OKC’s newest craft coffee roaster
If you ask Todd Vinson, most of the good things in his life can be traced back to a cup of coffee. His proposal to his wife Jeannie, his life’s first work; Willow Springs Boys Ranch, or the founding of Jacob’s Ladder Camps, and EOTE Coffee just to name the big ones. He’s a humble guy, self deprecating and matter of fact in a Dad-like way. He has a passion for coffee and a knack for building relationships with people. Given the moment our local food culture is having, those qualities seem to be exactly what it takes to grow a craft coffee roastery in Oklahoma City.
I first heard of EOTE on a fly fishing overnighter with my friend Jason Stulce. One of those frigid mornings, when the only thing that gets you out of the tent is the thought of coffee and a hastily rolled breakfast burrito. We huddled around a weak fire and shared a press of some spectacular coffee. “This is EOTE’s new Reserve.” Jason mumbled. I think my response was “EOTE? Never heard of it. Give it to me.”
Jason goes on to explain how he knows this guy who roasts some really nice coffee in his garage out in Chandler, Oklahoma. He runs a boy’s ranch called Willow Springs and roasts coffee on the side. I savored the cup, thinking about all those backpacking trips in college when I tolerated instant coffee. I was immediately ashamed of myself. This is what camp coffee should be, I thought. I didn’t dwell on it for long. I inhaled a burrito, donned my waders, and set out for a day of fly fishing.
Fast forward a year. My family and I had just moved out to some acreage in Arcadia. This was a big adjustment for us in many ways. The most sobering change was the distance. When we first moved from our cozy, historical neighborhood just north of downtown, Arcadia felt so far away that we opted to call it “Kansas”. Over time we began to adapt to the distance that adds a half hour to any quick errand. I rarely miss the urban core now; except when we run out of coffee. There are no quick trips to Elemental in your pajamas/workout clothes. There is no disappointment like rousing on a chilly, weekend morning, walking to the grinder, and finding your hopper empty. It’s enough to make a grown man cry. This will only happen to you a couple of times before your subconscious starts to constantly check your coffee bean status. My mind often wanders… “Do I have coffee for tomorrow?!” Brief panic…”Oh yes, the Ethiopia”
It was that same internal dialogue that led to my chance meeting with Todd Vinson last year. I was planning an evening motorcycle ride east on Route 66 and realized we needed more coffee. Chandler isn’t too far from Arcadia, and that section of 66 is a beautiful stretch of rolling hills and curves. I thought back to that campfire coffee. Shamelessly, I trolled Jason for Todd’s contact info and sent him a quick text about purchasing some of his beans. The desperation in my 7pm text must have come through loud and clear. He responded shortly
“Yea! Come on out. If you have a few minutes we can fire up the roaster.”
Helmet. Gloves. Kiss the wife. Gone.
Todd and his family of 6 live on a beautiful, sprawling section of Lincoln county. I arrived to find Jason already there. Odd. He seems to find his way to places where free coffee or beer may be offered. Todd showed me his roasting operation and asked me what attributes I like in coffee. Taking me through each of his coffees, cracking the lid on 8 or so large bins and releasing the grassy smell of green coffee. This was the first time I’d ever seen green coffee up close and I was taken aback by the aromas. It reminded me of walking through the feed store in my hometown. Notes of alfalfa and sweet feed. That’s not how Todd described it. He used terms like berry jam, vanilla, and dried fruit. After some coaching I was able to slightly pick up on some of the subtle differences in each bin. At this point EOTE’s operation was setup in a large garage, the crown jewel of which was a hulking, fire engine red 12 kilo roaster. I learned it was custom built by US Roaster Corp. in OKC. Todd walked us through the roasting process on a couple small batches of beans, as the aroma in the air changed from grassy to that familiar warmth of browning sugar. It’s a fascinating process. Simple it seems; but the devil is in the details. Later, we shared a press and talked about how EOTE came to be.
EOTE (pronounced “Eee-oh-tay”) is an acronym for “ends of the earth” and a telling metaphor for Todd’s approach to life. Before Todd ever dug deeper into coffee, he spent years developing Willow Springs Boys Ranch. On that same spread of land, Todd and others have built a place to help young men find direction and stability in their lives. These kids come to Chandler from around the US, where they have an opportunity to live and work while they finish school. During this time, they are mentored and develop a new set of skills in the hopes to help them become independent when they graduate. In 2001, once Willow Springs hit it’s stride, Todd and his staff developed Jacob’s Ladder, a camp and retreat facility. Jacob’s Ladder hosts groups and helps them experience the beauty of this nearly 200 acres of Oklahoma landscape. It’s quite a setup, and you’d never know Todd was at the head of such big and meaningful work if you didn’t ask.
At some point along this journey, Todd began to realize that coffee was his second act. After learning as much as he could by home roasting, he eventually crossed paths with Dan Jolliff of US Roaster Corp. Dan built EOTE’s first roaster, a 5 kilo model that gave him the ability to fine tune his roast profiles and create a consistent roast on a larger scale. EOTE has since moved from the family’s garage to a new facility in Oklahoma City were Todd has built a beautiful coffee lab. He’s also spent the past few months exploring better sources for coffee. EOTE now sources coffee from farmers that he met in connection with Thrive Farmers. This is a group that works with large and small coffee farms allowing them to bring their crop to market while still maintaining full ownership until they are purchased by someone like EOTE. This Farmer-Direct model of trade is particularly healthy for the coffee market because it helps farmers avoid commodity pricing and allows them to establish a long term, consistent demand for their crop. After making multiple trips to research the characteristics of different regions and the practices of each farm, Todd chooses which coffees to bring home and offer to his customers. Over the course of these trips, he’s built a friendship with coffee farmer Enrique Ferrufino of Finca La Aurora farm in Nicaragua. I get the sense that he feels like his coffee has taken another step in the right direction now that he has a lasting personal connection to the person that grows his coffee.
We’ve all had that moment when we are able to make that connection over great food. The warm fuzzy feeling that makes something good just a little bit closer to perfect. For me it’s my favorite craft beer brewed by an old friend or a meal made from the bounty of my Grandpa’s garden. Todd has been able to make the connection we all look for.
What makes any coffee great? Because the guy that roasted it went all the way to Nicaragua and made friends with the farmer? I guess so, but that may be oversimplifying it. It’s an excellent coffee because of the air, the soil, and the experience in the farmer’s practices. Not to mention systems like Thrive that allow people like Todd and Enrique to become friends and equally profitable. If we lived in a Wendell Berry-esque agrarian utopia, we may all have that connection with farmers more often. In today’s global economy when it comes to coffee, this may just be as close as it gets. Either way, it’s a great cup of coffee.