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Heads above the roast 

Hans Oliver, Guillermo's Gourmet Grounds' house beanmaster, has come a long way from the kid who used coffee to give an extra punch to his snack cakes. In fact, the world-traveled expert on all things coffee bean has come a long way just in the last five years.

On a recent Friday afternoon at his coffee shop off Rodney Parham, Oliver held his first homemade coffee roaster, a medieval-looking steel rod with a wire cage at the end — an intimidating sight in the hands of the barrel-chested man with a cue-ball scalp — and recalled a bean roasting session with his electric grill in his backyard. The beans in his primitive roaster caught fire and exploded, blowing the top off of his grill and raining down flaming coffee bean shrapnel all over the dry leaves of his lawn.

These days, he and his father and co-investor, Bill Oliver, use a top-of-the-line, six-figure bean roaster at Guillermo's and possess well-inked passports, sporting stamps from Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and most of their Central American neighbors, where they travel annually to buy their beans.

Of course, with travel comes education. The Olivers' mouths are familiar with exotic, tongue-tripping names (of the two dozen roasts they offered recently, “yirgacheffe,” “monsooned Malabar,” and “Tanzanian Mount Maru” stood out). But the most surprising thing they learned on their journeys was the manner in which the Central American roasters they encountered scorched their rare, delicate beans without prejudice — the coffee equivalent of well-done steak.

“They'd throw them in the roaster, crank the temperature up, leave them in too short, char them, bag them and ship them off,” Hans Oliver said.

That's what inspired him to study the process, roasting each varietal of bean for different lengths of time, exploring over 150 coffee flavor attributes at various temperature levels and then determining what — among all the combinations — brings out the truest flavor.

After spending a short time with Oliver, it's clear that “labor of love” does not capture his devotion to finding the perfect cup of coffee. “Zealotry” is more like it. He speaks with passion as he describes the characteristics of different regions' beans and the intricacies of the 18-minute roasting process from the “first crack,” which dries out the beans' natural moisture, to the “second crack,” which extracts and caramelizes their natural sugars.

Hans maintains that his coffees, if treated with care, can pair with meals as elegantly as wine. Monthly, he hosts “cuppings,” where patrons can sample spotlight brews. For steak, try a Kenyan bean, whose fleshy, buttery aftertaste resembles a merlot. Fish calls for a cup from Papua New Guinea, a bright, acidic brew with herbal legs.

The coffee the Olivers roast for individual customers and local businesses like B-Side, Cafe Bossa Nova and River City Gift Co. comes from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Malawi, Panama, Sumatra and Tanzania. And they'd like to branch out further. Bill Oliver, who's worked in Thailand, is eager to expand their offerings by traveling throughout Asia. Along with all their travels, the Olivers donate regularly to Coffee Kids, a non-profit that supports health awareness, education, food security and sustainability in impoverished coffee farming nations.

But on this recent afternoon, while the Olivers stand next to their professional bean roaster, listening for the familiar, distinctive cracks from the steaming beans and looking over a full house of patrons lounging on overstuffed couches in their still young business, they're still sticking to their story — coffee making is a “hobby that got out of hand.”

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