Chromatic Coffee: Raising the (Coffee) Bar
Chromatic’s dedication to roast and brew insanely great java strikes a local chord
Do the same thing multiple times, under the same conditions, without changing the variables and have the result come out different every time, and what do you have? Insanity … or the perfect description of the magic of artisanal coffee roasting. That’s how Chief Roaster Hiver van Geenhoven from Chromatic Coffee talks about the process.
“I am a hands-on guy with a lot of things. But roasting coffee is a crazy art. It’s one of the truest crafts,” he says.
Chromatic Coffee is a specialty coffee company that distributes its roasted beans throughout the Bay Area with branded coffee shops located in downtown San Jose and Santa Clara. Their origin story reads like the quintessential Silicon Valley start-up: The founders worked at leading coffee shops before breaking away to start their own business when they saw an opportunity to bring their skills directly to the public. Their first café, in Santa Clara, was true to the specialty coffee creed—openness and inclusiveness—sharing coffee roasting ideas and methods with the objective of creating a destination with a deep local commitment.
“We were in love with the idea of sharing our coffee knowledge,” says Otessa Crandell, café manager and cofounder.
They are also committed to the South Bay and San Jose. “There are incredible makers right here in the South Bay,” says Otessa. The café plies customers with sweets and breads from 2nd Story Bakeshop in Santa Clara, nut brittles by San Jose’s Sweet Dragon and baked goods and sweets from Manresa Bread in Los Gatos. “I couldn’t imagine being in any other place in the Bay Area,” she says. “The area is vibrant, the people are creative. It is home for us.”
But they are known for their coffees. Every component in the coffee-making process is meticulously scrutinized. “I’m a bit of an idiot savant,” says Hiver. “I am interested in understanding everything that is going on with the roaster and how the mechanism works. It piques my curiosity every single day. Mastering coffee roasting is my art.”
And curious he is. He and fellow tinkerer and cofounder James Warren customized Chromatic’s cast-iron and steel-drum Probat L12 roaster with a fan so they could roast continuously. “If I have a signature style it is that I try to develop a brown, sugary sweetness in all of my coffees.” Controlling heat is one of the most critical variables in the roasting process. Hiver measures the temperature of the air coming into the roaster, the temperature exiting and the temperature of the beans throughout the process. They use Cropster software to capture and track all the variables in the roasting process. It’s as close to a recipe as they can get given the variability in the beans and the process.
It all starts with the beans. Chromatic’s largest supplier is in Brazil. They also buy beans from El Salvador, Honduras, Ethiopia and Guatemala and, to a lesser extent, Colombia, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and Rwanda. “We’re investing in a farmer and his farm,” says Hiver. “I try to visit during harvest, so I can see the harvesting equipment and how it is calibrated.” Building these partnerships has been his secret sauce for the seven years he has been “green buying” beans.
Don’t get him started on water. “Water is just fascinating to me,” he says. He gets that mad scientist tone in his voice when he talks about roasting thermodynamics and how water’s pH, ionic exchange, electrical charge and composition of minerals play during brewing. There’s no perfect water, he says, and it’s his daily challenge to roast coffees that work with our local hard water as well as whatever water his customers have at home.
Hiver frequently gets his hands dirty with the nuances of the terroir including soil composition, nitrogen and potassium levels and which nutrients are being added to the soil. It’s not uncommon for him to fly to a country, drive to a growing region and hike to a farm on the side of a mountain to meet with the farmers. He does his own negotiating of price outside of the formal New York Mercantile Exchange market rate, but realizes the partnership must be profitable for the farmer to sustain his operation. “For me, it’s the human connection that matters and I appreciate the value chain and the need to sustain it.”
Hiver’s current passion project involves coffee from Yemen. It includes a Bay Area man with Yemeni roots—and a frequent Chromatic visitor—going back to Yemen to revitalize a long-lost coffee farm in what many believe is the original birthplace of coffee as we know it. The coffee was awarded 97 points by Coffee Review and voted the Best Coffee of 2017. “I am humbled and honored that I have been entrusted to roast this coffee. It is phenomenal.” Once again, Hiver’s passion for harmoniously crafted coffee hits all the right notes.