Written by Marcel Reyes, Staff Writer. Photos by J.D. DiGiovanni, Staff Writer and Photographer.
Three years ago, Matt Delarosa and Raul Macias met through rock-climbing, vibed, and started to share ideas of what they wanted to do in life. Matt had a day job in the Marine Corp before beginning a career as an I.T. Programmer. Raul was a welder by trade. They met up at coffee shops, where the conversation often diverted into their love for what they were drinking. Bird Rock. Café Moto. This lead to a vision quest of sorts, a road trip would be their first step to figuring out where the gap in the industry might be. They trekked up into Pacific Northwest, with no itinerary, stopping at as many coffee places as possible to do their market research. The kinds of questions they had were—Why do they have THAT, there? What’s all of this for? How do all these things speak together? That was the Fall of 2013.
Now it is another sun-drenched and warm San Diego February, and Ironsmith Coffee Roasters has opened its first café in Encinitas. Two years worth of research went into carefully planning the 720 square foot space. You meet the barista first, the Slayer espresso machine second, and only notice the register when it’s time to do the point of sale. The custom alder wood butcher block gleams rustic warmth against the clean lines steel structures that welder Raul built out. Next to the menu, a chart demonstrating the ratios of water, milk, and coffee helpfully guides the uninitiated into understanding how much or little of everything goes into a specific drink.
“That ratio chart,” Matt explained, “is not just educational. It’s our quality assurance. We believe our espresso is amazing alone, but additions should act in complement to it. Whatever we add, should tease out different perceptions or experiences of milk. We don’t want to mask flavor. We want to create new flavor. A synergy of notes from coffee, and the natural sweetness in steamed milk.”
Ironsmith currently features beans from Matt and Raul’s favorite regions, dialed-in for perfect extraction. Each country has a unique process that, in-turn, develops their signature unique flavors. Ethiopian is a naturally processed bean with a fruit forward flavor, needing delicateness and not to be overroasted. At Ironsmith, their Ethiopian Shaye Ayra is fruit-punch forward and floral. Their Costa Rican Terra Bella has both lemon notes and nuttiness thanks to the honey process that lowers acidity while adding flavor to the 12-day dried single-origin beans. Finally, their Brazilian Thera is all almonds and peanuts due to their pulp-natural processing, adding a lot of crema, which essentially acts like a cap for flavor and aroma. The Brazilian is mixed with the Costa Rican for their house espresso blend, to make a beautiful canvas for latte art.
The sippableness of the coffee is what inspired Ironsmith to explore the “sweet spot.” From sourcing the beans to roasting them properly and preparing them with care into a well-crafted beverage, Ironsmith honors the fact that the palate of most people falls within a predictable range – predictable, yet elusive, therefore they must strive to find it continuously. “Most specialty coffee, a lot of the times, is lighter roasts,” Matt noted. “A fine medium is what we are targeting. To me, when you’re roasting, there’s a certain element of balance. Specialty coffee shops don’t usually target a balance because lighter roasts are a trend, but we like letting the beans develop more.”
Right now, Ironsmith offers a variety of extraction methods for you to enjoy your coffee.
Pour-overs using Beehouse ceramic drippers, noted for their excellent restriction. Espro press, a precision press that is super-insulated with double steel, and a double filter so that the coffee comes out really clean.
“For pour overs we really dialed it in: grind size, how much water we use, and look through a refractometer to measure total dissolved solids,” Matt explained. “How much coffee is in the water is a direct correlation between lightness, darkness, and strength. So in our pour-overs we searched for the sweet spot also. With coffee 70% of cellular mass of coffee isn’t dissolvable in water. When you grind it, 30% is soluble. You don’t even want a full 30%. We are looking for 18-22% extraction yield. That’s the best possible coffee you can get. If you extract over 22% and more towards 30%, you start to taste defects of over-extracted coffee. That’s why we use the Espro, it’s just like a pour over, really clean, smooth, measurable, and keeps it in the sweet spot.”
Oh, and, the Slayer. The only one around for miles and miles. “On our road trip, the only planned stop was speaking with the Founder of Slayer,” Matt and Raul said, “so, what’s really big right now is pressure profiling. What pressure profiling allows you to do, is extract espresso at different variable pressures. When you actuate the valve, the pressure is usually 9 bars—that’s 131 pounds of pressure, and industry standard. Now, in specialty coffee we figured out that by extracting lower pressure you reveal flavors. Half pressure. 4 bars. 1 bar.” Playing with that and dialing it in fits the entire chain of production, from roasting to extraction. The Slayer’s flow rate also helps to curate the espresso’s flavors.
The whole bar area was built to both engage the customer and barista, while also helping the barista not get too fatigued making drinks. The bar is built at a lower height so that a patron can easily see and interact with the barista rather than be walled-off by the height of the espresso machine. Meanwhile, the lowness of the bar also means the barista won’t have to raise their arms constantly while performing multiple pour-overs.
These mad scientists bring obsession about the construction of a coffee experience, from seed-to-cup, to theoretical heights. Matt and Raul had many long, philosophical discussions with their friend and mentor, the coffee guru Daniel Charlson of Dark Horse fame. They are in agreement that the fourth wave of coffee is just around the corner. “Fourth wave coffee is going to be even finer-tuned in its elements,” Matt said, again alluding to that elusive sweet spot. “Every coffee speaks uniquely, its our job as roasters to bring out the most in it.” After all, it takes two thousand+ hours of labor in 3-4 years of growing a tree and then three more for it to be mature enough to bear plentiful fruit. The plant is usually in preparation over a 7 year period.
“By the time the beans make it to us here,” Matt said, “we want to match that level of engagement to continue with what the farmers work so hard to create.” At Ironsmith, after extracting test roasts, they even use a refractometer to see how the light bends through the coffee. They wish to do justice to the farmers who have spent thousands of hours of labor so that a patron can really enjoy a five-minute drink. “It doesn’t stop at the roaster, we take a close look at the bean all the way to extraction to make sure it is dialed-in completely. Without the obsessive practices, what are we doing this for?”