Litigation & Plantation: Attorney Takes Roasting Out of the Courtroom, Into the Coffee Business
by Craig Eley
any of us probably would like to get into some other business, like one where we could not be held in contempt (at least by a judge). However, we are hesitant to give up our day, night, and weekend legal job, for fear that the new business eventually would fail, and by then we would be hopelessly behind in CLE credits and unable to resume the practice of law.
But some have found a way to build a business alongside a law practice. Justen Miller, an attorney with Ruegsegger, Simons, Smith & Stern, LLC, is a budding coffee magnate, complete with a plantation in Costa Rica.
With guidance from an uncle of Lara Booher, Miller’s fiancée, the two have purchased a coffee farm near San Isidro, in San Ramón Norte. The uncle was stationed in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s, and has since made that country his home. The former owner has been retained to handle the day-to-day management of the business, with the new owners visiting periodically. Although Costa Rican beachfront property cannot be purchased by foreigners without significant red tape, real estate farther inland can be owned in fee simple, just as in the United States.
Miller’s plantation sits at about 1,300 meters—or 4,260 feet—above sea level, allowing his coffee beans to be labeled "SHB," meaning "strictly hard bean"—the highest rating for coffee in Costa Rica. According to Miller, the higher the growing elevation, the more dense and flavorful the bean. Miller doesn’t market his coffee beans from the farm directly, but rather combines them with those of a local cooperative for sale to various countries.
Legally, only the species Coffea Arabica is permitted to be grown in Costa Rica. It is reputed to be superior to other major commercially grown coffee species, such as Coffea Robusta Canephora. C. Arabica originated in the mountains of Yemen and other areas of the Arabian Peninsula; it has since found its way to and flourished in Central America.
Coffee plants do not produce a full yield until around the sixth year, and will then produce beans for about a decade. Thus, cultivating new coffee plants is a constant undertaking, says Miller. A mature coffee tree is nine to 10 feet high, and because, at least with C. Arabica, the beans on any given tree all ripen at different times, Miller explains that they must be harvested by hand, so that unripe beans do not mix with those that are ripe. However, some coffee plantations are mechanized, and use machines to shake the beans off the trees indiscriminately, thus compromising the integrity of the coffee.
The coffee plants cultivated by Miller are shade-grown. While varieties of coffee plants that are grown in full sun may produce a higher yield, they require clear-cutting the forest. In contrast, shade-grown plants exist beneath the canopy, not only maintaining the forest but also preserving a stable environment for birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects that are suffering from a reduction in habitat.
Until the coffee bean is extracted from its surrounding pulp, the fruit is referred to as a cherry. When ripe, it is red, and the timing of the removal of the bean from the pulp is critical to a quality end product. If the bean is not extracted quickly enough, the sugar in the cherry will over-ferment the bean. The bean is then dried until it attains about an 11 percent moisture content. At that point, the raw bean is ready to be roasted.
Closer to home, Miller and Booher operate Monarch Roasting Company, LLC (monarchroasting.com), which purchases select estate coffees from international sources and roasts them in small batches here in Denver. They roast about 10 pounds per batch, and then custom package the coffee for customers. In addition to individuals, Monarch also has employers, such as hotels, ad agencies, and law firms, among their client base.
The coffee is roasted in a 600-pound drum roaster, which spins the beans over a heat source so that the beans do not become scorched, much like a chili roaster. Miller receives samples of various coffees from importers, then brews and evaluates them (called "cupping") to determine which coffees best suit his customers. Miller relates that coffee displays subtle flavors, similar to wine, such as citrus, caramel, and chocolate. However, the darker the roast, the less nuanced the coffee’s characteristics become, and the roast itself begins to dominate the flavor profile. Miller has educated himself as to the traits of coffees from diverse parts of the world including Africa, India, and Asia, so that he knows how to process their beans to bring out their best qualities. According to Miller, all coffees have a "sweet spot," and it is the roaster’s job to identify this range within a given type of coffee bean.
Miller finds that the coffee business brings a different perspective to his life, because he is producing a commodity that almost everyone enjoys. Unlike his work as a litigator, those he comes into contact with as a coffee purveyor are always happy. D
Craig Eley can be reached at email@example.com.