Chef News

Erich Rosenberg of Novo Coffee Is a Roast Beast

Erich Rosenberg talks fast and moves between subjects even faster. You might blame it on the coffee; after all, he's the head roaster for Novo Coffee, so continuous coffee-tasting is a big part of his job. But after you listen for a few minutes, it's clear that his energy is fueled by passion for his work rather than caffeine overload. And that excitement spills over as he talks about the company founded by CEO Jake Brodsky, his brother Joseph and their father, Herb, in 2002. Rosenberg and Herb Brodsky literally spin in place (Herb's patented move) as they discuss Novo's commitment to people -- both customers and employees -- and its roasting facility in the River North neighborhood.

See also: The Pie's the Limit for Pastry Chef John Hinman of the Post Brewing Co.

Rosenberg's work ethic comes from his parents, who worked sixty- to seventy-hour weeks in retail management while he was growing up. He even remembers helping them stock shelves when he was seven or eight. His family moved around a lot when he was young, mostly in California. "I went to three different second grades," he says. "My brother went to two different high schools his senior year. The longest I've ever lived anywhere is seven years."

Hard work and frequent moves rubbed off on him; he's never had trouble finding jobs, but he's also never found a place to settle down. In Las Vegas for his senior year of high school, Rosenberg took a job at a Starbucks, mainly because the girl he was interested in was a regular customer, but also because he loved coffee even as a teenager. Starbucks proved to be somewhat of a constant in his life; he quickly rose to the level of store manager and was able to satisfy his urge to keep moving by getting jobs in Starbucks outposts in various cities around the West.

But ultimately, he realized that he wasn't a fan of the corporate environment or the growing automation of coffee service. "I worked there for eight years, six different times," he says. "I pretty much made myself unemployable there."

Rosenberg still has some respect for Starbucks, though. "They have one of the best training programs in the world," he notes. "And they've turned on a legion of people who want to be in this business, who've gone out on their own."

In between stopping and restarting jobs at Starbucks, Rosenberg has been a bouncer, a bartender, an ice-cream maker and a cook. While living in Portland, he met the woman who would become his wife; not long after their wedding, they moved to Denver to be near her ailing mother. They didn't plan to stay in Denver, but that's what happened. Through a connection with his wife, Rosenberg landed a job as a line cook at Devil's Food Bakery & Cookery. Then the world of coffee called out to him again, and he took a job with Novo in 2009, where he's been ever since.

"You do the dirty work," he states, "and someone eventually gives you the fun work." His perseverance at the only job he'd held for more than a year paid off: Today he's Novo's head roaster, and his knowledge of the process of growing, sourcing and coaxing flavors from the beans (seeds, actually, he explains) seems encyclopedic. His years of experience working with coffee formed the basis of that knowledge, but he's also taken classes here and there, done a lot of reading and had good teachers, he says.

Keep reading for more about Novo Coffee and Erich Rosenberg.

"My whole life is to cook this coffee," he explains. Because the flavor of roasted coffee deteriorates so quickly, Novo roasts only as much as it sells; there's no surplus of roasted beans sitting around. Rosenberg has two roasters: a 1965 vintage model that can handle only about sixty pounds per roast, and a smaller model with a Ferrari motor for specialty orders. "On Monday I'm literally roasting coffee more than eight hours straight, eating lunch standing up," he explains. That's so he can meet national orders; otherwise, clients on both coasts will be out of coffee until the following week. At the end of the week, when the roasting is done, he turns his attention toward training and educating both clients and customers.

Training is a big part of his job; he works with restaurants and retailers to make sure their employees know how to explain and make the final product -- a cup of coffee. "I like to inspire the individual to do it because they want to," he says, adding that it's ultimately up to each person to decide to use what they learn in order to be better coffee makers and servers. "The desire to be good at your job is a personal decision." But to help them make that decision, he's flown to visit out-of-state clients in order to train employees on site, and holds regular "cupping" sessions at the warehouse for customers curious about the differences in flavors from region to region and coffee farm to coffee farm. He's delved into those flavors in great detail. "It's not just the flavor of blueberries," he suggests when sipping a sample of Anyetsu coffee from Novo's range. "It's the aroma of blueberry flowers." But he's also quick to point out that almost anyone can detect and identify those flavors if they taste a few different varieties together.

To keep up with the latest developments in the coffee industry, Rosenberg is a member of the Roasters Guild and also a certified instructor through the Specialty Coffee Association of America. "The guild is great," he says. "If you have a question, you ask someone with fifty years of experience."

Collaboration is another part of the job that Rosenberg enjoys. He's met brewers at Our Mutual Friend and Epic, and has helped select coffee to go in a range of products: coffee-infused beers at those two breweries as well as at Renegade, New Belgium and Wynkoop; chocolate from Ritual; an espresso liqueur from Dancing Pines Distillery.

With four cups of coffee in front of him, each from a different farm in a different part of the world, Rosenberg explains that the key to a well-made cup comes down to standardizing the ratio, temperature and time. From there, the grind can be adjusted depending on the method of brewing. One gram of ground coffee to sixteen grams of water at 195 to 205 degrees for four minutes pulls out the most complexity and flavor from the beans, he says. But he's not a snob about it. "The one thing you can do wrong is tell other people they're doing it wrong," he insists. That's an attitude that goes beyond coffee. Even as he confesses that he's never liked Starbucks coffee, he still has nothing but good things to say about the company, pointing out the educational opportunities, great benefits and career path the company gives its employees.

But he's happier outside of a corporate environment, happy with the lifestyle that his current employment allows. He's usually out of the warehouse by 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon so he has time to spend with his wife and two-year-old son. He doesn't have many hobbies -- "I was raised to be a worker," he says -- but he likes to read and cook (vegetarian these days). Outside of the office, though, coffee is a labor of love: "This is the way my wife says she loves me," he says. "Making me coffee every morning."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation