re putting pretty heavy focus on … We’re always doing this, but it feels like right now we’re putting in extra focus on strengthening the departments in the company, creating positions in the company to help make that transition to opening another café even better. Which is exciting.
That’s the plan for the next year or two. That’s the plan. Just really really continuing to keep the foundation super strong and putting focus where we’re seeing it’s lacking. Putting more focus in those areas. So we can continue to grow at a natural healthy pace.
We want to grow wholesale, but we’re not aggressive about it. We’re not going after accounts. We want to be a good fit. It’s a little different approach from what other roasters. I think it’s the healthier route because, when you have someone that comes to you who wanted to use your coffee because they like your coffee, I don’t have to sale it. It’s already sold to them. There’s no convincing. It’s just helping them do the best job with the coffee.
I think there’s a lot of sales going on. Trying to get samples of this this and you should use our product. If I have to sell our product like that, then I don’t think it’s a good fit.
Those are two things that really are important to us. I can’t really like stress more than: Just make sure that the people out there serve your coffee are doing a good job and being good hosts. Because, it’s a bummer when you go some where and drink some … you know any coffee and you’re like, “Oh this is not even close to what is should taste like.”
Q: What will you be doing at the La Marzocco Café?
Wille: It’s pretty much what we do at the cafés.
Wille: We’re not doing anything like crazy special.
Wille: We’re pretty much take the same model from our cafés to there.
Rebekah: Yup. Hopefully people will like it.
Wille: We’re going to do a couple classes up there too.
Wille: Our brewing and cupping from a home espresso machine.
Rebekah: Yeah. Home espresso classes.
Wille: Yeah. So that’s going to be … I think it’s going to be eye opening for some people. Seeing … I think Chris is going to share some data of what we’ve found in the last year.
Rebekah: Yeah, I think that’s going to be really cool.
Wille: That’s what I miss in coffee and things people do. Like, “Ah…do this because of this.” But, I’m sure we’ve come a long ways. There are a lot of things that we did that we don’t think is right anymore.
Wille: We’ve used different things that we’re like, “I can’t believe we did that.”
Rebekah: Yeah, that may continue to happen.
Wille: Yeah, but of course it’s the only way you’re going to progress.
Rebekah: I don’t claim that we know everything.
Wille: The only way you are going to progress is by understanding you might be wrong in some things. The sooner you learn that you’re not going to be right on things all the time and being open minded is the best way to learn fast in coffee.
Wille: You might not like what this person is doing, but he’s been in the industry for like 15-20 years. So, they have some experience that you can learn from them. This last year has been like, “Okay, I need to gain more knowledge from all these people.” When you like accept certain things, you kind of like opens another door to another door to another door. And that’s when it becomes really interesting to me.