There’s this book that Mike Bratty and his wife, Suzanne Seberg, read called, “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Business.” The author advocates for startup business owners like Bratty and Seberg to take a minimalist approach to growth while creating a viable product, investing progressively but cautiously while responding to interest in what they’re selling, which, in the Lincoln couple's case, is small-batch coffee.
“And then you end up with a coffee roaster in the basement,” Bratty said.
Bratty and Seberg both have full-time jobs, but over the course of 2016, Meta Coffee Labs has become an incrementally larger part of their lives -- and their town home's floor plan. This fall, they installed a fully functional coffee roastery downstairs.
Once a week, the faint smell of freshly roasted java vents out from their rooftop into the couple's neighborhood, a couple blocks from Lincoln East High School. They got permission from the homeowner's association and give bags of beans to their neighbors as a thank you, Bratty said.
Meta Coffee has been a Lincoln business since 2015, when the two could first be found at the Haymarket Farmers Market selling nitrogen-pressurized cold brew coffee from a tap atop a custom-made tricycle that Bratty biked 50 minutes from their house near Lincoln East High School to downtown.
During their first year at the market, Zipline Brewing Co. co-founder Tom Wilmoth had a cup and reached out to Bratty at the beginning of this year about selling nitro cold brew at the Lincoln brewery’s taprooms.
“He basically said 'we want your product on tap here and we’ll wait as long as it takes to get it done,'” Bratty said.
That patience was key to Bratty, who at the time was roasting small batches of coffee beans in a drum connected to a propane grill in his garage. And this was a step up from how he got into roasting beans a decade ago, by way of a Jiffy Pop.
Coffee has been a big deal to Bratty for much of his life. He and Seberg can laugh now about a gift he gave her just a few weeks after they started dating in 2012. It was of course a coffee maker.
“Mike’s a very generous man and he wanted me to drink good coffee,” said Seberg, who now brings a cup of Meta with her to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, where she's a speech language pathologist.
Roasting coffee for Bratty was a passion that first percolated in Portland with the wrong kind of popcorn popper. A decade ago, Bratty was living there and working for Arakawa Hanging Systems, a company that provides suspension installation systems for the Smithsonian’s museums, among others. (He continues to work from home for Arakawa since his move back to Nebraska -- he’s originally from Omaha.)
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While living in Portland, he grew deeply interested in artisan coffee while also trying not to go deeply in debt. The price of a bag of beans from his favorite coffee shops ran $20 or so. When he read an article offering do-it-yourself tips to roasting coffee beans in a popcorn popper, he invested $5 in a secondhand machine and ordered a bag of green beans online.
“Being cheap and wanting to drink good coffee, I just started doing it for myself,” he said.
Instead of a popper that circulated hot air through the sides of the unit-- the recommended thrift store find -- he wound up with one that heated beans only from the bottom. It required him to be attentive to the process, shaking the machine to get as close to an even roast as he could.
Nowadays, Bratty has a little bit more control over the operation thanks to the North TJ-072, a small-batch, industrial-strength roaster he and Seberg dipped into savings to purchase from a supplier in Minneapolis. This summer, Bratty and Seberg’s father, Lewis, a former electrical inspector for the City of Hastings, spent weekends converting the room at the bottom of the basement staircase into an inspection-passing coffee roastery.
“He kind of showed us a lot of the techniques and the steps,” Suzanne Seberg said of her father, who passed away in October. “We’d never built a room before.”
“Anything,” Mike Bratty said.
The cables and fasteners suspending chemistry class-like brewing equipment on a repurposed wood plank, however, are the same gear that hang Rembrandts in museums that Bratty works with. The room is a combination of Seberg ingenuity, Bratty’s day job and the couple's passion for coffee.
On Thursday, Bratty poured 1 ½ pounds of green coffee beans of Ethiopian origin into the roaster’s drum once the machine was heated to 380 degrees. The temperature inside dipped initially as the beans were added, then slowly rose.
“We’re doing pretty good,” Bratty said a few minutes in. “We’re gonna hit the first crack pretty quick.”
Soon after he said that, the sound of beans tumbling inside the drum was interrupted by a round of crackling akin to popcorn popping. Bratty said that was the beans’ cellulose structures fracturing, allowing water to escape. He checked the readings popping up on a graphing application on his laptop.
“I never did graph doing the popcorn popper, obviously, or doing the grill -- I never had that chance,” Bratty said. “No data control at all. So I did everything just by sound and smell. And that’s kind of how I still do it, but now I just have the graphing data to help me along.”
Eight minutes and 36 seconds after the process began, he removed about 1 pound and 2 ounces of lightly roasted, single-origin Ethiopian beans, sweet and floral in taste. Batches like this can be found for sale at Zipline and online at metacoffeelab.com. Bratty said the basement roaster's helped him keep up with demand at the brewery's taprooms and on the website, while also not sending costs and the pace of growth spinning wildly out of control.
“Instead of trying to launch a rocket that could go up in flames, we’ll drive a car and see where we go from there,” he said.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @LJSMatteson.