The Evolution of a Coffee Roaster: An Interview with Paul Thornton


An Interview with Paul Thornton, SCAA Immediate Past President & Director of Coffee for Farmer Brothers / Coffee Bean International

How did you get started working in coffee? 

I was looking for a summer job out of high school. My brother worked for a small roasting company called Coffee Bean International, which at the time owned the retail chain Coffee People and had a small wholesale business. I was hired to pack coffee, but about a week after I started, the primary roasting person left. I started roasting at CBI in September of 1982.

At what point did you know that you were meant to roast coffee for a living? 

I’m not sure I ever thought that I would be a coffee roaster for a living. To me, roasting was a conduit for bigger things in coffee. I can say that I knew coffee was going to be my career, be it roasting or green buying, after my first origin trip in 1989. The connection with the production side of coffee is what really created my passion for the industry.

What have been the most notable moments that have shaped your career? 

The most compelling times relate to the vision, founding, and solidity of the Roasters Guild. The years leading up to 2000 and until about 2007 really stand out for me, because the small group who persevered to keep the RG moving forward had a vision of the future for roasters. The vision was to design a journeyman program to support teaching and experimenting in roasting. We had our own interest in learning, but we had a bigger interest in creating a place for people to go. For me, it wasn’t just learning at these venues that helped me maintain a high level of interest, it was teaching that made it all come together. I didn’t know a lot. So I had to learn. SCAA was the place where I could learn, and today, it is still that place where the roaster can go to learn more.

Who has been the biggest inspiration or mentor for you in your coffee life? 

Jeff Ferguson and Gary Talboy, both of the founders of Coffee Bean International, were my mentors in the early days. Gary, from a business standpoint, taught me that dedication and persistence pay off. Jeff, from a coffee production standpoint, taught me about coffee buying, financing and importing. Later in my career, my mentors became the people who showed up at classes I was volunteering for with SCAA. The people I thought I was helping are the people who have taught me the most. I just had to listen to them.

How has the evolution of your company shaped your individual coffee career? 

I’d rather look at it as: what I’ve learned from my coffee career on the job, with the Roasters Guild, and during other leadership positions within SCAA has helped me evolve the company Iwork for today. The company I work for believes that the more their employees know, the better we can be at finding the right coffees to buy, knowing how to buy them, and figuring out how to sell them.

What are some of the trends have you observed in coffee roasting over the years? 

The biggest is the increasing engagement of coffee roasters and how much camaraderie has developed between them. When I started roasting, everyone swore they had unlocked the secret mystery of roasting, so don’t ask questions because the answers were all trade secrets. Today, we realize the mystery still hasn’t been unlocked, but there are now tools that roasters can use to explore these mysteries. We’ve realized that the more we work together, the more we learn. Today, roasting equipment comes with options that didn’t exist in the 1980s: thermometers, recirculating exhausts, power-burner options for small-drum roasters, air-volume meters, safety switches designed to protect the person doing the roasting. Today, a new roaster’s needs for general knowledge are supported by the industry, which includes the Roasters Guild.

What would you like to see happen in the coffee industry over the next ten years? 

I’d like to see specialty coffee recognized by the general population, so they know what it is when they taste it. I’d like to see coffee roasters and baristas work closer together to learn more about the connection between properly roasted and prepared coffee, and to define what the word “properly” means. I’d like to see consumers allowed to decide what is fresh by having roast dates on coffee packaging. And, of course, world peace.

What advice would you give new roasters who are just starting out their careers in coffee? 

Be patient, reach out beyond your roaster to learn more about coffee, and get to origin—it’ll keep you interested, instill passion for the industry, and offer knowledge only captured by being there. Be persistent and maintain the roots of the company you work for. Maintain a high level of integrity; I say this because you can start small, grow big, and not change too much internally, but it takes good business thinking to keep a balance between what your employer wants and what the employer should do. Act like an owner, build your knowledge so you are the expert, be the authority in the roasting plant, stay up to speed on the research and trainings that are available out there. Get involved in the Association…that’s where you learn the most.

How has your career been influenced/shaped by being involved with the Roasters Guild and SCAA? 

I would not be here today had it not been for the Roasters Guild and SCAA. My involvement in the Association gave me a chance to learn. I call my career in coffee, my “college days,” which began in September 1982 and continue today. SCAA is where I went to learn about the industry. But it wasn’t just attending events that gave me the degree in coffee. It was getting involved and being on committees which introduced me to my best friends and forced me to be persistent. That involvement put me in a place to create change around things I didn’t like, address processes that seemed broken, or clarify standards I didn’t understand.