When Keba Konte went to Senegal in 2007, he found something he'd never seen before: raw coffee beans spilled across an iron pan, slowly browning over an open flame. At the time, he was staying with a family that, incidentally, was charged with the job of roasting for the entire community. What Konte saw was a style of coffee called Café Touba, wherein peppers are roasted and ground with the coffee and later brewed with sugar. The process was simple, but for Konte, an enlightening moment.
"It was demystifying," he says. "Back in the bay, coffee roasting was introduced to me in such a complicated way. Roasting over open fire just made sense."
Seven years later, Konte is running his own roasting operation, called Red Bay, from a small garden garage. Well, at least that's where you'll find the headquarters — the nexus where Konte employs his creative drive on a one-pound roaster, working over sample after sample until, in his words, he finds something that talks to him. When he does, he scales up production to a Loring SmartRoast in Oakland that he shares with a couple other coffee roasting companies. While the project is more grown up than it was in the beginning, when Konte was roasting in everything from a wok to a popcorn popper, it still holds roots in the simple integrity of flavor-based pleasure. For Konte, that's a bit of a mantra.
The man is at once an artist as well as a stalwart café entrepreneur on both sides of the bay. He is one-third of the party helming Guerilla Café, a bohemian joint with an activist vibe in the Gourmet Ghetto, and the proprietor of Chasing Lions, the café inside City College. The former became Blue Bottle's first café account in 2006, and the second served Four Barrel until Konte replaced it with Red Bay last month. The two cafés served as critical testing spots during the beta period, while Konte was still fiddling with blends. Now, having taken the feedback and worked it in, he has officially launched the project.
Red Bay Coffee Roasters has a somewhat standard spread of origins, including a bright blend of Ethiopian beans called King's Prize, a Brazilian espresso blend called the Brazilian Cake Lady, and Pretty Penny, a smooth, low-toned Central American blend. He also makes a decaf espresso called Slow Burn, and does a custom dark roast for Farmer Brown called, after the owners convinced him to roast darker, Farmer's Hella Brown. The company itself is named Red Bay to evoke the redness of a ripe coffee cherry, and the project's geographic roots in the Bay Area.
The most interesting thing that Konte is doing with Red Bay is something called the single origin blend, wherein he choreographs a mix of beans from the one origin, roasted at different levels. In a pragmatic way, the method helps to create a balance and derive ephemeral notes that only appear at different times during roasting. From the artistic perspective, the method seems ripped straight from Konte's manifesto as an artist — a drive, as he puts it, "to turn a model upside down and interrogate the mundane." He takes the single origin idea — a somewhat static concept — and wrangled variety and flexibility from it in a new way.
Right now, Red Bay has taken over the coffee programs in a few venerable restaurants like Miss Ollie's and the new Kingston 11 in Oakland, as well as engaging in a few interesting projects like the campaign to keep Marcus Book Stores, the S.F. store that is the the oldest, longest-running African-American bookstore in the country, open. The spot is in danger of being sold, and Konte is working to develop a café inside the store and bring new life and money to the operation in order to help keep it alive. He is also working on a café inside Mandela Market in West Oakland.
Konte is simultaneously working to pick up more direct trade relationships. At the moment, he is buying most of his raw coffee from Royal Coffee Inc., a large importer, but nurturing a relationship with some cooperatives in Chiapas and focusing more on getting coffee out of Cuba. Anyone with leads in that direction is encouraged to get in touch.
In the meantime, look out for the Red Bay launch party on April 24 at Chasing Lions, inside City College. While it's open to the public, the party will be centered around a giant latté art competition for students only. Prizes include iPads and Timbuktu bags and all kinds of fancy swag. A Kickstarter campaign to fund a new roaster has also kicked off, keep an eye on the website for more information.