FACETIME- Roast time: Tragers savor beany connections

William and Joe Trager

"Coffee is all about human relationships," says William Trager, "from the farm to the roaster to the barrista with the customer."

He ought to know. For nearly 15 years, William and his brother, Joe, owners of Higher Grounds, have been brewing coffee in Charlottesville. Now a local chain of four coffee kiosks, the company once included a storefront in York Place on the Downtown Mall, now known as Café Cubano.

Staff at Martha Jefferson and UVA hospitals have been downing cups of Higher Grounds java since the first of the kiosks opened in 1993 (one is in Plan 9 on the Corner), and this month, the Seattle-born and -raised Trager brothers are delving even deeper into the coffee biz with the launch of their new venture, Trager Brothers Roasters. The company produces certified organic, Fair Trade, and Rain Forest Alliance coffee. 

The idea of starting a coffee-roasting business was born three years ago, but working out details such as where to locate the new venture, where to buy roasting equipment, and how to build what is essentially a small factory was a challenge, says Joe. 

The brothers settled on property in Lovingston– including a farmhouse where William now lives with his wife, Toya, and their three-year-old daughter, Olivia– and spent the better part of a year renovating the house, constructing a warehouse in the backyard, and adjusting to life in a rural community.

"I didn't know there was actually a squirrel hunting season," laughs Toya, an actress who's now handling some of the marketing for les freres Trager. She and William agree that the Nelson County community has not only welcomed them but "held our hands" through the red tape a business must navigate to open.

Part of the challenge for William has been learning the roasting craft, a task he undertook as a pupil of coffee legend Joe Kittay, founder of The Good Coffee Company in Seattle.

Among the lessons Kittay taught: "You have to have a feel for what's going on inside the bean."

As he intently supervises a batch of Sumatran beans roasting inside the vintage roaster he purchased in Amsterdam earlier this year, checking gauges and watching the beans as they pour out to cool, it's clear that William Trager has taken that advice to heart. Each batch is different, he says, depending not only on the country of origin– beans from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Sumatra surround the roaster– but also the climate conditions for the crop as it grew. He adjusts roasting time and temperature based on those factors. 

It's a change of pace for a man once used to serving up endless cups of coffee behind a counter.

"My life was a thousand 20-second interactions, and now I'm buried in a warehouse," he says with a smile.