Drinks Issue

From Crop to Cup

As Montana Coffee Traders marks its 40th year sourcing, roasting and brewing coffee in the Flathead Valley, its high standard of quality remains rooted in relationships

By Tristan Scott
A latte from Montana Coffee Traders roastery in Whitefish on August 4, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Inquire about a specialty coffee on the menu at Montana Coffee Traders, and chances are Alison Chopp can tell you a story about the farmer who cultivated the bean. It’s also a safe bet that she’s visited the Central or South American region where the coffee was grown, and that her relationship with the farmer dates back years, during which time she’s developed a firsthand understanding of the growing conditions and processing technique behind every brew.

Such an intimate connection might not be apparent to a queue of un-caffeinated customers hastily ordering complicated, custom coffee drinks in a bustling cafe, but for the team at Montana Coffee Traders (MCT), which this summer is marking its 40th year sourcing, roasting and brewing coffee in the Flathead Valley, it’s the foundation on which the business was built. 

“Coffee is people,” Chopp said during a recent interview at MCT’s mercantile and roasting house, which is located on U.S. Highway 93, in the same farmhouse where the company’s founder, R.C. Beall, began roasting and selling coffee in 1981. “There are so many amazing people who dedicate their lives to coffee and bring a social awareness to its production on a global scale.”

An emptied bag of coffee beans at Montana Coffee Traders roastery in Whitefish on August 4, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

MCT’s coffee is mostly grown on small family farms in the mountains of Central and South America, East Africa, and Indonesia. Living by its mission statement of “being a positive part of people’s everyday lives,” MCT takes pride in working with farm-direct suppliers like Café Monteverde in Costa Rica, as well as organic- and fair trade-certified family farms and cooperatives in countries like Ethiopia and El Salvador.

As MCT’s green bean buyer for the past 17 years, Chopp is a self-described “coffee nerd,” and while much of her behind-the-scenes wizardry occurs outside of the coffee-drink-ordering customer’s direct field of experience, the connections she’s drawn between crop and cup are critical to the coffee’s quality and consistency.

Before the beans arrive at the barista’s tamping station, for example, a complex network of growers, harvesters, sorters, brokers, buyers, and roasters constitutes the supply chain, while Chopp and a “dream team” of MCT production mavens help ensure a high-quality flavor profile. Since throwing herself into the Flathead Valley’s coffee scene in 2004, Chopp has been ensuring that it’s all done through an ethical and sustainable — as well as delicious — process.

Chopp counts herself fortunate to have been mentored by Scott Brant, a pioneer of coffee roasting and green sourcing in the Pacific Northwest, who served as MCT’s first roast master and remained with the company for 35 years and describes MCT’s birthplace in the Flathead Valley as a boon to the entire region.

Coffee beans are packaged at Montana Coffee Traders roastery in Whitefish on August 4, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Indeed, when Brant and Beall began roasting and selling coffee in 1981, sampling their concoctions from a percolator under the shade of a Ponderosa, there wasn’t a single coffee roaster located between Spokane and Minneapolis. Even as MCT’s founders pioneered their own innovations in roasting technology and forged enduring bonds with bean farmers, they had no idea that, decades later, the company would have grown to a staff of more than 90 employees, operating four coffee shops throughout the Flathead Valley. 

It marks a sea change from those initial months, when the roasters would invite passersby to come in and taste a fresh cup of their coffee. Then they would serve canned coffee and let the customers decide which tasted better. Brant also traveled all over the state, inviting coffee shops and stores to try his freshly roasted brews.

As the company thrived, Brant also helped novice roasters all over the world, including in Moscow right after the fall of communism.

“They hadn’t had good coffee in years,” Brant told the Beacon in 2014, after his retirement.

Today, MCT distributes to cafes all over the state, including to one of its very first customers, Butterfly Herbs in Missoula. Every week, the roastery off Highway 93 receives about 80 bags of coffee, each weighing 154 pounds. The coffee beans come from Honduras, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and dozens of other countries.

Coffee beans are packaged at Montana Coffee Traders roastery in Whitefish on August 4, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since 2018, the roasting duties at MCT have fallen to Zach Farnes, who still uses the original Sivitz air bed roaster that has been a staple since 1981, augmenting the roasting process with a pair of Loring roasters to keep up with improvements in technology and increases in demand — Farnes estimates that he roasts between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of coffee beans every day.

“The Sivitz is still our workhorse,” Farnes said. “It’s always on.”

But the Loring roasters are fully automated, featuring integrated touchscreens that log roasting data.

“I can create a roast profile, which is basically a recipe, and save it in the machine,” Farnes said, scrolling through dozens of roast profiles. “It helps with consistency, because if your roast profile varies, you’re going to hear about it.”

Pausing on a roast profile for El Salvador Cruz Gorda, Farnes explained that the coffee comes from Finca Cruz Gorda, located in the Apaneca Mountain range, on one of five farms owned by Mauricio “Moe” Salaverria. Coincidentally, Moe was the first farmer that Chopp started buying beans from more than a decade ago, when she fully assumed the role of MCT’s green buyer from Brant.

“The coffee community is the most friendly, caring community I’ve ever been part of,” Farnes said, riffing on the connection. “There’s so much knowledge to be gained from the people you meet through coffee.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated volume of coffee beans that MCT roasts. The company roasts between 2,000 and 2,000 pounds every day, not every week.

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