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Distinguished Drinker: Russell Hayward of Ascension Coffee

I’m going to be honest – I thought I knew my coffee. For starters, I pride myself on not going to Starbucks. I also managed the small Italian espresso shop at my school and cafes outranked museums and historical sites during my five weeks in Rome. I continually spend more money on coffee than I do on clothes. Two weeks ago, I felt that gave me solid ground to believe I was a coffee connoisseur. It turns out that it only meant that I am really just a caffeine addiction with horrible sleeping habits.

After sitting down with the owner of Ascension Coffee last week, I realized I’m an amateur, at best. It wasn’t that Russell Hayward, a native Australian, was snobbish and made me feel stupid. The situation was quite the opposite. The man grades coffee for a living and manages a coffee bean farm in Rwanda. Ehem! So, you could say there was a lot to take away from the interview, including, but not limited to, adding Melbourne, Australia to my list of top ten list places to visit and never  using the term “deep” to describe coffee.

Rachel: What is your favorite coffee drink?

Russell: Espresso.

Rachel: What is a key difference between good espresso and bad espresso beans, as far as the flavor? What are you looking for?

Russell: For me, I’m looking for complexity. A shot of espresso, or really any well made coffee, is like food. So, first I want to smell the aroma. The second thing is my palate. I’ll just want to start with taking a little sip and usually getting a little brightness in there. Then I’ll want something mid-palate, the body of the coffee, and then I’m looking for an aftertaste. Like I said, you want complexity. You don’t want it all to be the same, and the beauty of a great espresso is one that does all that for you.

Rachel: So, you get your coffee from independent farms, correct?

Russell: We get it from everywhere. I do manage a farm in Rwanda, but we buy from local importers. We buy some direct stuff, but we want to get better at that. It’s just a long procedure.

Rachel: For you, how do you figure out where to get your coffee from? Are there different regions you are more partial to?

Russell: Well, coffee is like wine. Every region is different, and then even within some regions, it’s different. The coffee can also be different from farm to farm or depending on where the plant might be on a given mountain or depending if it is facing toward or away from the sun. Overall, though, regionally wise, I’m really partial to Ethiopians. I just love the great berries and the citrus flavors. I also love Columbians because they are big and chocolatey, and then, I’m not going to say I love, but I really enjoy Indonesian coffees. Those are a completely different world. In Indonesia, you’ve got what I call “forest floor.” It’s mossy and it’s got mushrooms and a little butterscotch. I also love Kenyans and I’m getting very into Rwandans. Obviously because I have a lot of beans from Rwanda, but they are really coming on as far as quality. They’ve got really special coffee flavor. I had some coffee from our farm last year that just blew me away.  It is one of the most incredible coffees I’ve ever had. This year we did better overall as far as consistency, but there was a lot of rain during the harvest this year so we didn’t get the sugar development we wanted in the cherries.

Rachel: So, are those factors the same overall? As in the things that affect whether one farm is going to have a good year or a bad year, are those the same factors for every farm no matter the region?

Russell: Yes, it’s just like growing grapes. It’s exactly the same. So, if you have a really hot year with heaps and heaps of sun, then you’re going to get really fast growth of cherries. That mean less sugar development and less sugar development means you aren’t going to get enough acidity, which converts into actual flavor in the coffee when you roast it. Coffee is really a shade plant. It shouldn’t have a lot of sun, but it does. You want rain when its flowering. If it rains when it’s flowering that means the flowers are going to turn into cherries. If it’s too dry, then you’ll loose a lot of them. So, you want rain then, but you don’t want it in the middle of harvest. It’s a horrible time to have it.

Rachel: Interesting. I didn’t realize grapes and coffee beans were that similar.

Russell: Yes, in fact, I ran into an El Salvadorian farmer, and we had a long discussion about wine and grapes. He’s actually been studying viticulture and incorporating it into coffee brewing. He’s a pretty predominant farmer. When I met him, he’s actually from Dallas, he said, “You’re the first person I’ve met who talks about wine and coffee together.” But he’s on a whole other level than I am.

Rachel: What other coffee shops do you go to in the Dallas area?

Russell: Not a lot.  But there are some great shops.  Davis Street Espresso is great.  Shannon does a great job there. Last week, I actually went to Roots in Flower Mound and they pulled me a really nice shot. It was great. I had never been there before. But, you know, I don’t get to many more shops. I need to get to more places. I’m just at Ascension a lot. I’ve also been to Weekend Coffee a bit. Before I got involved in this three or four years ago, we really didn’t have many great shops. I mean, Pearl Cup was it. That was it, and good for them for doing what they did. They did a great job, and they broke some new grounds [edit note: no pun intended.] Being Australian, we’re coffee people, and most Americans didn’t know that until about a year ago. So when they had the World Barista Championships in Melbourne, a lot of the Dallas and American coffee scene went down there, and they saw what to me is the biggest coffee city in the world. There is no coffee like there is in Melbourne. I don’t know how many shops are there, but there has go to be at least 300 in the city. It is crazy. They are everywhere and they are all phenomenal. Many people might not know this but after World War II we had a huge immigration of Italians and Greeks. So, what did they Italians come do? They opened up coffee shops, which were called “Milk Bars.” When I was 15 and 16, that is where we would be. We’d go to a place called “The Espresso,” and we’d sit outside and drink cappuccinos. The interesting thing was when we were developing our espresso for here, it took me 3 months to find the beans that I wanted. And finally I just said, “I’m ready. Let’s go.” Then some Australian guy comes in and says, “Ah, mate, this tastes just like Australian espresso,” and I said, “Really?” I guess I just had this flavor in my head.

Russell: Yeah, well your espresso really has a special taste. It’s a little deeper.

Russell: No, deeper, you can’t use that term. [Laughs] Well, you can. I can’t.

Rachel: Wait, why is that a bad term?

Russell: So, I’m a Q Grader. I grade coffee, but we aren’t allowed to use any terms besides coffee terms, which are set terms that are world-wide. So, no matter where the coffee is coming from, we’re all talking the same language. Basically, I’m not allowed to say, “deep.”

Rachel: So, what would you say instead?

Russell: Full, full-bodied.