NEW ORLEANS — Floating just over the smell of the mighty Mississippi and diesel, there’s a scent that lets you know this is no ordinary New Orleans riverfront warehouse.
There, between the tangy notes of oil and waterborne commerce, is the rich, deep smell of coffee, a smell that resonates like a ship’s foghorn from the PJ’s Coffee roasting facility in Faubourg Marigny.
Felton Jones is the man behind that smell. He’s PJ’s roastmaster, a title he takes most seriously, and one earned through time, effort, science and a constant coffee education. The roasting plant, run by PJ’s, bags the specialty-grade coffee sold in PJ’s stores and cafes as well as a new line, New Orleans Roast Coffee, that can be found in hotels, restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Gulf Coast.
“It started with the goats,” said Jones, a native New Orleanian, picking up coffee’s history at the very beginning, when it is said that African farmers noticed that after their goats ate a certain bean, they had much more energy.
Since then, the process has evolved somewhat, leaving hoof stock behind and picking up a complicated scientific and artistic process Jones designs to bring out the best taste in each bean PJ’s buys. The company buys beans from all over the world, and each growing region produces beans that have a unique flavor profile. Those unique profiles mean each bean must be roasted differently depending on the drying process used, moisture content and the final desired flavor of the coffee.
In addition to Jones’ taste buds and expertise, PJ’s uses a roaster that’s a drum roaster but uses an indirect heat. The drum roaster provides a higher capacity and the indirect heat provides a more consistent taste, Jones said. When running at speed, the roaster can churn out 1,000 pounds of roasted coffee in an hour.
Which explains the persistent smell.
Jones relies on scientific measures like temperature to tell him when the beans are done, but he also looks at the color and cracking of the beans, running his fingers through vast mounds of beans whole and ground to check for texture and color.
“It’s kinda the same way as baking a cake,” he said. “It can seem done outside but not be done inside.”
Unlike other roasters, Jones also tries to go easy on the heat.
“When you go so dark, all the beans taste the same,” Jones said.
He prefers the coffee he produces to have a more complex, varied taste. “If you go to a restaurant and you order a steak well done, it doesn’t matter if it was sirloin or black Angus,” he said.
Jones also debunked the myth that darker coffee packs more of a punch than lighter roasts.
“Actually, medium roast coffee has more caffeine than espresso,” he said, adding that he drinks about three to four cups of medium roast a day, down from a pot.
When it comes to how to make the perfect cup, though, he politely declined to get involved in the sometimes vicious fight over the method of brewing.
“The best way for you to enjoy a coffee is the way that you enjoy it,” he said. The ratio of coffee to water “really depends on the type of coffee pot you have.”
As for himself, he enjoys the “homegrown roots” of New Orleans’ coffee and chicory. Unlike some companies, Jones said, his coffees use chicory as a flavoring instead of the historic use as a filler.
“I can guarantee you back in the 1970s anything ‘naturally New Orleans’ was coffee and chicory,” he said.
Now, he hopes to make sure that New Orleans’ strong coffee tradition shows through in every bag he roasts, even the ones without chicory.
“My goal with PJ’s and New Orleans Roast is to make sure our customers enjoy a cup with a clean finish,” he said, meaning that, when properly prepared, his coffee won’t leave a bitter aftertaste in a drinker’s mouth.
While Jones’ taste buds craft bags consumers can buy in stores, he also makes special blends of coffees for more exclusive clubs, like the New Orleans Saints’ Black and Gold blend and for many New Orleans hotels.
Making blends for a particular client allows both Jones and the company to “open ourselves up a little bit” to new tastes.
The company has experienced a growth spurt in the past few years, tripling the amount of coffee it roasts to around a million pounds per year. But Jones, a 20-year veteran of the coffee industry, remains the single man responsible for the roast of PJ’s coffees and intends to keep his post at the roaster.
“I love drinking it,” he said. “And I never stop learning about it.”