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Roasting Beans and Raising Standards

River Bottom Roasters coffee company is changing lives in far away regions.

Story and Photography by Jamie Turner

“It all started with a stellar cup of coffee,” These were the words of entrepreneur and master roaster Craig Campbell, owner of River Bottom Roasters. As a child, Craig has always had that entrepreneur spirit, from his days selling lemonade on those hot summer afternoons, washing cars in his neighbor-hood, raking leaves, shoveling snow, and organizing an aluminum can pickup service in a mobile home park at the age of 10. All of these jobs set him on an entrepreneurial path, which ultimately led him to coffee enlightenment.

Craig, he’s a traveler and a foodie. He very much enjoys all things tasty from around the world but he was just like the rest of us, buying regular coffee at the local grocery store or coffee shop. One day all that changed, when on one of his journey’s he took a sip of craft roasted coffee and it blew his mind. How could a regular black cup of coffee taste so good? He had to know more and find a way to bring this amazing culinary creation back to his hometown. This is where his coffee journey began. 

Craig hasn’t always been in the coffee business. For most of his adult life he and his team have built an insurance business from scratch with five branch offices across Maryland and Pennsylvania. “It took over 12 years, working 60-80 hours per week and driving enough miles every year to circumnavigate the earth 1.5 times to build this business,” Craig says about his Campbell Insurance and Investments company. As the owner and founder of these offices he attributes his success to building a family-like culture and having great team members like first lady in charge Jaime Fagan who runs the company as the Chief Operations Officer and Anthony Chaney as the Senior VP of Sales. “I seriously wouldn’t be as successful as I am without assembling and empowering such a great team.” Craig says. 

Craig has a degree from Frostburg State in Environ-mental Planning and Analysis, which he interestingly relates to his businesses. “Frostburg gave me more than just knowledge about ecosystems, biology, land engineering, and how to throw a beer keg, it was the wisdom to look at things objectively and four dimensionally. This layering of thought can be applied in so many ways that we live and work.” Craig explains. He hasn’t given up his life’s work of protecting people’s assets and their loved ones from financial disaster, but he has added this coffee focus and how he can help others, not by selling them insurance, but by buying those super tasty beans from farmers in remote places around the globe.

This guy, who sold insurance all week and then on the weekends began roasting beans in his garage, learned early on about the “dark side” of the coffee industry. Many farmers are grossly underpaid for their product, forcing them to grow cocaine for the cartels just to avoid starvation. Coffee cultivation also con-sumes some land that is traditionally a rain forest or very diverse ecosystem. There is a significant social and environmental impact from the coffee industry, which Craig is passionate about.  

Craig’s home-roasting journey began in 2016 in a machine about the size of a toaster oven. When that first batch of fragrant beans left the roaster, he was hooked. When I asked Craig how he learned the roasting process, he told me, “it took time, burnt beans, and a lot of trial and error but I gradually started peeling back the layers, reading books, watching You Tube, then engaging in online forums.” 

Craig turned that tiny little roaster into a roasting powerhouse known as River Bottom Roasters. Craig, who grew up in the Maugansville area, didn’t even have a name or aspirations for a coffee company. He recalls the Cushwa Basin on the C&O Canal in Williamsport, which the locals know as River Bottom. “My dad would take me fishin’ out of River Bottom and I always had fond memories of this area,” Craig says, “I just remember suddenly blurting out River Bottom Roasters…!” 

The small roaster takes about 30 minutes to roast about 12 ounces of beans, so this “little oven that could” had to work over-time to fulfill orders from friends and family. “My kids and I started delivering on our bikes to people in our neighborhood,” he says. His closest friends sampled first and they were amazed at the delicious complex coffee flavors. Most couldn’t start their day without it and the initial “super tasty coffee buzz” was now costing Craig about 20 additional hours of his already busy week just to keep up.  

Then Craig took the leap into the world of small- batch craft roasting and became certified on a commercial small-batch-size roasting machine.

“Overnight I went from roasting two coffee bags per hour to 50 bags per hour” he says. 

In March of 2019 River Bottom Roasters went live and had a new space to work from. Craig arranged his new workspace for a “Fare Trade,” trading his beans for their spot. 

“It was cool to pay my rent in coffee beans,” Craig says. 

The Nook, a cozy coffee shop located within Mulberry Lofts was a perfect relationship for the new River Bottom Roasters and gave Craig the space and confidence he needed to become the area’s leading coffee roaster. 

“We got our first big public outdoor vendor event at Cushwa Brewing Company and it went great!” he exclaims. Craft beer and craft coffee, the perfect mix. Since then Craig has forged an amazing relationship with Cushwa and collab-orated on numerous coffee beers. “I am so humbled when I walk into the brewery and so gracious to the Cushwa guys for giving me that first big break. When I see my name on their menu and a tap handle with RBR, it just melts my heart.” Craig has also collaborated with Homaide Brewing Co., and several food vendors like Charlie & Sams’s Bakeshop & Café, Cinnamommy, Zoe’s Chocolate, and many more. 

To understand Craig’s coffee mission, we go back a few years. In those fledgling months of Craig’s home roasting experiment, his church organized a mission trip to help the underprivileged in a small village in Chiclayo, Peru. They were to help build a school with a multi-use structure for education, medical, and worship aspirations. While in Peru, Craig became fascinated with the coffee growers living in this small shanty town with tin shacks and mud-brick schools. He learned that the C Market, or the commodity price of the coffee in this area, was well below the livable wage for a small coffee grower. Being immersed in this impoverished area hit Craig hard and he knew he wanted to help in some way. 

Upon Craig’s return to his roasting facility he knew he had to take the next step and get these beans that he wanted, and figure out a way to pay a fair price directly to the farmer so that they might have a chance to live a better lifestyle. Craig had met a gentleman named Luis Sosa in Colombia who called himself a “conflict resolution specialist” and was an expert at building relationships and gaining the trust of the farmers. It was Craig and Luis’s ambition to pay farmers from various coffee regions up to three times more per pound or at least get them Fair Trade prices. 

Fair Trade and livable wages differ in various coffee regions. Fair Trade is a designation developed to help consumers support producers who have been certified to provide fair wages and safe working conditions. Fair Trade only certifies small-scale farming organi-zations for certain products, such as coffee, cocoa, cotton, and rice. The Fairtrade standards for large-scale productions protect workers’ fundamental rights to help keep them safe, prevent discrimination, and the use of illegal child labor. Once Craig knew he could help, the decision was easy. River Bottom Roaster’s now had the social, environmental, and ethical pillars that Craig wanted to stand on. 

Each small batch takes about 12 minutes. Inside that 12 minutes there are numerous variables that can make or break the batch. Craig said “roasting is a delicate dance of conduction, convection, air flow, and drum speed,” and he is right because in that 12-minute span, temperatures can vary upwards of 220 degrees from start to finish. 

Craig knows that coffee can’t be roasted any better than how its grown. Therefore, Craig has handpicked these farmers and regions. There are seasonal bean choices but Craig likes collecting small micro lots of beans that can be continually stocked. RBR’s business revolves around wholesale to local businesses for employee break rooms, online consumer sales, and subscriptions to people at home who enjoy discounts and perks as coffee-club members. They also serve larger locations like Meritus Health. Craig has provided coffee bars to teachers at local schools and entrepreneurial workshops such as “Leader Cast.” Other locations that use their coffee beans are Jpmino Coffee, J’s Diner, and Free Range Café.

There are plans to open a new production room next to Homaide and Cushwa Brewery at Bowman Business Park. “I am trying to duplicate the awesome culture and team from my insurance business,” Craig says, which he appears to be doing very well. 

RBR offers wholesale, retail and coffee tastings right at the roastery. To book your coffee tasting, sign up for a tasting at RBR’s website RiverBottomRoasters.com. The tasting process is for small groups of 6 or less and gives your taste buds a terrific journey around the world experiencing the flavorful difference between each region. 

There are two types of brewing methods used in the tasting. The first method is called cupping, where RBR puts fresh ground beans directly in a small cup, then hot water is poured over the grounds. After a few minutes there is a frothy crust build up on top, then you take a spoon, break the crust open to enjoy a decadent aroma, and then sip the coffee from a spoon. The cupping process is the method used by the roaster to analyze the roast. The second brewing process for the tasting is the pour over, in which ground coffee sits in a small filter and hot water is poured over the grounds and into your cup. The pour over allows the most control over the flavor. Both methods present many different flavor notes, such as milk chocolate, brown sugar, blueberries, strawberry, vanilla, almond, caramel, and tobacco not to mention the best flavor note, yummy.

Community is important to Craig and giving back is paramount. RBR has helped groups such as the Boys and Girls club, Brooke’s House, various high school sports programs, and even Cub Scout troops. RBR has recently partnered with Girls Inc, in Hagerstown to go in and speak with the girls about business basics. He also has collaborated with “Upward Bound,” a pre-college group at Hagerstown Community College designed for those who seek a secondary edu-cation but may not have the means to do so. 

Craig said, “I decided to build my business atop three pillars. It must be ethically sourced, must be environmentally friendly, and it must benefit the community.” River Bottom Roasters found its garden of plenty and is now giving back, sowing the seeds that build structure, fairness, and happiness.