Artisan Coffee Roaster calls Bayfield County home

Update: March 13, 2013

I am very sad to report that Harry Demorest passed away on Monday, March 11, 2013. I’ll be drinking a cup of Northwestern Coffee Mills in his honor and can only hope to live life with half the passion he had. Rest in peace Harry.

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“I get to participate in people’s lives. It is an important part of their day and I get to be a part of it.” Harry Demorest, Northwestern Coffee Mills.

One thing I’ve grown to love during my freelance career is the opportunity to meet passionate people committed to something they love. This couldn’t be more true of my encounter with Harry Demorest of Northwestern Coffee Mills in Washburn.

The meeting was particularly exciting due to my recent discovery of how delicious at-home roasted coffee beans taste. Harry was quite patient with my new-found passion for roasting and allowed me to watch him in action, pick his brain for some simple tips on roasting, while also learning a bit about his journey as a coffee roaster which I’ll share below.

The word artisan means different things to many people but I think everyone would agree, this man knows coffee and is creating a great product right in Bayfield County that everyone should have the pleasure of trying at least once in their lifetime.

Here’s a copy of the article that initially ran in Business North and some photos from my adventure.

P.S. If you’re reading this and feel a strong desire to buy me a present, this is a great option, as is any of the fresh roasted coffee at Big Water Roaster in Bayfield. While newer to the game of roasting, I find their stuff fabulous as well!

Coffee Artisan Finds Comfort in Northern Wisconsin

harrydemorestSitting in an unassuming office in north woods Wisconsin, Harry Demorest points to his hands and simply says, “these are working hands.”

Working hands are not uncommon in northern Wisconsin. In fact, the pre-dominant industries in the region demand sweat equity. But Demorest isn’t working the dominant industry of northern Wisconsin. The truth is, his at-home business isn’t even signed. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something extraordinary taking place at this 20-acre spread in Washburn, Wisconsin.

Demorest’s trade is one of the oldest in the world—a craft that defines people’s morning around the world. You see, Demorest is a coffee roaster who has devoted his life to mastering the craft. At 70, he’s most certainly one of the oldest, active coffee roasters around.

Demorest first started learning about coffee in Milwaukee in the mid 1900s at Northwestern Coffee Mills. Demorest didn’t know coffee would be his life’s work—the fact is he was getting his masters degree in economics and was bound for corporate USA when he determined he liked working with his hands. Fate stepped in and before he knew it, he was no longer a college student but an apprentice of the coffee industry.

Training among some of the long established, successful coffee roasters and merchants (the company dates back to 1875) in Milwaukee, Demorest learned everything he knows about coffee by practicing the trade. Over time, his mentors moved on and in 1974, Demorest finalized purchase of the business.

At the time, the business included retail, mail order, servicing area restaurants and a small wholesale operation. In addition to coffee, there was also a tea and spice business. A solid businessman, Demorest constantly sought ways to grow business. In the 70s, this included being listed in the Whole Earth Catalog. Many of those customers remain his base today.

After years of battling retail and the Milwaukee business front, Demorest decided it was time for change. In the late 90’s, he and his family moved to northern Wisconsin. He credits the move for making him a better roaster.

“You don’t feel the same pressures up here that were in Milwaukee,” he says. “In Milwaukee there were too many other things to focus on.” The move also marked the last time Demorest had a retail store. Then again, he doesn’t really need one.

Today, Northwest Coffee Mills roasts over 800 pounds per month during slow times and more than 1,000 pounds per month during peak times. Most of the coffee goes directly to 500 customers in 43 states across the United States. The rest is distributed locally. In addition, he sells about 100 pounds of special blended teas and additional spices. He estimates selling more than $2 million in the past 20-years alone, but remains incredibly humble.

When asked about his accomplishments, Demorest is quick to point out that coffee is similar to a chair in that it needs four legs. The legs include the grower, roaster or processor, brewer and the context in what you drink the coffee.

Demorest says he is just “the processor,” but he takes the job seriously. “I get to participate in people’s lives. It is an important part of their day and I get to be a part of it.”

In his 40+ years in the business, he has watched the industry evolve into a marketing machine that at times grows tiring for this 70 year old.

“You walk down the coffee aisle in the grocery store and pick up different packages of coffee and they are all the best, freshest, world’s greatest coffees. How can that be? It ends up being all fluff and no stuff.”

The roaster at Northwestern Coffee Mills in Washburn, WIsconsin.
The roaster at Northwestern Coffee Mills in Washburn, Wisconsin.

At Northwestern Coffee Mills, Demorest has mastered the other extreme. He spends minimal money on marketing. His website is simple. His customer base is loyal. His focus is customer service and making sure each batch meets his expectations. He doesn’t claim to be the best but instead lets the product speak for itself.

During our visit, he shares his process. Roasting a 25-pound of Sumatra to a full, medium body blend, Demorest takes his time. A single roast can take up to nearly an hour—something Demorest says large commercial roasters balk at.

“Large roasters want to hurry up and get the next batch in,” he says. For them, time is money. But for Demorest, time allots for the senses to engage in the roasting process. Watching the beans color, listening for the crackling sound and smelling the bean roast is how Demorest gauges the process. At more than 43 years of roasting beans, he trusts his 70-year old senses more than any gadgets, gizmos or lesson books. His customers appreciate that.

coffeeBefore we know it, the batch is done and cooling in a stainless steel container. Soon, it’ll be packaged up and sent off for a customer to enjoy at their kitchen table hundreds of miles away. It is just one of many things Demorest loves about the business. “I’m in the business of putting a smile on people’s faces,” he says.

Looking ahead, Demorest doesn’t know where the business will be in 5 or 10 years. “I just turned 70. I’m ready to reinvent myself,” he says with a chuckle.

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