Coffee has more proven aromas than wine, says Smoky Hollow Roaster’s Dale Inghram
A really good cup of coffee changed Dale Inghram’s life. Inghram was a voiceover performer who had risen to doing Super Bowl commercials and being the voice of the Bravo Network, and… well, let’s let him tell it.
“One of the great things about voiceover work is that there’s a lot of free time, and I spent some that time in coffee shops. I fell in love with coffee, with the whole environment and experience. One day I was having a cup in in Blue Butterfly Coffee Shop on Main Street, which is five blocks from my house, and I thought, I wonder if they’d sell this place. I asked the owner, and she replied, ‘I put it up for sale last week.’ I talked with my wife and said, if we’re going to have a coffee shop, this is where we’re going to do it. She agreed and all of a sudden we owned a coffee shop.”
The first days didn’t go smoothly.
“The first day we owned it, the refrigerator broke. For the successive seven weekends, something major broke. There was a lot of trial by fire, fixed by trial and error. I started researching coffee, and it was all there for me to learn. I started getting roaster magazines, barista magazines, reading books, educating myself from seed to cup. It was a fascinating education about a global enterprise. I have coffee that started in the mountains of Rwanda and I’m drinking it in El Segundo.”
Inghram discovered that there was a reason the smooth, aromatic coffee he enjoyed seemed unlike the stuff he was used to drinking.
“My first experience with coffee was my dad drinking Dunkin’ Doughnuts coffee, and he poured sugar and cream in it. I asked him why, and he said, ‘I drink 30 to 50 cups a day, and that makes it go down really quick. That doughnut shop was my office.’ That’s how you had to drink that coffee. If you didn’t drink it with sugar and cream, it was unpalatable due to the heavy roast and lack of freshness.”
Blue Butterfly had been buying premium coffees from the start, so it was nothing like that acidic, harsh stuff his father drank. As Inghram became more knowledgeable he decided to move to the next step: roasting his own beans. For most people that means getting a little countertop machine and experimenting in their kitchen. Inghram leased a commercial space on a side street in El Segundo, bought a machine that roasts 25 pounds of coffee at a time, and opened the Smoky Hollow Roastery.
“Before then I was having people roast for me, and their palates were different. I want to present the flavors in coffee my way, so I partnered with someone who really knows roasting and bought this machine that towers over me. There was no stage of getting a little home roaster. I believe in finding people who know more than you and listening to them.”
Inghram listened, learned, experimented, and discovered that his tastes in coffee changed radically.
“I started with the darkest roasts because that’s what America drinks, bold jet fuel coffee. That destroys the more delicate flavors. If you’re drinking really dark roasts, you’re drinking burnt beans. The sugars are degenerating, a lot of the fruity and citrus notes are gone. People drink it because they’ve never had anything better. One of the things you can do with someone who is used to drinking coffee the way our parents did, and the way a lot of America still does, is get them to try a fresh cup of lighter roast coffee for a week. Their first drink may make them ask, ‘What is this, is it tea? I’m tasting blueberries, caramel, this isn’t coffee.’ If they drink that for a week and then go back to their old coffee, they’ll think it’s terrible. They’ve just learned what coffee is supposed to taste like. It’s like anything that is new to your palate, you start not knowing anything and learn the possibilities. Coffee has more proven aromas than wine, so there are more separate flavors to discover.”
Eventually, Inghram opened his roastery to the public for purchasing freshly roasted beans and enjoying freshly brewed coffee.
“Almost everybody else sells drip coffee.I use an immersion system called ground control. The hot water goes into the coffee basket and an agitator shakes the grounds. Then it vacuums that coffee out and does it again. And then a third time. You’re getting different qualities with each extraction. It was invented by a chemist who was tasked with developing a new brewer, and he asked, ‘Why are you only extracting it once? In the lab when we extract stuff, we do it several times to get different profiles.’ We control everything based on how long each cycle goes. It’s a unique system that lets us enhance the body and flavors.”
The combination of fresh beans and expert brewing would probably make Smoky Hollow Roasters popular even if the place had been left with the spartan environment of the former print shop. But Inghram had been seduced into enjoying coffee in pleasant surroundings so he provides them here. The seating offers steel and wooden benches and comfortable sofas. There are whimsical elements like the life-size soft sculpture penguin in the corner.
“I built this as a place where I would love to hang out, where things would happen. That big table there – a business started because two people sitting next to each other started talking. A friend who has spent time in Europe said, You didn’t just create a coffee shop, you created a community where people come together. It’s working despite the fact that the parking isn’t good and there’s little public transit. This is a place for the people who work in the area. It’s designed as a space for people to walk to.”
Inghram wants to not only offer the best to his customers, but to encourage them to seek the best of everything. However he has a surprising warning for them.
“It creates a problem. When great things become normal, bad things become unacceptable, even intolerable. You find yourself wondering why the rest of the world eats this, drinks this, accepts this. I told my staff, I am not America, we are not America. What I’m looking for in food and drink is not what the rest of the world wants. I’m not saying it’s better or worse in any particular way, but I’m passionate about things that other people don’t care about. There have been times when I wished I didn’t care, because it makes it less enjoyable when I can’t find the best.”
Inghram is still doing voiceovers in his home studio and running Blue Butterfly and Smoky Hollow Roasters. But he’s not out of ideas.
“I may do classes here. I want to teach people how professionals evaluate and describe coffee. My next push is to do subscription coffee online, for sending beans every month. Other locations might happen, but I want to go slow. Work-life balance is really important to me, and it meant a lot for me to be local, to be close to home.”
Smoky Hollow Roasters is at 118 Sierra, Unit C, in El Segundo. ER