Blueprint Coffee was opened by a group of coffee professionals and advocates in 2013. These founders (literally "members" in legalese) have been at the core of Blueprint Coffee's vision and day-to-day operations. Instead of trying to create a homogenous "about us" story, we thought it would be better to introduce you to Andrew Timko of Blueprint personally and provide some insight into how he shapes the company.
Meet Andrew Timko of Blueprint Coffee: roaster, green buyer, and coffee educator extraordinaire. We spoke to Andrew about his long history with the coffee industry, his deep interest in the entire seed-to-cup processs, and his dedication to lifelong learning.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN COFFEE?
I started working in coffee in 1997. I went to Iowa State to pursue a degree in Community and Regional Planning, and when I went to visit the college with my dad I was like, "Oh, I'm gonna be cool,” and had a cappuccino from this coffee shop. It was terrible. Hated it. That ended up being the coffee shop where I started to work with a guy who I consider a mentor of mine. At the time, he was actually part of the group of coffee that you would consider second wave — like Starbucks or Pete’s. They considered themselves specialty, but they were still buying an immense amount of coffee. He taught me a lot about cupping and a lot about roasting.
DID YOU BEGIN ROASTING DURING THAT TIME PERIOD?
I started roasting at home around that time. Like any barista, as soon as I saw roasting, that was the mysterious next step or goal for my journey. I ended up managing a cafe and became very avidly interested in trying to improve espresso quality and milk technique. At that time, I was learning how to do latte art that now I can roll my eyes at. It was considered advanced at the time, but now it is ubiquitous. Now everyone does it and they are way better than me.
WHAT WERE YOUR NEXT STEPS AFTER WORKING AT THAT CAFÉ?
After a couple years there, I moved back to St. Louis and worked with a guy who was roasting. He's a friend of mine named Barry Jarrett. He taught me a lot more about coffee, the equipment side of the industry, a little bit about the roasting side and more about cupping. That's also when I entered into barista competitions way back, which was a disaster too, but it was also a very good learning experience. I did that for a couple years and then I moved on to Kaldi's and met Howard and Suzanne.
WHAT WAS KALDI'S LIKE WHEN YOU STARTED WORKING FOR THEM?
When I met Howard and Suzanne, they were aware of how the scene was changing, but they didn't know how to engage in it. I came along and was like, "I'm involved in barista competition, know how to do latte art, and know how to prepare good espresso. I can train your staff, blah, blah, blah.” They said, "Okay, you're hired, but you gotta do UPS too and do shipping."
So, I did shipping and I trained. I was eager and motivated, so I started talking to the roaster. Next thing you know, I'm roasting for the company and buying the green coffee. The rest is history with Kaldi's. I did a lot with them, and during that time I was also very engaged in The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).
WHAT KIND OF WORK DID YOU DO WITH THE SPECIALTY COFFEE ASSOCIATION?
I got to do a lot of work with SCA that I’m proud of. SCA started this educational exchange with international coffee roasting communities. I was the first person to be asked to do training in Beijing. This was the first international educational exchange period, so that was a fun experience. I also went to Singapore and did the same program with level one roaster certification for a company in Singapore.
IN YOUR COFFEE CAREER, HOW MANY TRIPS HAVE YOU GONE ON?
I've traveled for teaching and I've also been to Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia, and Guatemala. I mostly teach at the farm level now.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE BY WORKING CLOSELY WITH FARMERS?
My goal is to have real business partnerships with these farmers and not to treat them like they're impoverished farmers, because in most cases they're actually not. I try to collaborate in the sense that I want to learn, and they also need to learn more about what they do. There's a mutual benefit there. I want to sell specialty coffee, and specialty coffee gets a better margin for them. So, if I can help them accomplish producing specialty coffee, then they get an economic benefit.
WHAT OTHER BENEFITS CAN THIS TYPE OF WORK CREATE?
There's also the environmental perspective to it. There's a lot of good research now coming out with carbon sequestration of soil. Basically, it's correlated with microbiology of the soil. There are theories that we could actually reverse carbon emissions with changing our agricultural systems.
Of course, it’s also fun to be able to go to the farms and participate. For me in particular, I have the very strong desire to be engaged. That's where I thrive, in the physical doing of something.
DOES BEING PHYSICALLY ENGAGED IN A PROJECT PLAY INTO YOUR OVERALL LEARNING STYLE?
I'm definitely a Montessori type of learner, which, in a way, is trying to learn by doing and engaging with. It actually has been way more impactful in my understanding of how our coffee system works. There are a lot of people out there who are smart and can read about it and understand the mechanism, but that kind of learning can remove their ability to innovate, be creative, or really direct their own vision.
DO YOU THINK THAT A LOT OF SPECIALTY ROASTERS IMPOSE ON FARMERS RATHER THAN COLLABORATE WITH THEM?
Absolutely. Very few roasters do what we do. When we propose something, it starts with the relationship. We buy coffee to do two things: to understand how to work with the farmer and to understand the logistics a little better. What we've done from the start is that we’ve actually prioritized commitment to a farm ahead of the typical approach, which would be to focus on the quality and proper profile of a coffee. We are concerned about that because there has to be a bar that's met, but we're not going to be hyper-critical of it. We want reaching that bar to be part of the long-term goal.
WHAT'S AN EXAMPLE OF A LONG-TERM PROJECT THAT BLUEPRINT AND A FARM ARE CARRYING OUT TOGETHER?
Our work with Finca Esperanza in Guatemala and the Vizcaino Family. When I met Ana Vizcaino, I asked her what she wanted. What did she want to do? What did she want to learn by working with us? That turned into a very long conversation and a really great partnership.
When I met them three years ago, they had no mill. They were fighting pretty severe coffee leaf rust, which is a fungal growth pathogen that eats the leaves and reduces yield. We went into a risky venture together of trying to apply this composting and aerobic compost tea methodology that I did some training in. The first year I was there, they started implementing it. It demonstrated beneficial results and the coffee leaf rust was controlled.
WHAT OTHER WORK HAVE YOU DONE WITH THEM?
We also did a drying house project with this farm. The drying house project was really just trying to find an affordable way to dry coffee well in humid conditions using sunlight and wind power. It is a very long, narrow structure that faces east to west and the sun travels over it basically in the same direction. The roof is facing the sun at all times, so in the morning when it's cool and humid, the sun is accelerating the warmth of the space. Then it starts pushing moisture up and out.
There's a whole history of drying in American agriculture. You can find books just on the design and structure of tobacco barns. One design feature that tobacco barns used to do, they used to put a little window or opening at the top of the structure and have larger openings at the bottom. It's called the chimney effect. That's what we did with the drying house. We just basically allowed some windows to open and close at the top and had openings at the bottom to harness the physics or the natural movement of the heat and then the moisture. Our Natural Process Esperanza is the first coffee that they dried in it, and it went really well.
DOES PARTICIPATING IN LONG-TERM PROJECTS LIKE THESE HELP BLUEPRINT GET REALLY SPECIAL COFFEES OVER TIME?
The angle is that we’ll end up having very unique coffees and a very solid supply chain. I want to have a supply chain that we work with, one in which we understand where our coffees are coming from, the varieties, and the approach. This allows us to interact with the producer to focus on quality, price, and even the learning and evolution within the coffee industry.
What I've come to learn is that you can get a coffee to taste pretty amazing through changing certain practices in your process. It’s easy to just say I want a 90-point coffee, but then if you achieve it, the question in my mind is still how did it happen? This is a bit confusing, achieving a higher-scoring coffee is much more difficult and requires investment and commitment. Some roasters expect high quality without real commitment to the work that goes into achieving a high scoring or 90-point coffee.
WHAT PART OF THE SEED TO CUP PROCESS ARE YOU WANTING TO LEARN MORE ABOUT NEXT?
Right now, I want to have at least one or two farms that are executing the soil health work properly.
WHAT SORT OF BENEFITS COME FROM FARMS WORKING TOWARD EXCELLENT SOIL HEALTH?
It goes back to creating environments for success. That's such a profound principal on many levels, right? With the soil, we're trying to create conditions for beneficial organisms.
It’s comforting to me because I know that all I'm really trying to do is feed it and nourish it and give it what it needs. I’m helping to create the conditions for healthy growth and the conditions for beneficial organisms, but the reality is that the plant does the work. That's really also the principal I hope we maintain in our business, just this idea of healthy conditions creating healthy, beneficial results.
WHEN DID BECOMING A BUSINESS OWNER START TO APPEAL TO YOU?
It's actually kind of funny because now that I think back on it, when I started doing barista competition, I got very engaged in that but then started to get engaged with the judging. Right at the moment when they asked me to be a head judge I said, "No, I want to become a roaster." Then I started getting engaged as a roaster. Then I started getting more engaged in the educational side of it. As my presence in the educational side of it got more and more relevant, I said, "No, I'm gonna open a business."
THERE ARE FIVE OWNERS – WHAT'S THAT LIKE, GETTING TO WORK AS A COLLABORATIVE GROUP?
It's good. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and it can be tough because each person has their own unique personality, but also their own idea of how they'd like to execute things. You can't get around that, it’s just part of life. But there's also the benefit of being able to really do what we're passionate about. I wouldn't be able to do the soil work if Mazi wasn’t roasting. I wouldn't be able to do any of that work if Kevin wasn't working with staff so closely or Mike wasn't doing training.
Basically, if one of those people weren't there, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now. That's the thing I think is important to remember: that we try to support each other's ideas and what we individually want to pursue in coffee. The best thing is I get to spend a day with my family. I don't have to stress about every fire that pops up. We can manage it as a team.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE THINGS TO DO OUTSIDE OF THE CAFÉ, ESPECIALLY WITH YOUR FAMILY?
Gardening, period. Hiking, which I don't do as much as I used to anymore. We are, as a family, a pretty quiet group. If we're playing board games or if we're watching TV or, like I said, gardening or being outside, then we're content. My wife and I joke about how we're painfully introverted.
HAS INTROVERSION ALWAYS PLAYED A ROLE IN YOUR LIFE?
Between Iowa and coming back to Saint Louis, I actually was going to enter into a vowed religious life. My Instagram username is @coffeemonkstl and I was getting ready to either become a Franciscan or some other vowed silence monk/hermit. There was a very good period of my life that was really philosophical and theological. It was during the part of your life where you're questioning what you believe in and what it means.
I would spend weeks reading books in my apartment. I paid my own way as far as I could to get a Masters in Biblical Studies. When I was working, I would just set aside five or ten bucks every pay check, and I accrued enough money to pay for a graduate degree in Theology, which is like, what was I thinking? Why didn't I go to Europe for a week? But the same is true with roasting. The same is true with everything that I do. It's just constant thirst for innovation, for creativity, for the learning process. If I'm interested in a subject, I just dig into it.
HOW DOES THAT THIRST FOR LEARNING PLAY INTO YOUR ROLES IN THE COFFEE INDUSTRY?
I'm very engaged in the logistical questions of specialty coffee. Through our experience of working with farmers, we've actually had more problems with exporters and importers, and had I not been this engaged in the process, I probably would've never really questioned that or I would've just given up. You know, it's just this process of risk and failure and trying again, learning from a mistake and then seeing how you can improve upon it.
WITH THIS NOTION OF GROWTH IN MIND, WHERE DO YOU THINK BLUEPRINT IS HEADING?
I don't think about the future a lot, which is interesting. I'm very engaged in the present, maybe a little bit in the past. I can get stuck on the past too, but I perceive myself as a person who is engaged throughout the journey, not worried about the destination. The benefit of being engaged in the journey is you are able to re-interpret the destination, and not focus on that as the sole goal. I'm more about, “Let’s just go over here, see what happens and see what we learn.”