Ben and Natalie Bronson built a coffee roastery as a way to serve the community
By Stu Watson
Coffee and hours of conversation provided the fertile soil for Ben and Natalie Bronson to form a family, find a home and start a business roasting coffee.
“We’ve been coffee lovers for 25 years, and out of that grew an appreciation for enjoying coffee and learning to brew it,” Ben says about the roots of Orchard Row Coffee Roasters as it approaches its one- year anniversary in the small building across from the dormant Mt. Hood Country Store.
Ben and Natalie were teenagers attending different schools, but drawn together by work in the coffee shop of their church in Ruch, just over the hill from Jacksonville in Southern Oregon.
They became engaged, then married, and found that coffee was at least one of the constants in their lives.
“A lot of time at dinner, there would be coffee and dessert,” Natalie says. “Coffee helped our love of people, so offering coffee is a natural way to help create a relaxed environment.”
Ben recalls late-night conversations with friends, with cups of coffee helping sort through life’s struggles.
It was only natural that Ben would start exploring the lore and science behind roasting—and start roasting his own beans, using an old propane camp stove with a Whirley Popcorn popper to hold and tumble the beans.
He did it in his driveway.
“It smells nice when you’re in the open,” he says of the roasting aromas. “But when it’s filling the kitchen, it permeates everything.”
That approach was pretty rudimentary. It didn’t allow Ben to control the balance between conduction and convection.
Now equipped with a higher-tech micro-roaster, Ben extracts sample beans from the roasting chamber to sniff and survey. Nearby, his son, Joel, 12, takes notes and tracks progress next to a computer graph that guides creation of every batch.
“With this roaster, the drum tumbles the beans over the heat, and we can adjust the speed and the air flow,”
Ben says. “The air flow affects the temperature and the chafe and smoke removal.”
At its peak, this batch hits 434 degrees before Ben dumps the beans into a bin, where rotating paddles ensure even air flow and cooling.
The Bronsons didn’t set out to become coffee roasters. Ben went to ministerial school after high school. After he and Natalie married, they moved to Bend, where her parents lived and her father served as a pastor. Ben worked construction while Natalie home- schooled their three children.
After Natalie’s parents returned to Southern Oregon, Ben left construction and became associate pastor of their church. They moved to Parkdale in 2011 to help start the Pillar Bible Fellowship.
To make ends meet, Ben took a job in building maintenance with Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, which later led to a management position with Down Manor.
The idea of turning their roasting hobby into a business started to percolate.
“We love coffee, and this was a great way to provide something for the community,” Natalie says.
Ben says Natalie had always provided valuable quality control of his home roasts, tasting and recording data from each batch. Now that it’s a business, she has been increasing her role.
“I’m learning to do the roasts,” she says. “It uses different sides of your brain.”
Ben says no two batches are ever identical, which makes it fun to blend art and science in pursuit of a consistent cup.
“What matters is the end result,” he says. “One of the fun things about roasting is that it has a significant impact on the final result. You can take a good bean and ruin it with bad roasting.”
Data-driven roasting has allowed the couple to dispense with the taste testing they used to do between each batch. Even so, when they get a new bean in from Columbia, Mexico, Congo or Guatemala—they run trials to see if the coffee tastes better with a light, medium or strong roast.
“If we decide we like a light roast, there’s 100 ways we can do that,” Ben says.
For now, they roast four single-source beans, create two blends and brew fresh cups for walk-in customers two mornings a week: Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to noon. They also have a single- origin decaf.
They sell a lot of their coffee through their website, and offer free delivery to Parkdale-area customers. In time, they hope to grow the wholesale side of the business, serving other retailers, such as the Blue Canoe Cafe.
“All coffee we buy is ranked as specialty-grade coffee,” Ben says. “Freshness is a huge factor.”
He says they remove coffee from their shelves if it hasn’t sold in two weeks. What happens to it then? “We’ll drink it,” Ben says. “We always want to provide the customer the freshest we can.”