LEARNING CURVES

The Humble Approach Coffee Apprenticeships Require

arrot peregrine coffee roasters head roaster

Arrott Smith
Roasting Manager & Quality Control

arrott and stephen roasting

Photograph by Steve Willis

As a “dirt poor” student at Texas A&M University, I started my own business for extra income. It was during this time that I developed a love for creating. In a tangible way, that love manifested itself in roasting coffee. 

In 2018, I was living with 6 roommates in a house on Walton Drive. Truthfully, being the only returning member of the 305 Walton roommate cast that year, I volunteered to live in the uninsulated garage. Fun times! My -20℉ sleeping bag from my stint guiding backpacking trips came in handy. With my self-diagnosis of ADHD, the busy house-made studying difficult. More and more often, I found myself going straight from class to my favorite coffee shop, Harvest Coffee Bar, in downtown Bryan, Texas. It was a 10–15-minute haul from campus, but always worth it. There, I began to fall in love with the coffee shop experience. The dim lighting. The exposed brick and high ceilings. The fancy names for coffee. The small plates and mugs. The always “on-point” music the baristas seemed to be playing.

Back to me being “dirt poor,” this habit began to add up. As Harvest grew in popularity amongst my class, they soon had to deal with the lack of seating (and therefore business) somehow. They began requiring a drink purchase every 3 hours (on-the-dot) for a new wi-fi password. This, and the ensuing cost, eventually pushed me back home.

Being a recent convert to specialty coffee, I needed it. . . but I looked for every way to cut costs and cut corners. Eventually, I was ordering green coffee from Amazon (I do not recommend this) and was roasting it on my stovetop. My 6 roommates simply tolerated me at this time. My heavy involvement in Young Life as a volunteer leader proved quite arduous, so I only did what I could on the side. Upon tasting the coffee I was roasting, I enjoyed it. A thought crossed my mind: What if I were to sell this coffee (at a cheap price) to my fellow poor college students? Many of them were already into specialty coffee and had learned to make pour-overs at home. It was firmly a part of modern college culture. So, officially, Dirt Pour Coffee Company, which was originally under a different name, began.

arrott roasting beginnings
dirt pour coffee first bag

I began selling my coffee almost exclusively over Instagram. With slow growth, I eventually made the jump to a fancy website (complete with fancy photoshoot photos). Very quickly, I got “too big for my britches”. Coffee was shipping left and right. This feeling of being overwhelmed meant I was calling in anyone and everyone for help when Aggieland Outfitters wanted 50 bags of coffee and to “highlight” me. The home-roasting model was not conducive to the retail world or to supplying the coffee shops that eventually wanted to sample my coffee.

Studying forestry at A&M, I escaped with the bare necessities for graduation. I had picked up no passion for employment at a paper mill or for government work, but the job search ensued. It wasn’t much of a “search,” as I was approaching it in a relatively passive manner. I was lucky enough to be from College Station (where A&M is located), so I had the opportunity to move in with my dad. Cliché, I know. For about a year, I nine-to-five’d at an outdoor retail store in town.

dirt pour coffee bags
dirt pour roasting coffee

Besides my retail job, I was moonlighting as a coffee roaster. I was coming home, pretty tired from being on my feet all day and roasting for several hours a night in our backyard on patio furniture. 

I had it down to a science. I learned to bypass safety features to speed up my roasts. I created my own cooling tray using a colander and a shop-vac. I had merch. I had custom bags. I was legit. . . or so I thought.

shipping dirt pour coffee

Even though I was constantly running coffee deliveries across town or mailing them across the country, I was struggling to turn a profit and struggling to roast good coffee. Deep down, I knew my coffee was not as good as the professionals. I had a coffee subscription mailed to me weekly, and I could tell the difference. I did my best, but I could not talk myself into raising my prices for better margins. People came back for the prices and the freshness. Those were my selling points, if I had any.

Like much of the nation, in March 2020, I was at a crossroads. I was 2 years down this home-roasting journey. My small, table-top Behmor 1600 roaster took me about as far as it possibly could have. I had maxed out my credit card a time or two. I had undergone the lengthy process of establishing my LLC, setting up a business bank account, and buying a domain (only to renew it monthly). Dirt Pour Coffee Company LLC was my life from late 2018 to June of 2020. 

Ultimately, I had to admit I knew nothing about running a business. I knew even less about roasting coffee.

How did I get myself into this situation?
How did I come to that conclusion?

Flashing back, in 2019, I began dating a girl named Naomi. She was sweet, selfless, and had a real appetite for adventure. She was my biggest cheerleader, and I quickly became hers. I knew she was the one. My job search and future plans always had her in mind. She was from Fort Worth, so I began looking for forestry-related jobs in Fort Worth. Nothing I could see myself doing. I looked in College Station, Houston, San Antonio, but found nothing I felt qualified for.

arrott and naomi

When Christmas of 2019 rolled around, I was out shooting pool with my high school Young Life leader, Ron. He wanted to know how my coffee business was going. With some pride in my voice, I remarked that it was going well. Perhaps he could sense my doubt in the statement because he then replied, “You should really talk to my buddy, Stephen”. When I showed hesitation, he asked me to pray about it. 

Ron had lived in a tiny town called Westcliffe, Colorado a couple of years back. At the time of our conversation, Ron was living in Seattle, but while he and his wife were in Westcliffe, they had befriended a local coffee roaster.. He told me very briefly about Stephen. He had let me know Stephen was a missionary who was looking to get back in the field and  was looking for someone to work for him.

arrott and friend

I consider Ron a good friend and judge of character. He was always able to see through my façade. So, even though I initially refuted his advice to even ask for advice, I eventually texted Stephen Holmes on February 15, 2020. I didn’t exactly know where it would go, but it was worth a shot. Our texts led to a phone call the next day. By the time we got on the phone, I wasn’t sure if I was even looking for advice anymore. I think I was looking for a purpose. With my heart in my throat, I dialed Stephen’s number.

Stephen will probably testify to this, but that call was full of answered prayers. For a season, Stephen had been exploring what it would look like to return to the mission field. Sadly, this led to the conclusion that he could not get there on his own. The coffee company he had started to fund his mission work required his being there to create revenue. A classic dilemma. Enter: Stephen’s prayer.

Stephen had been praying that someone from outside Westcliffe would just appear out of thin air, have a passion for coffee, and would want to apprentice under him. He needed someone willing to move across the country to be under his tutelage so that, in time, they could take the reins.

That was me.

On the other end of his prayer, I was praying with desperation for a life of purpose. I was praying for a place to go so I could leave College Station. I was praying for a way to provide for my future family while doing something I loved. I was praying for the opportunity to learn more about coffee from someone.

That was Stephen.

In March 2020, at my crossroads, Naomi and I visited snowy Westcliffe in the middle of a blizzard. For hours, we talked with Stephen and his wife Susann in the coffee shop. We helped Stephen narrow down his list of designs for a rebrand from Crestone Coffee Company to Peregrine Coffee Roasters.

From the moment we arrived, something felt right. Something bigger was at play. It wasn’t just a visit. That would prove true in multiple ways as I proposed to Naomi on our trip. By the time we were leaving Westcliffe, we were dreaming of the possibilities of a life together in Colorado.

For months and months, I was full of pure anticipation. Over and over again, my co-workers, friends, and family got to hear “I’m moving to Colorado. I’m going to take over a guy’s company for him.”. My excitement was appropriate, but it was laced with pride.

Nevertheless, in June, I packed my 2004 GMC Yukon all the way to the ceiling and left for Westcliffe.

arrott and naomi driving

Upon arrival, it became clear that this opportunity wasn’t going to just happen. It wasn’t going to be easy. For the first month+ that I was in the Wet Mountain Valley, Stephen was attempting some kind of Obi-Wan/Anakin padawan lesson in work ethic. He was “Mr. Miyagi-ing” me. I was stuck at “wax on, wax off” while painting a cabin in the woods. Even though I had several generations of paint contractors in my blood, I couldn’t hack it. Well, technically, the cabin got painted—but it was a journey.

Although I had moved across the country to learn to roast coffee, I only got the occasional whiff of coffee from my apartment next door to the shop.

cabin arrott painted

My approach was wrong. . . for a long time. I expected to come in and to start being Peregrine’s head roaster almost immediately. If selfish ambition and pride was all it took, I would have had it in-pocket. I thought I was an asset. For much of my early time with Peregrine, I would prove to be a liability. I believed much of my prior knowledge would translate, but I struggled to roast coffee consistently. I often panicked. I froze under pressure. I spilled a lot of coffee beans on the ground. That handle on the cooling tray just had my number. When diving into my mandatory reading (Scott Rao’s The Coffee Roaster’s Companion), I was utterly and completely lost. When learning to be a barista, I dreaded the sight of a car pulling up to the shop. A cold day was my worst nightmare, as I might have to attempt to steam milk again.

Time and time again I had to fail. Time and time again I had to face the music. The simple fact was: I needed humility! I needed to learn from someone who knew more than I did, and I needed to acknowledge my role as an apprentice. I needed to make peace with being at the bottom of the totem pole. I needed to verbalize often that I was willing to learn, willing to fail, and willing to keep trying in spite of my failures.

bad coffee art

Of course, this took a lot on Stephen’s part. Trust in me and my word. Trust in my commitment. Trust in my being “devoted to the journey” as we say. Trust that I may actually work out in the end. He (and Susann) have demonstrated great patience and love towards me. Through this process of apprenticeship, the Holmes have become family to my wife and I.

Yes, I still have a long way to go. We all do. However, I can confidently say March 2020 was a real crossroads in my life. At that junction, I took a unique path. Because of that decision, I am forever changed by my friendship and apprenticeship with Stephen Holmes. I am farther along on the journey to becoming the man I was made to be. I have been molded and shaped by this year and 7 months of constantly choosing humility. It is the hard choice and it is counter-cultural. . . especially among my generation (as Stephen is rightly quick to remind me).

Why is it so hard to embrace humility?

arrott portrait

Photograph by Steve Willis

Humility is more than just a buzz-word to be printed on marketing material. It is a deep attitude that involves a thorough period of self-reflection. A person must come to the realization that there is something to be learned, and that they are not the center of the universe.

Truly, for me, there has been profound freedom realized in the fact that I am not, in myself, that important. I have been blessed with the opportunity to do important things, but it is buying into a life of greater purpose that is worthwhile. I am grateful daily that His strength is made perfect in my weakness. . . because I have plenty of that to go around!

Concluding without getting too preachy, I want to allude to my purpose here at Peregrine. It is not simply to roast coffee—it is to do everything I do unto the glory of the Lord. . . and because of that, I can roast coffee with confidence and passion.

So, I resolve to be humble. Peregrine Coffee Roasters does, too. It is who we are and who we strive to be on a deep level. It is not passive, but it requires a lot of hard work in the process. When the world tells you it can be “me, me, me”, choose instead to join alongside us in humility, being devoted to the journey it will take you on.

Devoted to the Journey,
Arrott