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Astoria Coffee Scene Perking Up with New Roaster

ASTORIA — Brian Donaldson's foray into the coffee roasting business started out as an impassioned hobby.

A devoted coffee lover, he decided to order a new batch of locally roasted beans every week to see which ones he liked the best.

"I was trying all the roasters that I could, as many as I could in a year," he said. "I drink that much coffee."

But what started out as a tasting project turned into a fascination with the roasting process, spurring Donaldson, 29, to buy his own roaster, which he set up in a warehouse on 49th Street in Astoria, just off Northern Boulevard.

It was here that he started his own fair-trade coffee bean company: Native Coffee Roasters, which debuted last month at the Queens County Market's winter food bazaar at Sac's Place in Astoria. Donaldson sold all but two of his 60 bags of beans.

"It's definitely an art form," he said of the roasting process. "There's so much love put into it."

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Staten Island, Donaldson now lives on the Upper East Side. But his day job managing a retail store brought him to Astoria, where he still works, and he does most of his roasting during his off-hours and on weekends.

"I fell in love with Queens when I first came here. I thought it was perfect," he said. "I don't think there's [another] roaster in Astoria."

Donaldson uses imported green coffee beans from countries like El Salvador and Colombia, roasting them in a five-burner propane roaster. He spent nine months tinkering with the machine and testing out different flavor profiles, giving out the practice batches for free by posting on the website Reddit.com.

The flavor and intensity of the bean is determined by roasting time and temperature.

"As soon as it passes 370 degrees, the flavor of the profile changes at every degree," Donaldson said, adding that roasters gauge the process by the cracking noises the beans make as they cook.

"It's all about listening to the bean," he said.

Native Coffee Roasters' roster includes three single-origin roasts and one custom-blend roast, sold in 12-ounce bags that cost $14. Donaldson said his plan is to sell at food and flea markets in Queens and throughout the city.

"That's what I want to focus on right now, doing the local market scene," he said.

He chose the name Native Coffee Roasters, he said, as a way to pay homage to his New York City roots.

"I was born and raised here, and it kind of embodies everything I'm about," Donaldson said. "I’m proud of my city. Hopefully I can put out a product that my city can be proud of."