Roasting coffee beans is an acquired skill that brings out their flavor and aroma. The difference between perfectly roasted and poorly roasted beans can be a matter of mere seconds. A skilled roaster knows how to take the green coffee beans and “read” them during the roasting process, making those split-second decisions that result, ultimately, in your perfect cup of coffee.
McCall has its own skilled coffee roaster: Corinne La Bella, owner of North Fork Coffee Roasters. She’s part of a trend toward “single-origin” coffees served at specialty shops.
Corinne was born in Colorado. Her school teacher father worked summers as a wildland firefighter – a smoke jumper out of McCall – and from age seven, Corinne spent summers here. Loving those summer sojourns, she knew even as a child that she wanted to live in McCall full time someday.
In 2003, when she was 19, La Bella got a job in Warren working on a fire crew. “The plan was for the work on fire crews to pay for college,” she says. “Then it became fire crew plus Tamarack ski bum, with college when I was feeling guilty.” Bouncing around, she also worked on a rappel crew in Colorado for two years before returning to McCall for good in 2010. Like many in this mountain tourist town, La Bella has worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, including at Gravity Sports and most of the local food establishments at one time or another.
Along the way, La Bella worked in some coffee shops. “I always loved coffee; I love talking about coffee” she says. Working at The Hub, she learned its coffee was purchased from Intelligentsia Coffee of Chicago. “That was the first time I thought about the difference between coffees. Grocery store coffee became icky to me. And then, at some point, I thought, it’s someone’s job to roast coffee beans. Now, ten years later, here I am, roasting!”
In her early days of exploring roasting, La Bella started with a stove-top roaster and a 15 pound bag of green beans. She was quickly hooked. “I’d tell my boyfriend: cut me off after three hours,” she laughs. “I was giving the roasted beans away as gifts and getting positive feedback.” A friend in Big Sky, Montana opened a coffee roasting business; she quizzed him and he referred her to another Montana roaster called Little Red Wagon Coffee (now Treeline Coffee Roasters). Learning what she could, “I knew it was going to happen,” La Bella says.
La Bella’s father was understandably concerned about his daughter’s new business passion. “He thought it was risky, knowing how hard it is for a business to survive in McCall, and there were lots of new ones that opened in the previous year. He feared my business wouldn’t last. My defense: But it’s coffee.”
From her decision to chase her dream to its fruition took about a year and a half of scrambling to put all the pieces together. La Bella started with searching for a location that met health department requirements. Eventually she found space in a former garage adjacent to Epikos Land Planning and Architecture on Colorado Street, just off Third. “They’ve been so accommodating,” says La Bella, allowing her to use their bathroom and mop sink so that the space she uses meets requirements for her business. Some cleaning and minor remodeling of the space were in order. Plus, she needed a roaster.
“I never had a credit card,” La Bella says. “I didn’t have credit, so I couldn’t get a business loan. I knew what sort of roaster I wanted, a used San Franciscan. A coffee roasting business in Colorado was closing, so I offered to buy theirs. The seller was very supportive. My mom financed the roaster; my dad and I drove it from Colorado to McCall.”
Choosing names for the various types of roasted beans she would sell, La Bella sought something that would speak to the community of McCall, which she now considers home. “I’m living on the North Fork of the Payette, walking dogs with my boyfriend in the morning” she explains. “My boyfriend is a guide on the Middle Fork of the Salmon; he knows birds and the special places they live. He suggested using river birds to represent the different qualities of roast, relating the characteristics of each bird to the roast level characteristic.” That led to Light Roast Kingfisher, Medium Roast Dipper (Ouzel), Medium Roast Great Blue Heron, and Dark Roast Osprey. La Bella felt that decaf roasts couldn’t be a bird, and so settled on Decaf Roasts Damselfly. Flavor notes are included on all of the bags, although according to La Bella, most buyers in McCall rarely ask for flavors like Ethiopian or Guatemalan, but instead ask for medium or dark. La Bella will roast an extra special dark – like a French roast – for those who ask, but doesn’t otherwise make it.
“I was so excited about the business that I had hats hand-made from recycled material and stamped with my bird logos before I opened” La Bella laughs. “The joke around town was, it is a coffee or hat business? This coffee roasting idea became my ambition, my dream. Some friends thought that, like some of my previous business ideas, it would fizzle out. But even when I felt discouraged, I knew this idea would stick.” North Fork also offers personalized coffee mugs.
La Bella knew from the start that she wanted to purchase and roast ethically sourced beans. “I learned a lot about certification of ethically sourced beans, including whether the actual farmers or the co-op they belong to get a fair wage for their product,” she says, a concept called Fair Trade. There is a certification process called CAFÉ (Coffee and Farm Equity) Practices which encompasses four categories: product quality, economic accountability, social responsibility, and environmental leadership for growers over a certain size of acres. “I get my beans from micro-farmers in several countries; few are actually certified,” she says, purchasing through Coffee Shrub of Oakland, California which promises to pay the farmer more than the Fair Trade rate. And because all coffee beans are seasonal – they change in flavor yearly, like wine grapes – La Bella researches and chooses from a selection offered by Coffee Shrub, based on photos and a write-up of the farm and the family that runs it. After attending the Portland Roast Fest recently, La Bella is considering switching suppliers, perhaps to Café Femenino Organic Products Trading Company, whose focus is making a difference in the lives of women and families in coffee-producing communities throughout the world.
“I love trying new coffees,” says La Bella. “I like them, then they’re gone and I try another. It keeps coffee drinking fresh and interesting. But some people like sticking with a specific coffee. I want to avoid being intimidating and definitely don’t want to be a coffee Nazi! I want everyone to feel comfortable. Rather than be the hip coffee place, I want any grandmother, farmer, or student to know about North Fork and feel welcome, knowing they’ll get a coffee they like.” Bring your own mug and get 50 cents off a cup of coffee; bring in an empty coffee bag and North Fork will refill it to promote recycling. Customer loyalty cards (by 10, get one free) are made from old bags, also promoting recyling.
Because La Bella works two other jobs to pursue her coffee roasting passion and grow her business, she currently roasts just once or twice a week. It’s a time-consuming process. Each batch takes roughly 20 minutes and produces about four pounds of beans. “I can spend eight hours roasting,” La Bella says. “I’ve had marathon days of ten hours to fill special orders.” After roasting, the beans “rest” for 24 hours before bagging. La Bella advises her customers that the best flavor comes three to five days after roasting, and the beans should be consumed within 30 days. La Bella’s beans are currently sold at Mountain Java and Three Sisters; because she doesn’t want beans sitting on a shelf too long before purchase, she checks every week to guarantee a bag isn’t there more than two weeks.
I started selling coffee at the shop last summer,” La Bella says, hoping to entice customers to come in for coffee as well as the beans. “I get to have interactions with people, tell them about the beans and the roasting process.”
La Bella notes that the majority of her customers are locals, adding that it’s hard for tourists to notice the shop. Her hoped-for solution for expanding her brand and customer base is to acquire a 1960 Shasta travel trailer and find some private property adjacent to the downtown core where she can park, selling coffee and beans to tourists and locals. She also hopes to park it at event locations, for example mountain bike races at Jug Mountain or the North Fork Championship kayak races at Banks. La Bella also plans to expand her delivery service by adding regular local customers to those she has, like the Smoke Jumper Base, while also getting her product served in more local restaurants and shops.
North Fork Coffee Roasters opened the last weekend of October 2016. La Bella’s idea that grew into a dream that became a reality has celebrated its one year anniversary and is gaining momentum. With the support of the community and La Bella’s drive and passion, North Fork is destined to become a long-term success. La Bella’s response to her father’s initial concern was spot on: its coffee. Everyone likes coffee, and they especially like good, fresh coffee beans like those roasted at North Fork.[You can also find North Fork Coffee Roasters on Facebook.]