By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – When Opie Jahn moved back to Big Sky in October 2013, he needed shop space to work on his 1974 Pinzgauer, a surplus Swiss Army troop-transport vehicle. The space he found off of Highway 191, just north of Buck’s T-4, was too expensive to afford on his own, and when a friend backed out from sharing the cost he needed another source of income.
“I moved back here and realized I couldn’t work for anybody,” Jahn said. “Wild Bill [William Hall] said, ‘Big Sky needs a coffee roaster.’ I said, “Coffee roaster in Big Sky? It’s on.”
The 37-year-old Cheboygan, Mich.-native is a self-described elitist about coffee and spent a year working as a barista at The Hub, his friend’s coffee shop in McCall, Idaho. Instead of going to Alcoholics Anonymous or rehab when he stopped drinking in 2006, he started on high-end coffee.
“There’s a lot of people that go to AA and drink junk coffee,” Jahn said. “I woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m done.’”
Walking into Jahn’s coffee roasting operation, Caliber Coffee, Inc., one passes the giant Pinzgauer with its custom Volkswagen Vanagon topper he bolted on the roof. The roasting room beyond is bright and stark. Burlap coffee bean sacks are leaned up against one wall, a Miles Davis poster hangs on another, and Jahn’s gleaming Diedrich IR 12 coffee roaster dominates much of the floor.
The Diedrich roaster arrived in May, after Jahn toured the company’s Sand Point, Idaho factory and attended a four-day roasting seminar there in February. Jahn dumps five pounds of green coffee “beans” into the roaster and fires up the whirring machine. Coffee isn’t actually a bean, it’s the two-part seed of the red or purple fruit – often referred to as a “cherry” – produced by the coffee tree. Within 10-15 minutes the seeds turn brown and the room fills with the distinctive aroma of roasted coffee.
Throughout the process, Jahn pulls beans from the roaster with his custom elk-antler “trier” and checks the process with sight and smell. About seven minutes into the roast the beans are turning golden brown, and after ten minutes – with the temperature of the roaster near 400 F – you hear the beans start to crack like popcorn as all the moisture is roasted out of them.
Jahn watches the computer tracking time, fuel setting and temperature, and pens his own notes during the process to compare with previous roasts. He spent much of the summer researching and honing his craft with every batch.
“It’s kind of a dark art, no one really wants to share information,” Jahn says. “It’s a lot of trial and error, which is a little scary. I’ve got a pretty good palette … I can taste the coffee and know what needs changing.”
Sampling each batch requires a method similar to wine tasting – called “cupping” – using Specialty Coffee Association of America guidelines. Jahn steeps 9 grams of grounds in a 9-ounce glass of hot water, then takes a spoon to “break” the brew, pushing the grounds to the bottom and skimming the scum off the surface.
He smells and slurps the coffee from the spoon, sampling it at different temperatures, since the flavor changes as it cools, Jahn said.
“I’ll start by doing just one roast, then I’ll sample this roast from a really light color to really dark,” he said.
Through various importers, Jahn has purchased coffee from around the world. He particularly enjoys the African varietals from Ethiopia and Kenya that tend to produce a lighter, more flavorful coffee. His everyday offering will be a “punch you in the face” darker roast, likely from Central America.
“Everybody’s really into that,” Jahn said of these darker coffees. “Thanks Starbucks.”
Jahn plans to sell Caliber Coffee exclusively in the Big Sky area to start, and is waiting on packaging approval from the state before it hits shelves, which will likely be in early November.
Jahn credits the name Caliber Coffee, Inc. to his wife, Annie Burd.
“My wife’s a genius,” he said. “I admit I’m a bit of a gun nut. It just kind of popped into her head one day: ‘It can be a higher caliber coffee, and you’re really into guns.’”
Caliber is a coffee-drinkers coffee, but Jahn says he wants his roasts to be accessible to everyone. A prototype bag of his “Hippee Lumberjack Blend” suggests that he won’t be exclusively courting coffee elitists, as the tasting notes read:
“Light and crisp, with notes of foo-foo namby pamby plaid wearing hippee lumberjack.”