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Hampton Coffee Company roastmaster talks meeting growers, tasting everything

Oscar Amada, chief coffee roaster at The Hampton

Oscar Amada, chief coffee roaster at The Hampton Coffee Company in Southampton. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

"I’m amazed I can sleep at night,” said Oscar Amada, roastmaster at Hampton Coffee Company. The main office and roastery hide behind double doors in the back of the coffeehouse, on Southampton’s car-dealer strip of an expressway to Montauk. “I have to taste everything. Every day. Eventually, I had to turn a dozen-plus cups into a dozen-plus sips,” he added. The place delivers freshly roasted beans daily to Hampton Coffee’s shops (Westhampton Beach, Aqueboque and the original, established in 1994, in Water Mill), and Amada, very much awake and as passionate as anyone can be about his job, insisted, “Good-quality beans are not enough. Processing makes the difference. Coffee beans are like grapes. Someone has to pick the grapes properly. Care for them. And roast them right or nothing matters. Roast the beans, that is.” Yup, got that.

But he’s not finished. “How do you know you got it right?” he demanded. “You have to taste everything, because the same coffee will taste different with a French press or if made with a filter.”

What about acidity? Does he taste for that? “No,” he said. “That’s about the quality of the beans. If you don’t like acidic coffee, don’t buy acidic beans.”  You have to trust the farmer, he said. Go where the coffee is made, meet the growers and get to know them.

Sounds like a field trip to me, and sure enough, Amada is just back from Colombia with nothing but raves. “I was amazed to see how hard they work just to get a pound of coffee. One coffee plant might yield a pound of beans. We can go through 100 pounds a day.”

In Colombia’s hilly terrain, they work slowly, he said. “They mostly pick by hand, when the beans are red and ripe.” In Brazil, where land is flat, machines typically harvest all the beans at once, ready or not.

Sixteen years ago, Amada, now 32, was, like so many teens, wondering what to do with his life. He grew up on the Caribbean island of Grenada, famously invaded by the United States a few years before he was born. “Coffee was the last thing on my mind. And yet coffee was everywhere on the island,” he said. Amada’s grandfather used to roast beans over an open fire and grind them with a mortar and pestle. “Bitter, awful. I hated coffee.”

To be sure, Grenada is a tropical paradise, he added, unless you’re thinking about career opportunities. At age 16, he left for the States “to see what life had to offer," and ended up in Riverhead, working in construction. At 21, he began doing odd jobs at Hampton Coffee in Water Mill, where his brother, Dwight, was roasting. “I become mesmerized by consumption,” he said. Not the conspicuous kind, he clarified, but “coffee consumption. Everybody in America was drinking coffee. All day long. I had to find out why.”

About six years ago, he went from sweeping floors to head roaster. When his brother left a few years after that (he’s now master roaster and president of East End Coffee Roasters), Amada graduated to roastmaster.

Hampton Coffee sells to more than 100 stores and restaurants on Long Island, including King Kullen (recently purchased by Stop & Shop). “Roasting in small batches gives us the edge,” he said. “Our coffee is processed the same day we sell it or, at the latest, the day before.”

One of the company’s goals is to buy beans directly from farmers in countries around the world, not just Colombia and Brazil, but also Ethiopia and Indonesia. Currently, they use a broker for the more remote areas of the globe.

The Southampton coffeehouse, aka the Southampton Coffee Experience Store, could neatly tuck into New York City’s SoHo, San Francisco’s Noe Valley or any place where baristas mix and mingle with caffeinistas over lattes and computers. And if you peek through the portholes in the swinging doors at the back, you might catch a glimpse of Amada, standing amid open bags stamped “Colombia” or perhaps  fiddling with the wacky contraption that is his prized roasting machine—a big silver beauty that looks as if it were headed for laundromat duty before suddenly changing its mind about what it wanted to be when it grew up. “Quick,” I snapped, before Amada had a chance to think, “What’s your favorite cup of coffee?”

“Ah,” he said, “Ethiopian Sidamo. It’s a great bean to start with, but the fun begins when you start roasting it and catch those notes of fruit and chocolate. Like good wine. Tomorrow? I don’t know. I might have a new favorite.”

That’s cool. He can always sleep on it and get back to me.

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