On the island of Borneo, Malaysia, a taxi driver and his 7-year-old son walk into the local coffee shop to order a cup of coffee. The sound of people slurping and the smell of freshly brewed coffee permeates the room. A sock filled with dark-roast ground coffee is held over a pot and boiling water is poured through the sock. The coffee is brewed quickly because the water is very hot. The boy watches his dad as he waits to walk uphill to school … as the scalding coffee drips from the cup onto a saucer, the taxi driver blows on it and slurps the coffee carefully.
As the boy watched his father drink the coffee from the saucer, he grew curious about the temperature, smell and color. Little did the boy know that this curiosity would one day grow into a passion, and from a passion into a small local business, Oconee Coffee Roasters (OCR).
Wee “Jin” Chiew and his wife, Jenny, moved to Madison to fulfill their dream of owning a specialty café and roastery, and they work as a team to run the business. Head Roaster Jin has been in the coffee industry for over 15 years, and Jenny has continued to learn about specialty coffee since starting OCR.
Jin lived in Borneo until he was 22-years old. He then moved to the U.S. at the end of 1998. While living in Maryland, he graduated from Anne Arundel Community College in 2005 with a business administration degree, and he found work as a part-time barista with Ceremony Coffee Roasters to earn extra income in 2006. Fascinated with the specialty coffee industry, Jin worked his way up in the business, becoming a delivery person, a warehouse manager and eventually an assistant roaster.
“The owners Ceremony Coffee Roasters and Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters really prioritized quality and education and sent us to competitions, retreats and classes,” Jin said.
In the summer of 2015, Jin joined Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters as the head roaster in Colorado. He is a certified Q Grader, meaning he has expert knowledge on how to evaluate the quality of green coffee and has completed the Coffee Quality Institute’s rigorous training, according to coffeeinstitute.org. He also participated in The U.S. Cup Tasters’ Championship 2018/2019.
Jin fell in love with the transformation of the beans during the roasting process – the sounds, smells and changing color of the beans from green to dark brown when roasted. He enjoys getting to know the beans and being involved with the importers, buyers, barista and customers.
“The entire process of getting to know your beans from the farm into your cup is very fulfilling,” Jin said.
An opportunity to move near Jenny’s family presented itself at the end of 2019, so the Chiews moved away from Colorado to begin their new adventure in Madison. Jin and Jenny fell in love with the town because they found a great environment in which to raise their children. They decided that the City of Madison was the perfect location to establish OCR, and the community showed great support for their business.
“There’s a lot of specialty coffee in big cities, but being able to bring it to a small, rural town is special,” Jenny said.
Inspired by Lake Oconee, the Chiews named their business Oconee Coffee Roasters and designed the retail bag with a topographic map of the lake. The design features coffee cherries and flowers around the lake, and was put together by Jin’s friend, Bruce Butler, who is a freelance graphic designer.
Since opening in May 2020, OCR continues to roast the freshest coffee in Madison. OCR sources seasonal coffees and works closely with Caravela and Keffa coffee importers, and they occasionally work with Red Fox Merchant, Cafe Imports and Ally Coffee.
“There is a lot of supply chain complexity to produce a cup of coffee,” Jin explained. “It’s not just you roast, you brew and that’s it. There’s a lot of story behind it from shipping, storing the coffee, roasting, to deciding what kind of bag you use to preserve the freshness and quality of the coffee.”
Jin strives to share his knowledge of specialty coffee production, and he hopes that people will appreciate the value that is put into an OCR cup of coffee.
“Our coffee is very approachable,” Jin said. “It’s easy to brew, drink and prepare at home. We’re excited to bring a solid, specialty coffee to Madison.”
OCR offers a variety of drink options. A small batch of Oconee Blend (the house blend) is brewed every morning for drip brew orders. The Oconee Blend is made of 50% washed Colombia, 40% washed Ethiopia, and 10% natural process Ethiopia. This is the perfect coffee for customers that prefer quick grab-and-go coffee.
Customers can order any single origin pour-over that is sourced seasonally. OCR also offers espresso-based lattes, cappuccinos, cortados, espressos, americanos and mochas. For those who don’t drink coffee, OCR offers loose leaf tea by Spirit Tea, hot chocolate, cold chocolate and matcha lattes. The milk is sourced from Rock House Creamery, and the pastries are sourced from local bakeries.
“They have the absolute best coffee I’ve ever had,” Levi Gallagher, a regular OCR customer said. “The iced mocha with oat-milk is my favorite. They are so precise with everything. Unlike other popular coffee places, (the drink) is always the same and always tastes exactly the same, so you’re not going to get a different drink every time when you’re expecting something else. It’s really nice to come in here and get what you’re expecting.”
Jin and barista Tyler Snell freshly grind the beans for all of the lattes. They focus on the exact measurements and ratios to ensure every drink is consistent. Because of the simplicity and quality, every cup is full of flavor without over manipulating the character the coffee has to offer.
“Jin is very detail oriented, and that’s part of the reason he is such a good roaster,” Jenny said. “He is going to be true and authentic. He wants to put forth quality.”
OCR’s mission is to serve the community specialty coffee made with precision and passion. They want to create smiling faces, excitement and joy through their delicious cups of coffee.
“My goal as a barista here is to put forward the best drinks I can with the quality of coffee I’m given every time, and to form a connection through that,” Tyler said. “Consistency is always best.”
Jin has many plans for OCR in the coming year. He looks forward to hosting public cupping education programs and exposing the community to the lifestyles of the producers, farmers, pickers and roasters.
Jenny and Jin, with the help of their café assistant Tyler, plan to continue communicating with, engaging with, and educating customers who are interested in the process of coffee from seed-to-cup. They also want people to know that supporting specialty coffee businesses helps to sustain and improve the livelihood of coffee farmers.
OCR is located at 142 Academy St, Madison, Ga, 30650. They are open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday- Thursday, and 7 a.m.-5 p.m Friday- Saturday. To learn more about OCR, visit oconeecoffee.com.
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Story and photos by Katie Marie O'Neal as published in the November/December 2021 issue of Lakelife magazine.