The daily grind for Sarah ’91 and Brent Patton begins in much the same way it does for millions of people worldwide — brewing a fresh cup of coffee. But they don’t stop there. By day’s end, employees at the couple’s Nacogdoches coffeehouse, Java Jack’s, brew hundreds of cups of coffee and serve them to SFA students, Nacogdoches residents and sleepy-eyed travelers.
The Pattons met while attending SFA in the early ’90s. Sarah’s family moved to Nacogdoches from Denton when she was a child so her mother could attend SFA. Sarah’s mother, two brothers and sister are all SFA alumni. Brent came to Nacogdoches from Katy, Texas, to attend the university.
Brent, a business major, and Sarah, who majored in art, recall meeting at a downtown nightspot and striking up a conversation.
“Sarah lived next door to a friend,” Brent said. “Although I had noticed her many times, we had never actually talked. So, when I saw her that night, I waved, and she waved back. We’ve been together ever since.”
The couple later moved to Houston where Sarah leveraged her degree in art to land a job working in prepress, and Brent, who had a love of music, started work as an audio engineer.
Intrigued by the small coffeeshops in the city, the Pattons wanted to learn more about the business. They started conducting research and attending trade shows, which led to networking with other coffee connoisseurs. Eventually, they wrote a business plan and decided to pursue their own coffee business.
“We thought about locations,” Sarah said, “and we knew if we were still SFA students, we’d love having a coffeehouse near campus. We also thought the support of my family and the community would be a huge benefit. Another selling point was that the SFA faculty, staff and students are generally very well traveled and know a lot about coffee, so Nacogdoches was a natural fit.”
Twenty-three years of marriage and three children later, the Pattons are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Java Jack’s. What started out as a storefront on East College Street with Sarah and Brent serving as owners, baristas and everything else has now grown to a two-story building on North Street with more than a dozen employees and their own coffee blends, which are roasted just up the street in the Pattons’ own roastery.
The couple’s main focus has always been on staff and customer satisfaction with coffee being a secondary function of those relationships. Sarah explained if the staff isn’t well trained and happy in their jobs, those frustrations can spill over and derail everything.
“A coffeehouse is a social place,” Sarah said. “We have so many loyal customers who have become our friends. They talk to and confide in us. They share their happy and sad times with us. It’s the same with our staff. It’s always been a business about family, and we intend to keep it that way.”
Joan Allen, a longtime Java Jack’s customer, said she appreciates the always kind and helpful staff. “I have met at Java Jack’s with friends for many years, and it continues to draw me back,” Allen said. “In addition to the excellent coffee, I enjoy the friendly atmosphere.”
The Pattons’ expertise in coffee is largely self-taught. The couple has attended seminars and taken courses to widen their knowledge, and Brent is a licensed Q Grader — a professional accreditation that recognizes cuppers (professional coffee tasters) as being skilled to objectively assess coffee quality, detect coffee defects, and identify, quantify and articulate coffee characteristics using common industry terminology.
“The certification allows me to better communicate with others in the industry,” Brent said. “Many of the people I purchase coffee from reside in South America and Africa, and it’s important that we all share a common vocabulary when it comes to coffee.”
The couple has traveled to Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Peru to see firsthand how the coffees they purchase are grown and harvested. In September, the Pattons plan to visit Colombia.
“We travel seasonally to build our relationships with coffee producers,” Sarah said. “The economics of coffee is very complicated. We make our purchases based on trust. For example, we might buy coffee from a farmer in Ethiopia and must have confidence in him to deliver what we paid for. When dealing with developing countries, you don’t get a money-back guarantee, so it’s vital that we trust the people we’re dealing with.”
As with any language, the ability to fluently speak it requires education and practice. Tools also can be helpful. One device that coffee cuppers use extensively is the coffee flavor wheel, which was developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The wheel serves as a color-coded guide to identifying and discussing flavors found in coffee. Everyone on the coffee supply chain — from farmers to roasters to baristas — treat the terms on the wheel as a shared vocabulary.
“Just as with grapes and wine, coffee beans must be sampled for their quality so that we know how to best roast, blend and brew them,” Brent said. “This formal tasting process is called cupping.”
After the coffee is roasted, the beans are ground, brewed and sampled. Josh McLain, an SFA senior engineering and physics major, has been working for Java Jack’s since January. He works alongside the Pattons to ensure that the coffee beans are roasted to perfection. Afterward, he, Brent and Sarah “cup” the day’s roasted varieties and use their smell and taste senses to evaluate the coffee samples.
“We smell the coffee and slurp and swirl it in our mouths to obtain the full experience and unique combination of sensations,” McLain said. “Then, we score the coffee using the taste and aroma and taints and faults descriptors found on the wheel. If the coffees don’t meet our quality standards, they don’t make it to the store.”
During the past 20 years, coffee has evolved into a science, according to Sarah. Gone are the days of simply walking into the grocery store and selecting a can from only a handful of brands. Today, there are literally hundreds of products and blends from which to choose.
“While some of our customers want to know the coffee’s country of origin and altitude the beans were grown in, many just want to sip and enjoy it, and that’s OK,” Sarah said. “Coffee is one of life’s simple pleasures and shouldn’t require too much thought.”