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Matt Zechman started brewing coffee at home simply to save money on his daily caffeine fix.

But his interest turned into a passion, and now Zechman is brewing coffee for friends, neighbors, and a growing number of perfect strangers who have discovered his selection of brews and been impressed by the taste.

“Word of mouth does a ton of good,” the Cleona man says.

Working under the name Cleona Coffee Roasters, Zechman sells his beans at three local locations in Lebanon County: Brown’s Bakery at 4039 Shanamantown Road, Annville; Whirling Dervish Bakery & Coffee Shop at 50 W. Main Street, Annville; and TJ’s Guns & Ammo at 204 Lancaster Ave, Schaefferstown. He says he will soon be selling beans at Sallada’s Produce Stand at 891 Palmyra Bellegrove Road, Annville – “Probably by spring,” he notes – and he’s talking to other local merchants about additional retail opportunities.

He also ships locally and offers free delivery in the Annville-Cleona area.

“It’s kind of a shame, but I can’t do local pickup at my house,” Zechman says. “I live in a residentially zoned area so, to allow people to pick up there, I’d have to have a lot of parking spaces there, and a special exception.”

However, he says, he recently launched a website at cleonacoffeeroasters.com, and “I’m already started to get orders from people I don’t know.”

Now it’s time to dream big, Zechman says.

Eventually, he hopes to begin taking more wholesale and retail orders, and perhaps down the road, “I want to put a building somewhere, just a pole barn maybe, somewhere along Route 422,” he says. “Or a storefront somewhere … that’s semi-longterm, we’ll see where life takes me. Maybe in two or three years.”

“And then I’d love to have a coffeeshop at some point. If I have a roastery, a coffeeshop should be easy to add. Something small,” he adds. “But roasting first, then we’ll talk about a coffee shop.”

Getting started

“It’s cool being that person who knows all those random coffee things,” Zechman says. “It might not be useful, but it sure is fun.”

He explains on his website that he graduated from high school in 2016 and started working full-time as an ambulance EMT. At the time, he says, he had no plans to go into the coffee business, but his partner at work, Lisa, “would stop at Dunkin’ about three times a day, and naturally, that meant I also stopped there three times a day. I got hooked on coffee.” As more time passed, he says, “I started to brew it at home to save money” – but what started as a penny-pinching endeavor “quickly turned into a wild fascination and passion.”

As his interest grew, so evolved his collection of gizmos and contraptions.

“First it was an AeroPress, then a Chemex, then a cheap hand grinder, and before I knew it, several other coffee brewing gadgets made their way into my collection,” he explains. “I became a huge fan of James Hoffmann, Scott Rao, Tim Wendelboe, and many other famous coffee experts.”

Zechman enlisted as a combat medic in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2017. At Army functions, he says, “I would be the ‘coffee guy’ that always had a setup.”

That continued even through a September 2019 deployment with the Guard to Afghanistan, where he served as a CH-47F door gunner.

“Although very busy at first, our mission set slowed down and another gunner and I, Spears, started the ‘Gunnerz Lounge Cafe,” he explains on his website. “Using a Keurig, French Press, my AeroPress, and a water kettle, we brewed coffee for the people in our company. We had a menu, we got donations, and we were ordering up to 5 lbs. of coffee every week given the high demand.”

Even while deployed overseas, Matt Zechman (left) found a way to put his coffee expertise to good use.

He used his time to dive into the study of coffee, he says, learning “everything that I could about the history of it, coffee origins, coffee growing factors, brew methods, and brewing variables.

“When I got back from my deployment, I bought a house in my hometown of Cleona, and built my home brewing setup. Although I love brewing coffee, I wanted to explore into the completely other side of coffee that I knew little about: roasting.”

A business is born

Zechman’s early successes were … well, mixed.

He explains that he tried roasting 5 pounds of Burundi Dry Process Kibingo beans. “It worked,” he says, “but it was inconsistent and made a terrible mess.”

Next he tried a hot air popcorn popper, but it burnt up after two roasts.

Then he got a FreshRoast SR800 with a 12-inch Razzo extension tube – are the coffee geeks understanding all this? – with which he was able to make half-pound batches. And his future as a coffee roaster was sealed.

“Although I was only roasting for myself at first, friends began to try it and love it,” Zechman says. “With little time passing, I was getting orders and knew that making a business was an inevitable future.”

He decided to make a business of it. At first, he called it Golden Hour Coffee Roasters, a medical reference to the critical period of care immediately after an injury in the military, but he soon changed it to Cleona Coffee Roasters to target a more local audience.

He likes the community aspect of the coffee business – “I think every community should have a local roaster,” he says. “Communities need good coffee everywhere” – and he’s a “firm believer” in giving back. He raises funds for first responders through his sales, he says, and he sometimes sends coffee to troops overseas.

Coffee roasting shifted from “hobby” to “vocation” in March 2021.

“My best friend, Maillet, and I drove down to Alabama to pickup my current roaster; a 2020 Buckeye 3.5 lb. propane roaster,” Zechman explains on his website. “We somehow got it to fit in my Jeep, we drove back up, and I assembled it in a small disconnected room in the back of my house, which then became ‘the roasting room.’ I had a very sketchy ventilation system and ran it off of a 20 lb. propane tank, but rest assured, I got my use out of that temporary setup.

“To fast forward, two months later my LLC was formed, and I began to research licensing. In the meantime, I roasted away and learned everything that I could. … I really enjoy brewing coffee. I nerd out over the whole thing.”

He notes that renovation efforts were delayed “many times” because of his various duties with the National Guard, but during a four-week break he and his father did the necessary work – including new plumbing and drywall, a drop ceiling and ventilation – and he received a limited food establishment license from the state Department of Health.

Production notes

Zechman’s output varies, depending on his needs at the time.

“I might have a slow week and do just 5 or 10 pounds of coffee,” he says. “Sixty pounds in one week was my max so far.”

Over Christmas, he made up a holiday sampler with three 8-ounce bags. “I was expecting to sell maybe 30,” he says. “I sold 108. It well exceeded my expectations. … I was about to 5 a.m. each morning just get everything packaged.”

Currently, Zechman offers seven coffee options on his website, plus preorders for his Nomads blend, which he describes as an Italian “extra dark roast with a bold, smokey and balanced profile.” He also offers a Honduras Decaf, a Half-Caff Blend, a Vietnamese Robusta, a Crazy Eights Blend, a Colombia Don Enrique, a Guatemala Huehuetenango, and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.

He notes that 10 percent of the profits from his Crazy Eights Blend goes to Cleona Fire Company, which he joined in 2012 when he was 14 years old.

He has a few more coffee options in the works, and he hopes to have at least 10 available for orders by May.

“Most of what I have right how is what I call single origin coffee,” he says. “That means it’s coming from a single farm or region. I get the green unroasted coffee beans.”

He tries different ratios in his blends to get the flavor profile he’s looking for, Zechman says. “There are a lot of different factors that go into it.” Fortunately, he has a digital data program on his computer that tracks the variables in his roaster so he can replicate a successful blend.

“I could get the same beans, but there could be hundreds of ways I could roast it,” he explains. “As I roast, in realtime I can see the bean temperature, the air temperature. It shows me temperature curves and helps me predict where the roast is going. I also log every change I make to the gas and airflow settings.”

He also has to be mindful of uncontrollable variables such as the ambient air temperature and barometric pressure, he says.

“It’s a lot of plug-and-play sciency stuff to get it where I want it to be,” Zechman says.

Finding his path

Looking back, Zechman says he never expected his life would take this path … but he can see when and why it veered in this direction.

“I like knowing how things work – the science, figuring out,” he says. Making his own coffee, he adds, is “a constant learning curve. Once I started getting into it and really learning about it, I took it and ran with it. … I had no idea it would get this big.”

He doesn’t let himself get too comfortable with his products, he says.

“Right when you think you know it, you don’t,” he explains. “You read something and get all these new theories, and you end up starting again from scratch.”

He likes to expand his knowledge base by talking with other roasters, attending classes and reading books on the subject.

“It’s something that not many people focus on,” Zechman says. “It’s kind of like microbrewing, people making their own beer.” However, he adds, he’s used his expertise on the subject to make a few conversions: “I’ve converted a lot of tea drinkers into liking espresso. I’ve converted a lot of milk and sugar drinkers into drinking it black.”

He still works full-time as an EMT with Life Lion EMS in Annville. He also has been busy with the National Guard, which activated him last March to help with the statewide response to COVID-19. During the pandemic, he has been worked with contact tracing, vaccinations and in nursing homes. He recently accepted a promotion to sergeant, he says, and hopes to complete 20 years in the service.

“This is what I call my side hustle,” he says. “But with all of that involved, I’m slowly getting my coffee business going.”

Duty still calls him away sometimes, he notes. “If I go away for a while, no one can really take over for me … so I hope I don’t get customers liking my coffee so much that they can’t do without it for a month.”

Asked about his personal favorite, Zechman hesitates. “Honestly, it’s a hard question,” he says. “In the summer, I like a Japanese iced coffee. On a nice snowy day, when you just want to huddle under a blanket, I want a dark roast brewed with a French press. Generally, my go-to is my Guatemala Huehuetenango.

“Getting into coffee is a nice problem to have,” Zechman adds. “But it’s also kind of like a curse. Once you get used to drinking good coffee, you can’t just go to a gas station and grab a cup. … Sometimes I make myself drink bad coffee just to remind myself why I like the good stuff.”

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Tom Knapp

Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.