ROASTER NAME: Cameron Heath
YEARS ROASTING: 5 years
COMPANY: Revelator Coffee Co., Birmingham AL
RELEASE: The Mouth of Madness
“Every summer, I rewatch Lost. It’s a terrible show but I still do it every year.” No reason, no explanation. This is a ritual Cameron Heath, our featured roaster for the month of June, engages in every year. Rewatching shows is probably a pastime many of us can harken back to—we at Matchbook are fans of watching the same episodes of Parks and Recreation over and over—and there’s definitely some parallels to roasting that weren’t lost on us. Repeating roast curves, pulling the trier out to smell your roast at three minutes, six minutes…roasting can seem pretty repetitive when you look at it. But there are times when a new coffee comes in or the weather makes you question how much heat to hit a coffee with or when your roast just doesn’t go as planned that make you question the routine and wonder why you do what you do.
Talking to Cameron is a mix of predictable patterns and recognizable traits and the unexpected, sudden movements. Cameron is the director of roasting for Revelator Coffee in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s a spontaneous creature of habit—a person who stuck to a strict vegan diet for ten years and then dove head first into the world of meat and barbeque when he moved to Alabama two years ago. “I dived in deep…I bought a jackfruit, tried it as barbecue, hated it…and I did it twice, and I was thinking, ‘I’m spending so much money on this bullshit fruit when I can go to the store and get a barbeque sandwich for four dollars,’ so that’s what I did.”
The coffee Cameron chose to use for Matchbook is probably from a region you’ve never had coffee from: Tanzania. “I knew I wanted to work with an African coffee and was leaning more towards the jammiest Kenyan I could find but then I cupped [Tanzania] Mafinga and was blown away about the amount of tight knit complexity backed by this insane wall of acidity.” He likens this coffee to a dense Colombian bean, and plans to approach it as such when roasting: “high heat application and low airflow for the first five minutes and lowering the gas after 300 degrees. End result: a clean/sweet/complex cup.”
Cameron will be roasting this coffee on a Giesen 15w, and his approach is simple: “Listen, I love airflow. Can I get shirts of that made?” he shares. “Maybe I stole this analogy from someone but roasting is a baton race of conductive to convective heat, just depends on how soon and how much of that baton you want to pass on. My approach for 90% of my roast is to start with my lowest PA and work my way up slowly while working my gas down as well, percentages for the adjustment change based on the coffee and usage.”
Although he speaks confidently now about how to approach different coffees, Cameron still remembers the days where he was mostly relying on the limited knowledge he had. “I'll be the first to tell you that my roast when I first started roasting with Revelator was pretty one dimensional, having to learn a new machine and work with coffees I've never roasted before it took a long time for me to develop a roasting style…but just learn about building acids and sugar browning, you know…the basic shit.” Although he’s roasting this coffee on a Giesen, he’s roasted on more automatic machines, and he approaches roasting with a mix of science and art. “My first introduction to roasting was with fully automated machines, so my first experience with roasters was slightly ‘set it and forget it’ in nature. With Revelator, we use Cropster and all the adjustments are manual. My view point now is, I don't know how anyone could roast without some sort of profiling tool?” But he does seen the disadvantages. “With that, there is one huge con…having trained a person or two my tip is always, ‘The screen isn't roasting.’ It's easy to get caught up with technology and loose sight of the art, I get lost in it during heavier roast days…it's hard not to be.”
Cameron came onto our radar through one of our co-founders, Dani Goot, but the way Dani remembers the story and the way Cameron tells it is very different. As Dani tells it, Cameron was one of the top finishers at the 2016 roasting competition, but Cameron didn’t even place in the top ten (records confirm Cameron’s version). “He keeps misquoting the entire situation!” But what Cameron does verify is that Dani came up to him and told him he was talented. “He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re great, you’re awesome, let’s keep in touch…’ at that time I was probably sulking over this very devastating loss, and he actually got in touch with me and we corresponded, and then at the last SCA he came up to me and said, ‘Remember: I found you first,’ and walked away!”
Even without that ominous endorsement from Dani, Cameron has always been someone you noticed. He got his first coffee job in 2013 simply because, “I looked at the roaster maybe a second longer than everyone else.” At CoffeeFest Atlanta in 2014, he met the folks from Revelator, who asked him if he could roast, to which his response was, “kinda!” and moved to Birmingham soon thereafter. Cameron claims no special or precious skill or talent for roasting, and jokingly (but like, half jokingly) refers to the ‘fake it til you make it’ motto of getting by. “I was in Birmingham for three weeks, waiting for our roaster to land, and when it finally did, everyone was like, ‘Cool, hope Cameron can roast,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ That’s when I realized everyone was faking it until they figured it out.”
Cameron is honest, but that doesn’t mean he’s lazy. After the misremembered incident at the 2016 roasting championships, Cameron was determined to do better. “I walked out of Expo, walked straight into the room where SCAA was selling books, and bought that book [Rob Hoos’ Modulating the Flavor Profile of Coffee: One Roaster's Manifesto] because I wanted to get better. Today.” This year, Cameron placed first at the 2017 Knoxville CoffeeChamps competition and 12th at the U.S. Roasting Championships in Seattle. And he hopes to continue competing against the best roasters in the nation. “Mark [the 2017 roasting champion] came up to me and said congrats and I said good job to him too but that he should know I’m coming after that spot next year.”
How does Cameron plan to get better? By asking others. “I rely on people that have been in the game…it’s my only self check.” Cameron often sends others his coffees, and looks forward to feedback. In a way, being part of this project is like a big coffee swap, and Cameron isn’t hesitant to lean into criticism and commentary and perhaps that’s because roasting is never really done. Not quite. There’s always room to do better. “We’re driven to do something well. You want to be the best at what you’re doing. No one just roasts a coffee and says, ‘eh.’”
So maybe that’s why roasters can handle the continuous work of roasting coffee; maybe it’s through an endless chase of a perfection they’ll never actually achieve. And perhaps that’s why Cameron—and frankly many of us—find comfort in the repetitive, in the things we’ve seen or experienced before. As the June featured roaster, Cameron is swinging back into his Lost marathon ritual, and it could be that some of you are enjoying this coffee as you rewatch one of your favorite shows or reread an old book. You discover new things in the familiar, and you get better and better at what you do because you can see more of the picture.