NAME: Sam Neely
YEARS ROASTING: 2 ½ Years
MACHINES: 12kg Probat
COMPANY: Switchback Coffee Roasters, Colorado Springs, CO
When we talk to roasters for Matchbook, we try to find the ties in their life that create a story. Sometimes that involves visuals—their words create a narrative that expresses itself in colors and shapes. Sometimes that involves storytelling—the stories our roasters tell us are rich in detail and to mar them with useless details would be to water down their stories.
For Sam Neely, Matchbook’s featured roaster for January, I can’t stop thinking about crossword puzzles. Maybe it’s because Sam’s story feels like a series of bold words. Emblazoned in my head I see words like: DECISIVE, PASSIONATE, INTREPID, JUST, and all I want to do is find ways for the words to come together and complete one another, like a finished crossword.
Let’s break down these words one by one.
DECISIVE: Can you imagine being a teenager and deciding you wanted to leave school and finish your degree online? I bet many of you reading this were goofing around playing video games or putzing around with friends at that age. Instead, Sam went to coffeeshops to be around the thing he loved and missed the most about traditional school settings: people. “When I was 15, I left public school to finish by myself online, which was great but of course, left me with fewer opportunities to constantly be around people (my favorite thing),” they share. “In my quest to surround myself with people for as much time as possible, I was naturally drawn to coffee shops.”
It was those early experiences that shaped Sam’s interest in coffee. “I spent lots of time doing my school work at a particular cafe down the road from me, until, eventually, they let me work there. At this point, I still didn't know anything about coffee, nor did I particularly like it—I was just in it for the people.”
PASSIONATE: A common thread for most roasters, right? For Sam, passion drove them to learn as much about coffee as possible. “A large part of my personality, both as a strength and a fault, is obsession. When I get interested in something, it pretty much becomes my life, and I become determined to learn absolutely everything that I can about it.”
Although the café Sam worked at wasn’t specialty, they still took away big lessons about hospitality and found a way to feed their interest. “You see that cafe that I worked at was not specialty. It was more focused on taking care of people, and serving them 16oz vanilla bean mochas. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, the more I worked at the cafe, the more I realized there must be more to coffee than sticking a bunch of sugar in it. So, I began to read everything that I could on the Internet about coffee.”
Sam’s passion fueled the rest of the café. “I made gradual changes in the café, like measuring our espresso yield (sure, it was volume measurements at first, but hey). Eventually, the cafe owner got interested in higher quality coffee with me, and let me switch roasters to a specialty roaster, introduce filter coffee (much more of a rarity in Europe) and start placing focus on producers and flavors rather than syrups and powders. This is where my passion for specialty coffee really blossomed and being given the freedom to explore coffee myself was such a blessing.” Passion, when you feel it coming off someone like Sam, is impossible to ignore and difficult to dismiss. You’d be foolish not to be changed by it.
INTREPID: Intrepid is one of those words you accidentally stumble upon because you needed a synonym for a word like ‘fearless’ and you wonder why you don’t use it more—which is exactly how I feel right now because it’s The Perfect Word to describe Sam. Intrepid means to be fearless, but also implies a sense of whimsy and willingness to let go of the rules. Intrepid folks are ready to dive in and face whatever’s in front of them with lightness and a smile on their face. They’re the folks who get off a plane and immediately apply for their dream job, bags in hand and ready to work ASAP.
Which is pretty much how Sam ended up at Switchback Coffee Roasters in Colorado Springs. “The day that I moved to Colorado Springs I applied to Switchback Coffee Roasters, and was hired within the week! Here, I was able to learn with and under people, and continue learning all of the intricacies of coffee, including roasting.” Sam learned to roast from the folks at Switchback (Sam roasted their own coffee for last year’s United States Barista Championships), and is now the Director of Coffee for the whole damn business. Because duh, Sam’s intrepid.
JUST: More so than any release we’ve done, the coffee Sam picked for you is an example of how roasters can make a difference in the coffee supply chain. Sam picked a coffee from WHERE IS THIS COFFEE FROM, but Sam approaches all sourcing questions with an eye to just and equitable practices. “Aside from coffee, I'm super passionate about social justice and economic equality, and I think that at the core, this is what drives my passion for the roasting side of things, and particularly in green coffee buying,” Sam shares. “Understanding the colonial history and nature of coffee, and trying to break down these power structures whilst working to empower coffee producers is something that I'm deeply passionate about.”
This translates into the way Sam roasts coffee. This is an area that I feel like can be worked on in some many ways, from political activity and education in the US, to the pricing and transparency standards that we, as roasting companies, hold ourselves too. I think this view of coffee transfers all the way to the way that I actually roast—my goal when roasting a coffee is always just to showcase what is already there, never to try and introduce or manipulate flavors myself.”
Have you ever done a crossword that, when all the words come together, they reveal a theme? If you put all the words together here—decisive, passionate, intrepid, and just—we hope it spells out a coffee that is both uniquely delicious, special, and completely accessible. All those things describe Sam as well (delicious…maybe? Sam does admit they’re very into food and wine so they’ll probably taste like the last delicious thing they ate). Every time we present you with a coffee, we want the coffee to sing both of the work of the producer and the work of the roaster. With Sam’s coffee, we hope you can taste each individual component—the decisiveness, the passion, the intrepidness, and the justness—and you can feel connected to them and their story.