My passion for fine coffee began seven years ago. I had been going through some rough times. Rev. Ben Joyce, who was pastor at Danville’s Community Presbyterian Church, took me under his wing and became my mentor, teaching me lessons from the Bible on how to live a morally courageous life.
Ben enjoyed working with his hands. One of the objects he had made was a nice coffee roaster. Ben enjoyed a fine cup of coffee and had mastered the process for roasting his own beans in order to make coffee that was more flavorful than anything you could buy at Peet’s, Starbucks, or certainly get out of a can of Folgers.
I had always liked what I thought was a good cup of coffee, but when Ben offered me a cup from his roaster, I experienced a taste sensation so powerful that it became a kind of epiphany. Flavors seemed to be rolling around in my mouth, zipping across my palate, and exploding into multiple taste sensations. It was an incredible experience! I could only think, “What’s going on?” The taste of that coffee ignited a fire in me that burns brightly to this day.
Ben’s coffee ruined me for the stuff I could buy in the markets and coffee lounges. I wouldn’t be satisfied until I could make coffee that reached his standards, so I began purchasing premium coffee beans and processing them on Ben’s roaster. Before long, I began fantasizing about having my own roaster in my garage. I finally bought one and set out to master the art and science behind a truly great cup of coffee.
I took some classes, but was mainly self-taught. A great coffee requires a level of connoisseurship similar to that required for a great wine. Both demand the ability to make fine distinctions between qualities such as flavor, aroma, sweetness, and acidity. Through countless tastings, I was able to cultivate my naturally refined palate into a professional level ability to accurately judge of the quality of a coffee sample.
Before long I began to wish for a professional level roaster. However, those come with such a high price tag that I realized I could never afford one unless I used it to start a coffee business. Therefore, I wrote a business plan, collected some investment money, and bought a professional roaster. We started the company in June 2014, opened the roaster in October, and are currently processing 6,000 pounds of beans a month. We make deliveries to various tech companies in San Francisco, Oakland, the South Bay, and Livermore. We also sell the beans to a number of restaurants and coffee shops. Last March we opened a Big House Beans coffee lounge in Brentwood — offering retail coffees in a number of varieties. Our customers can also choose from a number of amazingly tasty treats.
Creating fine coffees is an artisan craft. We source premium coffee beans from a dozen places scattered across the so-called “coffee belt,” which is a band north and south of the Equator that includes growing areas in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. Coffee beans first appeared 700 years ago in Ethiopia, and the country remains a source for premium beans.
Variations in weather from one season to another affects the quality of the harvests, so we continually acquire samples for evaluation from importers. I recently sampled eight coffees in a single tasting and only one of them passed the test.
Once we secure the highest quality beans available, we add value in the roasting process. We continually monitor time and temperatures according to a “roast profile” that we maintain for each batch of beans.
We’re planning for future growth. We will distribute to many more wholesale customers and expand our retail business in many other cafés. Big House Coffee will become a household name in the Bay Area because we’re going to raise the bar; people will find out what coffee is supposed to taste like. How could they go back?
I was born June 24, 1981, in Richmond, California where I spent my childhood. My early years were turbulent and marred by two tragedies. My sister Erika and I lived with our grandmother Alma together with my dad and his girlfriend Tina. Grandma Alma was a conservative hardworking widow, who worked the night shift as a baker at Andy’s Donut Shop on 23rd Street. Our mother was never part of the family picture because she suffered from mental illness, was a drug user, and lived on the streets.
The first tragedy occurred in the middle of the night when I was four years old. Erika, who was two-and-a-half at the time, and I were playing with a lighter and caught the house on fire. I woke Dad and Tina who got us safely out of the house.
Our grandmother came home the next morning after working all night and saw that her house had been destroyed.
That was a terrible event, but something much worse soon followed. A few months later I was riding on my father’s motorcycle sitting on the gas tank in front of him with Tina riding behind. The only recollection I have about the accident is being on the ground and Tina trying to keep me away from my dad’s lifeless body. I believe Dad died trying to protect me. He had been unable to break his fall because he was shielding me with his arms. Tina and I had only minor injuries.
“Life hit bottom one day when I was back in San Quentin and spent a year in solitary confinement.”
As soon as I could maneuver in public on my own, I began hanging out on the streets. When I was 12 I began drinking alcohol and by age 14 had become an indiscriminating user of whatever drug I could get my hands on, whether meth, weed, or liquor. I would take pills or powders that I didn’t even know the name of, as long as they were effective in helping me escape into my mind for a period of time from the chaos and disorder that my life was becoming.
I was busted for the first time when I was 14. I had been hanging out with some friends doing drugs and liquor in a well-known drug house. A half-dozen of us were caught up in the raid. I was the only minor, so they booked me and a few days later sentenced me to spend some time at the Juvenile Hall in Martinez.
Incarceration became a rotating door. I was on probation, parole, or in lockup every moment of my life from that first stint in Juvie until I was 33 years old. During those two decades I spent hard time in the “Big House” at San Quentin, James Town, Soledad, and Solano. Life hit bottom one day when I was back in San Quentin and spent a year in solitary confinement.
My year of confinement turned out to be transformative and changed the trajectory of my life. For one thing, each day I would faithfully spend a full hour doing burpee exercises. I also devoted myself to caring for my mind. I began to read every word on any page with any printing on it that I could get my hands on. People would sneak in photocopies of pages from some interesting book. I read passages in a copy of the Bible. Some of them were difficult to understand, but a few passages rang like a bell in my heart and mind. One of the first to make sense was in Romans 7 where I read in the NLT:
And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
That nailed my problem exactly because I had spent my life not knowing why I continued doing the drugs, alcohol, and sex things long after I really wished to be free of them.
When my year of solitary confinement ended, I emerged from “the hole” as a different person than when I went in. Far from being emotionally, psychologically, and physically damaged - like other inmates following solitary confinement - I had reached levels of health in mind, body, and spirit higher than at any time in my life. I became a model prisoner at Solano, where I was transferred and would have nothing to do with breaking any rules. I enlisted in a Substance Abuse Program (SAP) and eventually reached the point where I myself could facilitate some parts of the program.
Unfortunately, the change at that point wasn’t permanent. I got a job as bouncer in a bar. Because I was six-foot-five, in wonderful shape, and an experienced street fighter, the actual “bouncing” part of the job was easy. It was fun to take down guys who were giving the bartender or fellow patrons a hard time. I was able to grab two guys by their throats and hold them, one in each hand, against a wall until they underwent an attitude adjustment.
Life in that environment was a lot of fun for a while, but I became victim of the hard principle that if you hang out at a barbershop long enough you’ll eventually get a haircut. I couldn’t resist the lure of the free liquor and loose women. I began drinking again, which led to using drugs, and then returned to dealing and spending my nights in a stolen car with my drugs.
That episode in my life came to a crashing halt on December 21, 2009 when a high-speed chase from the cops ended in a T-bone collision with another car. It was a terrible collapse of what had been such a promising reformation. However, that was the very last time I ever used drugs or alcohol. I finally came to the end of myself and experienced the “moment of clarity” that is an essential component of any 12-step program. I sobbed like a baby and cried out to God to change my life.
I spent most of 2010 in San Quentin. Just as with every other time in that place when I heard the door clang shut behind me, I felt that I would never be back. But during those previous times, the lack of community and the brokenness of my home life would lure me back onto the downward path. However, this time was different because I had been given the gift of desperation and was anxious to do whatever it took to actually change. As a result, there was an inner core of peace in my heart; I had discovered that the genuine solution to my problem was to be found in my faith and in my firm commitment to the 12-step program. A woman also became part of the solution. LeeAnn Nieuenhuis was a gift from God. She became my friend, my strongest supporter, and then my wife.
It’s tough for an ex-con to get a good job. I complained to my mentor David Herrmann about the low-end, low-wage job I was stuck in. “Besides money, what’s keeping you from starting your own business?” he asked.
It was a life-changing question. David helped put together a business plan. We raised money from friends and family. I went into business as Krause and Nagy Environmental Solutions, bought a pumper truck, and began collecting waste oil from restaurants, which we processed, and sold as a commodity.
Then I had that first cup of coffee with Ben Joyce, and everything changed. My transition from the Big House to Big House Beans was underway.
Photos by Ron Essex