Juanita's Coffee delivers fresh blend to connoisseurs

Since 2003, couple's hobby keeps them busy in retirement

Posted: Monday, December 05, 2005

You may have seen the red Subaru with a banner for Juanita's Coffee affixed to its side, or perhaps you've heard rumors of the hand-delivered, high-altitude, shade-grown coffee being roasted somewhere in the wilds of the Mendenhall Peninsula.

"Juanita," aka Jane Hill, has lived in Juneau since 1964. She and her husband, Jeff, have been roasting beans in their utility room and garage since April 2003. Through word-of-mouth and the sign on her car, they've developed a steady network of 140 coffee connoisseurs.

The Hills aren't trying to put a dent in any of the specialty roasters in town. They're just happy to have a blossoming hobby in their retirement. Both worked for the state.

"I'm just filling a little needed niche for people that really, really appreciate good fresh coffee," Jane said. "And this is all grade-one. I don't let it sit on the shelf. If you called me and ordered coffee tomorrow, I would roast it and get it to you. When you get it, it's probably about 24 hours old."

The Hills roasted about 260 pounds of coffee for 117 orders in November and anticipate a busy holiday season. They are not accepting any new customers at the moment, so if you got in early, consider yourself fortunate. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Douglas orders Juanita's, as do select offices in the Federal Building and the State Office Building, and teachers at Auke Bay and Mendenhall River schools.

"I think we do taste the difference," said Sue Skiman-Jones, a fourth-grade teacher at Auke Bay. Skiman-Jones was inspired by Hill's coffee to buy her own roaster. She's one of six teachers at the school that pools their money for hand-delivered beans.

"If you like coffee, and if you drink coffee all the time, you appreciate fresh tasting as opposed to stale beans that have been sitting around for awhile on the shelf of a store," she said.

Made in the Shade, the espresso kiosk in the foyer of Rainbow Foods, is one of Juanita's biggest customers. The kiosk goes through seven pounds of coffee a week, Jane said.

The governor's office consumes about five pounds a week of the Guatemalan blend when the Legislature is in session, she said. Out of session, the office drinks about 2 1/2 pounds a week. About 10 to 15 staffers, not the governor, pool their money each week.

"I enjoy giving the bag to people and having them say, 'This coffee's really good,'" Jane said. "It just makes me feel good.

"I'm trying to keep it small," she added. "If I get inundated with orders, my husband's going to have a pretty stressed-out life. I don't want to roast 12 hours a day and be stressed out."

How did it get to this point?

The answer is somewhat surprising, considering the Hills didn't know a thing about coffee just three years ago.

"I don't consider us coffee snobs at all," Jeff said.

"I drank Folger's (for years)," Jane said.

That all changed in the spring of 2003, when the Hills made one of their annual trips to Mexico. They stayed at Mi Casa es Su Casa, a two-story, beach-side bed and breakfast in Rincon de Guayabitos, a Jaltemba Bay village about an hour north of Puerto Vallarata in the state of Nayarit.

The proprietors, Bob Howell and Vicky Flores, prepare Mexican breakfast each morning. They also serve local-grown coffee that they roast themselves. Howell guides backcountry Jeep trips into the jungle and buys beans from the small farms in the hills.

"We were just average people until someone gave us some real fresh coffee," Jeff said. "We didn't know the difference, and that pretty much made a believer out of me."

Jane was so intrigued that she asked Howell about the roasting process. Much to her surprise, she discovered it was fairly simple.

"He took me back in his bodega and showed me this little home roaster that he roasts coffee on," Jane said. "We went home that year with 25 pounds of green coffee beans, and I bought a little home roaster and started roasting coffee. Pretty soon my relatives and friends were saying, 'Can I have a pound?'"

Jane had just retired after 27 years as a right-of-way engineer with the state and was looking for something to fill her newfound spare time. She filled out the paperwork for a business license and plopped down $5,000 for her first digital roaster. In April 2003, she started the business, roasting 25 pounds of coffee a week.

She soon bought a second digital roaster for another $5,000. The digital machines can fit about 3 pounds of beans, which translates into 2 1/3 pounds roasted. It takes about 25 minutes through the cooling process.

The beans sit in a perforated drum that spins while it's heated to 500 degrees by a halogen lamp. An afterburner collects most of the smoke, and Hill hooks up a ventilating hose when she's cooking a dark roast.

"You can carry out the roasting process and get different flavors," she said. "But you need a really good sense of smell and sight. After a while, you get a real feel for where you're supposed to be at a certain time."

The Hills now have two more roasters - fabricated stainless steel drums designed to fit rotisserie-style on a gas barbecue grill - that they bought on the Internet.

The barbecue roasters are not computerized, but with both running at the same time, Jeff can crank about 8 pounds of roasted beans in 25 minutes.

"I just do it by ear and smell, and so it's kind of seat of your pants," he said. "It's all just cooking, and anybody who likes to cook can do it."

Hill has two labels. Nayarit Sweet includes Mexican beans. Inca Gold covers Central and South American varieties - Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Brazilian, Guatemalan and Colombian, her only certified organic blend.

She also prepares decaffeinated and 28 kinds of flavored coffee, everything from blueberry to chocolate truffle to pumpkin spice. Jane buys flavoring oil from a company in Clarkston, Wash., and soaks the beans in a half-ounce per pound.

She has visited the processing plant that her buyer runs in Compostela, Nayarit, and she's met the workers, farmers and pickers who select her beans. Ten percent of her proceeds from the Nayarit Sweet label goes back to Howell and Flores, who take food and clothing in care boxes to the tiny villages in coffee country.

Last year, Hill had the chance to visit the five or six small coffee farms in the Andes Mountains of the Cuzco region of Peru that produce the beans for Inca Gold. She picked beans with the workers and had dinner with them. Ten percent from the Inca label goes toward solar tarps for their fields and the farmers' families.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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