John DeTraglia is the head coffee roaster at Utica Coffee Roasting Company. One of the company’s first employees, it will be five years since he joined the Utica Coffee team come January.
DeTraglia got his foot in the door through a somewhat distant family connection, and when owner Frank Elias offered him a job it didn’t exactly come with an owner’s manual. In those early days, the business was roasting 150–200 pounds per week. Today, their downtown Utica warehouse can produce more than 1,000 pounds in a single day.
Still, the company remains tight-knit and community focused, and any Utica Coffee on supermarket shelves or at the company’s two cafe locations was likely overseen by DeTraglia during the roasting process—a process he described as very hands-on.
After one of the busier days in the warehouse, DeTraglia sat down to talk about the coffee business in a small metropolitan area. In keeping up with the growing number of consumers who are demanding quality, he explained, sweating the details has its rewards.
Roasting coffee is a pretty unique job for the Utica area. What was the learning curve like?
Frank knew some stuff and then he was like, “I’m leaving it up to you to learn the rest.” The rest is kind of open-ended. There’s no, “OK, you know the rest. There you are.” Everyone in this field is always learning. There’s always something new to discover, depending on how deep you get with it. You can pretty much become a coffee scientist.
It seems like there would be a lot of chemistry involved.
Literally, there are labs dedicated to analyzing coffee and varietals and everything really.
Wow, that seems intense.
It’s a wormhole, for sure, in a very frustrating way, to be honest. It’s like the more you learn, the less you know.
I mean, I can teach you how to pull a shot of espresso in probably 20 minutes and you can pull a shot of espresso on almost any machine. But then it’s like, “How do I get a good shot of espresso?” Well, make sure your grind’s right, make sure your time’s right, make sure your pressure’s right. And all that can be thrown off day-to-day based on humidity. You’ve got to find a good grinder that’s going to have a good consistency. You’ve got to make sure everything’s clean. It’s like all these details start pouring in.
That’s a lot to balance for such a small amount of liquid.
Yeah. Another wormhole: coffee is a fruit. And not only is it a fruit, it’s like apples where there's Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, McIntosh... There’s literally hundreds of varietals of coffee that, if you put them all next to each other, some of them might not taste too different, but some of them might taste so different that, you’ve got one where you’re like, “Holy crap. What is this?”
What starts the process when a new shipment of unroasted coffee comes in?
We’ll basically sit and sample the coffee. It’s called “cupping.” It’s the industry standard for tasting coffee.
What exactly are you doing when you’re cupping?
So, you have a cup. In theory, it’s a full immersion brew method. It’s the water and the coffee just sitting there, steeping. You don’t touch it. You let it sit for 5 minutes. Then there’s going to be a crust of grounds on the top and you scoop that off and you give it another 4–5 minutes to cool. Then you get a spoon and you slurp it. And when you slurp it, as obnoxious as that is, it aerates the flavor up in your olfactory senses and spreads it across your tongue. That’s going to give you the most access to those flavors.
Were you into all this before you took this job?
I liked coffee, but I didn’t really know anything about it. I had no idea how deep the coffee world went.
Something like high-end coffee, it would seem, should come second to urban development, but Utica Coffee has predated a lot of what’s been happening in the Utica area lately. Why do you think this brand has caught on?
People want to support stuff right now. Everybody’s pro-Utica. Anything that’s branded “Utica” or trying to be a part of the rebuild, people are all about it. Just like Utica Bread, you know, a lot of people might shy away from what they see because it’s unfamiliar. But at the same time, it’s a quality product.
Is coffee roasting tiring work?
Yeah, the bags are heavy (laughs). They’re about 150 pounds. I lift those and play Tetris with them all day.
How many cups of coffee do you drink during the day?
For work? Maybe two. Actually, I can’t even say that. Less than one. Honestly, I don’t drink a lot of coffee, and it’s not because I don’t like it. I’m just around it a lot. I have to find something that I’m head over heels for in order for me to really go nuts. My flavor palate has expanded and now I want to have something that I don’t get to try all the time.
When you’re visiting a new cafe, what’s your go-to drink order?
Espresso, just because I like to see the people who can do it right. When it’s done right, it’s one of those things that can stop you in your tracks. And probably a pour-over. You can get coffee from Ethiopia, Misty Valley, and I can have one from Amaro Gayo, and they're going to taste wildly different. I want to see what you’ve got going on.
Any highlights from your time roasting so far?
We went down to New York City to an espresso competition and ended up getting to the semifinals. We lost to the guy who ended up winning it all, a roaster out of Baltimore. For me, to beat out other competition who have literally been around for a couple decades, that was pretty cool.
When all the variables come together and it works and people appreciate it, that’s got to be rewarding.
Yeah, those are the wins.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.