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Coffee on the mind, family on his side

Nathan Palmer is revamping the coffee at BJs, his moms 20-year-old cafe


At 2:30 a.m., long after last call at Players Pub and before Safeway opens in the morning, 23-year-old Nathan Palmer can be found inside his mom's coffee shop, roasting up beans.

Over the last eight months, Palmer has quietly reinvented the coffee served at BJ's Coffee, a Forest Grove mainstay for 20 years.

He's revamped the menu of coffees, focusing on single-origin coffees from around the world. Along the way, he's been slowly edging the coffee available there toward the kind of gourmet cups you'd find at Portland's Stumptown Coffee shops.

And so far, the feedback from customers has been pretty positive.

"I thought it was going to be a huge culture shock," Palmer said. "We have a very Peet's and Starbucks-influenced customer base out here in Forest Grove."

Not sure you could tell the difference in a cup? Think again.

From plantation to cup

The coffee you drink doesn't much resemble its natural form. In fact, what we call coffee beans aren't actually beans. They're the seed of the fruit of the coffee plant, a short shrub. These seeds are dried and the final product shipped out from a coffee plantation is called "green" coffee beans.

Palmer works with a green coffee broker to bring coffee into the country directly to his roasting operation, via the port of Seattle.

But green beans can't be directly turned into coffee. First they need to be roasted. And it's during the roasting process that a coffeemaker puts his or her fingerprints on how the bean is going to taste in a cup.

The coffee roasting business has gone through three major philosophical shifts. The first wave includes mass-market coffee producers like Folgers and Hills Brothers, whose easy-to-transport canned coffee and innovations in instant coffee made the beverage ubiquitous throughout the United States.

The second wave came in the 1960s as roasters at Peet's and Starbucks began returning to European practices by using finer "arabica" coffee beans instead of cheaper "robusta" beans. The success of the early second wave shops spawned a new coffee revolution, with shops like BJ's cropping up in towns across the country, offering espresso and specialty coffees roasted in-house.

The third wave began in the early 2000s, when Portland's Stumptown and a pair of other pioneering coffee roasters began lightening the roast of their beans, allowing fruity, acidic or nutty flavors in the beans to be more apparent in a cup than the smoky char caused by the roast.

Straddling the waves

Palmer was three years old when his parents, Ken Palmer and Becky Jo Saxe, started roasting and selling coffee. A sack of coffee functioned as a sandbox.

His parents' business boomed, but then they split, and the business was broken up. Saxe kept the coffee shop, but the roasting business was spun off to a different entity (which kept the BJ's name).

Palmer's father left the state, roasting coffee in Texas and Costa Rica.

Palmer enrolled at Central Oregon Community College to study business. But he couldn't stay away from coffee.

"I took one student loan and used it to buy my first shipment of coffee," Palmer confessed.

He started trading roasts with his dad, comparing his coffee to his father's.

But he also started making friends in the scene of up-and-coming third-wave coffee roasters.

He was determined to try the new style out in Forest Grove, but he knew he'd have to take things slow.

So he's developed a hybrid style, taking cues from the second wave of coffee roasting that his father was such a big part of - and the third wave he's riding now.

Palmer said roasters who are throwing out the lessons of the past and refusing to roast coffees dark from time to time are missing out.

"If you limit yourself like that I don't think you're being true to the coffee," Palmer said.

New business, horizons

Now that Palmer is supplying BJ's with fresh beans, he wants to expand his budding roasting business even more. He's setting up a company identity, To the Roots, and is already locking down a bigger roaster and looking for industrial space in Forest Grove where he can operate a wholesale coffee business.

"That's going to triple my output," Palmer said.

He hopes that means he can start picking up clients and push more and more product out into western Washington County.

"I don't want to be Starbucks - I just want people to know there are coffees out there that will knock your socks off." Palmer said.

"He's got that passion, just like his father," said Saxe, who is excited to see her son build a business of his own.

And there's one more thing in Palmer's playbook: figure out how to get his cashflow to fund a move out of his mother's house. Even though the two get along, working with mom and living with mom is tough. Until then, he'll take advantage of the early morning roasting.

"I'll stay here all night roasting," Palmer said. "I think that's my break."