By Jesse Wood
Dec. 24, 2014. For owner Don Cox, Bald Guy Brew is where the love of coffee and humanity meet, and like many businesses, roasting coffee started out as a passionate hobby.
Cox came to Boone in the ‘80s to go to Appalachian State University. After graduating he left for higher education and travelled the world, which eventually led him to meet people growing coffee beans in Mexico. He travelled some more, including working with genocide survivors in Rwanda and doing leadership development in Peru. Along the way, he continued to connect with people whose families grew coffee beans.
“So I went out and bought some green coffee beans, put it on a stove and started to twirl it around a pan,” Cox said.
From that “old-school” method, he upgraded to a hot-air popcorn popper, and then decided to make the jump to roasting coffee. About nine years ago, he pulled up into the parking lot of the Watauga County Farmers’ Market in his USDA-approved biodiesel, solar-panel van and started roasting coffee out of the back, bagging it and selling it for retail.
“I love roasting coffee and love what it does to me. It makes me so happy,” Cox said. “My last addiction has to be a good one.”
When he started out roasting coffee, Cox didn’t realize it was in his blood. A while back he visited his grandmother’s sister’s house in a little town in Yugoslavia.
“I remember walking into a house with a dirt floor and in the middle of the floor was a fire and this lady was roasting green coffee beans on it and apparently this spoon, she used to stir coffee with is now in my mother’s possession and I will inherit it. I didn’t know I had that in my family line.”
‘What good is a business if it’s not doing good’
Bald Guy Brew is well known for being an eco-friendly, socially-responsible business. While hanging out and helping farmers, such as Charles Church, at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market, he realized how hard farmers worked in the fields relative to the pay. After that “light went off,” he noted that he had two choices as buyer of a crop: he could either exploit the coffee growers or empower them. He chose the latter.
“Coffee is insanely intimate because a lot of hands touch it. A lot people miss that,” Cox said. “What’s in a cup matters.”
In the early years of the business, he also had an ASU accounting student intern with him. Looking over the financial books, the student noticed that Cox wasn’t making a killing in this business. He also saw that Cox would give away coffee to folks that couldn’t afford it or to good causes and nonprofits to raise funds.
The student said, “What good is a business if it’s not doing good?”
The student was speaking in monetary terms, but Cox flipped that statement on its head.
“You’re brilliant,” Cox told him. “What good is a business if it’s not doing good, not doing good for individuals?”
Since then, he made a choice to only buy organic and fair trade coffee that is grown in a sustainable manner and empowers the small farmers that are growing the artisanal green coffee beans.
“It’s really a core value,” Cox said. “If my core values were profit, hell, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
In 2011, Bald Guy Brew embarked on a cycling trip to Boone from Wilmington. He picked up 100 pounds of Rwandan coffee beans and biked back to Boone in what was called “Bike for Beans.” The trip raised money for Project Rwanda, a fundraiser providing Rwandan coffee growers with bicycles to haul coffee beans. Eliminating travel by foot increased the freshness and quality of the growers’ green coffee beans by decreasing transportation time.
In the coming year, Cox said he also has another similar bike tour from Beech Mountain to the beach, where he hopes to raise money for a research development farm in Costa Rico that helps farmers grow a higher-quality coffee crop that will lead to better pay.
New Bald Guy Brew Shop on Beech Mountain
Bald Guy Brew has four locations: downtown Boone, downtown Blowing Rock, Valle Crucis and most-recently Beech Mountain. While using the name and face of Bald Guy Brew, the stores on King Street and Main Street aren’t owned by Cox.
Cox said the Valle Crucis location is “where all the magic happens.” Recently on a Facebook, Cox posted a picture of his roaster in Valle Crucis with the words: “Love roasting at night … sacred space where art, passion and contentment meet.”
The Beech Mountain location just opened at the top of the resort, at the 5506’ Skybar, which is the name of food and beverage establishment at the very top of the mountain. Here Cox serves specialty espresso drinks, organic and fair trade coffees, pastries and more.
Cox described serving coffee at the top of the mountain, accessed via chairlift, as being “awesome.”
The Cupping Process
Because coffee beans come from a plant, the quality of a particular variety changes from season to season, from region to region and from grower to grower.
So before buying a batch of green coffee beans, Cox performs the “cupping” process, which is kind of similar to wine tasting and protects the buyer from buying inferior green coffee beans. He’ll receive samples of coffee beans and roast them. Then he’ll put some of the grounds in three small ceramic cups. He’ll smell them and then pour very hot water over them. The three cups of the same grounds helps to identify uniformity among the sample.
The next step involves skimming the cup clean of grounds, and slurping the liquid from a spoon, making sure the liquid touches the many taste buds in the mouth before spitting it out into a different cup. This process is repeated twice at different temperatures before finally swallowing on the third time before the coffee cools down too much.
As Cox said, each coffee has a “historical profile fingerprint” and cuppers look to evaluate fragrance, aroma, acidity, body, flavor and finish. Cox will do this with several different kinds of beans before selecting the cream of the crop. He also perform this process again when the full shipment arrives just to make sure he’s receiving the same quality coffee as he sampled.
For more information, click to Bald Guy Brew’s website.
Photos of Bald Guy Brew’s shop atop Beech Mountain Resort at the 5506′
By Kristian Jackson
Photo of Bald Guy Brew’s shop at Valle Crucis
By Jesse Wood
Bald Guy Brew shop at Blowing Rock
By Ken Ketchie
Photos of Bald Guy Brew Shop in Boone
By Ken Ketchie