Ryan Brown

Entrepreneur, Coffee Buyer

San Francisco

As the director of coffee and the green buyer at Tonx.org, a coffee sourcing, roasting and subscription service for home buyers, Ryan Brown travels the world tasting coffee. He started in 2005 at San Francisco’s Ritual Roasters where he built the coffee-buying and roasting program, and introduced San Fran to the light roast concept. Three years later, Brown became one of the first certified U.S. Q graders, cuppers accredited by the Coffee Quality Institute to identify specialty coffee. After time in Portland, Oregon, at Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Brown went to Bogota, Colombia, to learn the supply side of the industry — he built Virmax Coffee’s Central America sourcing program. He continues sourcing coffee for Tonx, seeing it as vital to establishing price sustainability by selling directly to the coffee drinker.

  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What are Ryan Brown’s favorite cities for street food?

    San Salvador has some pretty awesome carts. Obviously, every stage of ripeness of mango — with salt, lime, chili, etc. — is available. But I also remember a hot dog place called El Chory. Considering that all the pupuserias are basically on the street — like in Olocuilta, a street of side-by-side vendors of pupusas — I think that seals it for San Salvador.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What does Ryan Brown love most about his job?

    I love the detective work of tasting a coffee, evaluating the qualities and characteristics. Then going to the farm and mill, and piecing together how the particular factors of its origin created those flavor aspects, especially when it becomes clear that the biggest factor is the persistent passion of that farmer.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    How does Ryan Brown come up with his coffee offerings?

    I buy as the coffee is harvested, so it’s really just a seasonal menu. I was just in Central America, and later that same month I was in Kenya, working with our suppliers to find those truly great coffees. As fast as I can get them to Los Angeles, our customers will get their hands on them.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What is Ryan Brown’s favorite coffee book?

    Scott Rao's Everything But Espresso is the best book on brewing coffee. It prefaces with lots of comprehensive information about brewing, quite scientifically, and then breaks out into groups of brewing-method type. Coffee professionals love to argue with anyone who asserts a preference, and Scott did the brave thing by committing it all to paper.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What inspires Ryan Brown?

    The coffee producers who push themselves year after year, through storms, droughts, coffee pests and funguses, theft, political unrest, crime and market fluctuations. The producers who get to the top and instead of admiring their success, turn their attention to some aspect of their process that already seems perfectly tuned but that they see as a weak link. All the while asking me, “Ryan, what other ideas do you have to improve our quality or process?”
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What’s in Ryan Brown’s coffee cabinet?

    There’s always a bunch of coffee samples from various farmers throughout the world. You’ll find several from Rwanda and Burundi, some from Colombia, another from Sulawesi. I better clear it out to make room for all of the Central American, Ethiopian and Kenyan samples.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What’s the best trip Ryan Brown has ever taken?

    A recent trip to Ethiopia was fantastic, regardless of the fact that my luggage never showed up. I flew to Jimma and from there drove up to Agaro, where there are several new washing stations of note. I camped at a couple of them, knowing full well that a tent would beat many of the hotels outside of Addis Ababa. I had been tasting these coffees for a couple of years, but it was my first time visiting. These coffees rank among the best I've ever tasted, and each washing station offers a unique set of flavors and characteristics.

    I travel to understand what makes a coffee, and seeing these coffees, from coffee trees indigenous to the land — Ethiopia is regarded as the birthplace of arabica coffee — washed for the first time is the same as them being truly tasted for the first time. For me, this trip was a defining moment. Each trip I take tends to do that to me, though.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What does Ryan Brown always bring home from his travels?

    I'm usually weighed down by green coffee samples. But when I have extra room, it usually gets filled by Ron Flor de Caña from Nicaragua; Ron Zacapo from Guatemala; pili pili chili from Rwanda and Burundi; cachaça from Brazil; and chile cobanero from Guatemala. Basically, rum, spices and good maps — my favorite are the raised-relief ones. It is inevitable that I will begin taking honey home with me from all over.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What does Ryan Brown always travel with?

    I always travel with Field Notes, a Canon EOS M camera, a Brinno time-lapse camera and a Tonx travel kit with an AeroPress and a Porlex hand grinder. I'm usually traveling solo, so I bring The New Yorker and The Paris Review. However, right now I'm traveling with a copy of The Expectant Father. Oh, and I love listening to podcasts — particularly Lexicon Valley and Daring Fireball.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What are Ryan Brown’s favorite hotels?

    As often as possible, I like to stay at the homes of friends when I travel, or else hotels where the service and amenities feel very close to that. The second time I visited Hotel Nápoles, in Pitalito, Colombia, the receptionist recognized me on sight and even remembered which room I had stayed in before. It impressed me. I won't forget that.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What are Ryan Brown’s favorite cities to visit?

    I prefer cities where you're actually rewarded for not planning too much and maintaining a general sense of spontaneity. So despite the heavy tourism, Antigua, Guatemala, is a city that continues to age well and maintain its charm. It's a wonderful walking city, and there is so much to see and taste. I always have great food, find awesome gifts and briefly consider the ramifications of the international move. Bonus points for being surrounded by excellent coffee farms.

    I need to spend more time in Addis Ababa, and I think that when I do, it will become one of my favorites. There's an unreal energy in that city that I have to believe is a product of the rich history and wealth of the land. The birthplace of coffee is also the maker of delicious tej, or honey mead.
  • On April 8, 2013
    Ryan Brown answered the question: Ryan Brown

    What does Ryan Brown look for when sourcing coffee?

    The simplest answer is kind of cliché: what’s in the cup. But there’s an involved tasting process. A producer doesn’t necessarily have a finished product. What I go and do is taste hundreds of lots from one coffee producer, or at least from one wet mill (a buying station that works with small producers). And from that, I can sort of designate what is better quality and what is lacking in some way. Then I work with them to kind of figure out why what’s working is working and why what’s not working isn’t working.

    It can go back to something with the plant husbandry or the actual picking of the cherries — perhaps too ripe, very often not ripe enough. It kind of depends on the country and what the established traditions, cultures or methods are. For example, in El Salvador, there’s a growing culture in picking what most people would consider overripe cherries to be, and that’s great if it works out, but there’s invariably problems where something will be slightly past that overmature stage and that can ruin an entire lot or batch of coffee.

    I begin with the cup, but, from there, it’s sort of figuring out what’s making this work. Fortunately, I’ve been doing this for years, so I’ve gotten to know which coffee farmers really are interested in working to improve their quality and don’t just want to coast and make it easy. Like anything else, you gain an intuition to understand who wants to really work at this, make coffee taste better and work with you to show your customers that coffee can be this awesome beverage.