In the constantly-growing panoply of specialty coffee companies around the world, Equator Coffees & Teas in the Bay Area stands out for more than just its eye-catching red coffee packaging and its iconic tiger branding. For nearly twenty years now, the team at Equator, led by co-owners Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell and helmed by director of coffee Ted Stachura, has consistently produced great coffees and worked on a farm level to increase sustainable, high-quality production as well as win awards and main a consistent presence in industry happenings. Stachura took some time recently to share how he entered the coffee industry, what steps led him to this influential post, and how he approaches curating Equator’s coffee content.
“My working career started when I was relatively young, in high school in the Bay Area,” says Stachura, “and I worked in various food industry-related jobs until in 1991 I learned how to make espresso on a manual lever machine. At the end of a shift, you felt it—you were literally pulling shots all day.” He remembers lots of big milk pitchers and serving few espressos. At the time, he laughs, nobody used the term barista—in fact, it was a guarantee for mockery. Barista title or no, Stachura, fell in love with café culture and worked multiple coffee jobs over the next few years.
His progression into specialty coffee was like that of many others. “I knew my career path would move toward coffee, but I didn’t know much outside of the café environment at the time. The deeper I got into it, the more I realized its complexity, which led me to work at Peet’s Coffee & Tea,” at the time one of the only specialty coffee roasters around. He ended up staying for twelve years, doing everything from managing new cafés to training staff to opening new retail locations. The bulk of his time was spent in the coffee and tea education department, where for the last few years of his tenure he was the content developer and program manager.
Next step? Working as assistant to famed coffee consultant and CoffeeReview.com founder Kenneth Davids, where he helped with consulting clients as well as doing reviews, research, and presentations. “It was with Kenneth that I learned about coffee roasting and buying, which led me to Equator where for the past three and a half years or so I’ve been the director of the coffee program overseeing green coffee purchasing, roasting, and quality assurance.”
At Equator, he says, his coffee philosophy is “complicated by the tradition I inherited, working at a company that’s been around nearly twenty years. Equator is very open to evolution, which I really appreciate. We’re always looking at everything we do and evaluating it critically. Our goal is to continually improve in all aspects of what we do, from green purchasing to roast profile development.”
The goal at Equator is to maintain the stable of high-quality wholesale blends the company built its reputation on, while also roasting dynamic single-origin, special, and micro-lot coffees for retail sales online and in their soon-to-be three locations. Wholesale coffees range from light to dark, based on client needs, though usually the roasts hover around second crack, whether just before or just after.
“On the other hand,” says Stachura, “our single-origin program is dynamic. It’s exciting and hard to maintain because we are bringing so many new coffees in all year round. Especially in early summer, when we are getting a lot of arrivals from Central America and Africa, marketing gets challenging because we want to tell the story of each coffee. Sometimes some really outstanding coffees get lost in the mix.”
If Equator’s buying philosophy could be reduced to a single statement, says Stachura, it’s this: “Bring in a wide variety of great coffees from as many different origins as we can—that are interesting to us on the cupping table.”
Take the Mama Cata Panama, one of his favorite sets of coffees offered by Equator this summer. “We tasted these coffees [Caturra, Catuai, and Gesha] blind on the cupping table, and they really stood out to us. So we bought them. Months later the Mama Cata Gesha won in the washed Gesha category of the Best of Panama competition, which didn’t surprise us at all. The Mama Cata is in the Boquete region, just over mountain from our coffee farm, Finca Sophia.”
Surprise on the cupping table, passion for coffee and café culture: fine motives for a career in this industry.
—Emily McIntyre is a freelance writer based in Portland.