The idea behind Southern Girl Coffee was ignited on the hard rubber casing of a tire swing. It was there, in her grandfather’s yard more than 18 years ago, that Leah Sparks had her very first cup of coffee.
Now she runs her own business in Oxford — and her grandfather is head of quality control.
“He’s pushing 80 now, but he’ll still sit out there and help us pull beans and tell us if he thinks we got them too dark,” she said, laughing.
Sparks began roasting coffee beans with the help of her stepfather, Bobby Jones, more than a year ago. Since then, coffee roasting has evolved from a hobby into a calling. They have purchased a building in downtown Oxford and, after some renovations, the two hope to open a roasting facility by mid-summer. They currently offer home delivery once a week.
Sparks and Jones use four kinds of coffee beans — Colombian, Mexican, Sumatran and Costa Rican — which they buy from an importer in Indiana.
Southern Girl Coffee offers several gourmet roasts including Colombian Supremo (a dark-medium roast available in regular or decaf), Costa Rican Tarrazu (medium roast), Early Riser (a light breakfast blend) and Southern Pecan (which is “sweet like pecan pie”). Raw coffee beans may all start out green but that doesn’t mean they all taste the same, which is why Southern Girl Coffee offers a Mexican-Costa Rican blend.
“We’re looking for a balance,” Sparks said.
Sparks and Jones currently roast the beans in a homemade roaster in their backyard. The converted gas grill with a drum roaster inside can hold up to five pounds of beans at a time.
“The drum roaster has a rotisserie unit in it, the kind that they cook chickens with, that turns at a certain speed,” Jones said. “We have to keep the beans at a certain temperature — between 450 and 600 degrees.”
Jones said the real challenge behind roasting coffee beans is knowing what to expect at all times. Things like the weather and where the beans are stored after roasting all come into play.
“If it’s a rainy day, you don’t roast the beans, because they go through a process where they crack, much like popcorn,” Jones explained.
Sparks said the best way to tell when the beans are finished roasting is to wait for them to crack not once, but twice. After the second crack, the beans are pulled from the roaster and loaded onto a cooling tray. Once cooled, they’re stored in a bucket for a few days to de-gas — “freshly roasted coffee emits carbon dioxide for the first 24 hours,” Jones said.
The main difference between fresh-roasted and mass-produced coffee beans comes down to quality, said Sparks. Because she and Jones roast their beans in such small batches, they have more control over the flavoring.
Once the beans are ground they start to lose flavoring so Sparks usually sells her product as whole beans. “Whole bean is fresher. Freshness is key,” she said.
Sparks also wants her coffee to convey a message of family togetherness and personal reflection. Not only has Southern Girl Coffee helped her family grow closer, her family has been key in terms of getting her products out there — from South Dakota to England.
“We’ve met so many great people through it and I feel like we’re going to meet so many more once we have a storefront and a coffeehouse,” she said.
Until then, she’ll stick to roasting beans at home and selling fresh-brewed coffee at local craft fairs and concerts.
“Some of my friends tell me that I’m going to get sick of it, and that I should just keep it as a hobby but I don’t think I will,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to make an impact from a bag of coffee.”
This story was first printed in the Spring 2014 issue of Northeast Alabama Living.