Photography by Justin Fox Burks

The Science and Art of Good Coffee at Vice & Virtue

Tim & Teri Perkins first met nearly 20 years ago while he was a bartender and she was a server. They married and eventually left the restaurant industry behind for the corporate world. Tim became an attorney and Teri became a CPA, and though they thrived, they found themselves longing for a path back to the service industry but lacking plans to make that leap. That is, until the desire for consistently great coffee drove them down the rabbit hole.

“I travel for work and I would go to New York or L.A. and I’d get all these great coffee shops, and at the time I’d come back to Memphis and there were no third wave shops here,” Tim explained. “This is before City & State, before any of the really good coffee shops that are coming along, so we started ordering coffee. It was really expensive to have it shipped here from other places, so we basically got on YouTube, taught ourselves how to roast at home, started with an old-school Whirley Pop, and it kind of grew from there.” 

The Perkins family by Justin Fox Burks

Their personal pursuit of quality coffee has since morphed into Vice & Virtue Coffee, a roastery that Tim and Teri run out of a small suite on North Hollywood in the Broad Avenue Arts District. Running Vice & Virtue is very much a labor of love that the couple balance on top the rest of their life as a family. By day, Tim is managing attorney of Labor and Employment Litigation for AutoZone, and Teri has exited the corporate grind to homeschool their two children while handling operations for Vice & Virtue.

Choose901 talked to the Perkins family about their journey from a personal hobby to a business built on a passion for sharing excellent coffee with Memphis.

C901: Tell me about the journey that took you from roasting coffee for yourselves to extending it to this community that’s interested in quality coffee. 

Tim: After we started doing it on our own, we weren’t very good at it at first and we started thinking how can we educate ourselves and get better at what we’re doing. We invested in joining the Specialty Coffee Association. They have a ton of awesome resources and Teri and I both went through the Roaster Pathway training class. That was an awesome experience and through that, we learned so much about sourcing green coffee, everything from seed to cup. Everything from how it’s planted and how it’s processed, how it’s exported. I invested my bonus from AutoZone three years ago in buying a commercial roaster, and it just kept growing from there.

Teri: It’s one of those things that we started for ourselves, and we were sharing it with friends and family and it kept growing and our passion for it just kept growing with it. We’ve always had this desire and longing to be in the restaurant business again together and we just kind of fell into coffee and kept growing and we were like maybe this is that path for us. 

We are both born and raised Memphians, but we started doing the farmers markets to sell the coffee and something about the community of the farmers markets, it just increases your passion for your city. We’ve had so much fun getting to know everybody at the farmers market that we’ve grown this love for Memphis in addition to coffee at the same time. We want to be able to share really good coffee with the people of Memphis because of that.  

C901: What are you doing to grow the appreciation for quality coffee in Memphis? What does it take to educate people and bring them in when they might feel intimidated? How do you bring other people into your passion for it?

Teri: One of the best ways that we’ve seen it is at the farmers market. We’re mainly just a roaster, we don’t have our own shop yet, but at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market, we do serve coffee. So when we serve someone a cup of coffee, they want to automatically ask for cream and sugar. We ask them to try it first without. 

Tim: I’m not beyond begging. I’ll beg them please just take a sip first! You can do whatever you want after that, just take a sip first.   

Photo by Justin Fox Burks

Teri: We explain to them how we roasted each different bean to accentuate the flavor notes in that coffee and we’ve taken care to do that. I used to have to carry two cartons of cream with me every Saturday and now we probably don’t even go through half of one carton of cream. We’ve seen our customers quit using cream and sugar over the course of time that we’ve been there. It’s fun to see that and that kind of gives you a little boost, too, that you must be doing a little bit right at least because other people are thinking that it tastes good.

Tim: The other thing that we’re doing is we’ve started hosting cuppings on the first Friday of every month to coincide with the Broad Avenue Arts District First Friday events. Cuppings are a really good tool for educating the public on our process, letting people ask questions. How did we get here? Why does this taste like this? Did you add anything to it? That’s another thing that comes up. We’ve got a coffee right now from Ethiopia, and it’s a natural process which means they let it dry out on raised beds in the sun for up to 21 days because this fermentation gives this really fruity blueberry smell and blueberry flavor, so everyone’s like “How do you flavor your beans?” No, no, no that’s naturally in the coffee, we don’t add anything to it. 

C901: Can you tell me more about what’s involved in being a roaster? 

Teri: These are what coffee beans look like. They are the seed of a coffee cherry. They call these green beans. Basically, you have several different importers that we work through. We’re still pretty small and we haven’t gotten any direct trade relationships with farms yet. That is definitely a goal of ours. Right now, we still work with several of the larger importers. They will send you samples of the coffees that they have available and it’s basically based on harvest season in different countries and the time that it takes to import it. 

Coffee beans before the roasting process.

We’ll sample roast these. We have this little small roaster, and we can do the small portions of roasting. Then we’ll just taste these and it’s ‘what do we like’ is how we pick it now. We’ll just get several samples in, taste them and see which kind we prefer. 

Tim: We’ll do an in-house cupping. We’ll cup them blind usually. We’ve got a lot of friends in the coffee community that come over on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Baristas and other roasters come over and they’ll all help us figure out what’s good. Then we’ll look and see what it is after the fact. We’re trying to try to go in with no preconceived notions of ‘We want this bean.’ We try to take that out of the equation. All anybody sees is just a cup of ground coffee and then we cup it and based on that we kind of all generally agree within a cup or two on which one we’re going to want, and then it’s just a question of who’s more passionate about one coffee or the other that usually carries the day.  

From that process, then we order the large bags of greens that we get in, anywhere from a half a pallet to a pallet at a time. They ship them in and then once we get those, it’s another process of trying to figure out how best to roast this coffee.

We put them in the drum roaster and we start pulling samples and checking different roast levels, different roasting styles. We can manipulate how much gas a particular bean has, what the airflow is, the drum speed. It’s a trial and error. We’ll cup that same coffee five or six different ways at different roast levels and we’ll do it blind.

We go into the cup with the mindset of, ‘What does this bean like the most?’ Light roasts tend to accentuate the origin characteristics better. They’re generally more fruity, a lot more acid, a little more aromatic. We try to take that out of the equation and sometimes we’ll end up with one that’s more of a medium roast. We don’t usually go to a dark roast and we all kind of trend towards the lighter side, but we just try to get the best roast level for each bean. After we nail that down, it’s rinse and repeat. It’s all graphed on a MacBook so I can see the profile, the temperature, and the time. Once we find what works best for that bean, we just keep repeating that over and over and over. 

C901: The way that you describe the flavor profile sounds a bit like being a sommelier.

Teri: It’s very similar to wine. All the way down to the cherries and where they’re grown and the climate of that country and the soil of that country and anything that may have happened in the weather that year can affect the different flavor notes in coffee very similar to the grapes of wine.

Tim: The things that make great wine usually tend to make great coffee. Great coffee likes stress so you put them at high altitudes and with a little less water. It kind of depends, but that stress makes them shunt all their energy into reproducing. It all goes towards the coffee cherry where the seed is so the plant can reproduce. You’ll have these little microclimates that are at lower levels that can produce really great coffee, but most of the time it takes a mountain sixteen hundred meters or more for the coffee to really do well. It’s very similar to the way that wine is processed. 

C901: What’s the significance of the name Vice & Virtue?

Tim: Vice & Virtue is kind of the human condition, right? If you look at Aristotle’s vices and virtues, it’s kind of like, the same mode of operation…if you take it to the extreme it’s one thing. If there is a deficiency, it results in another thing. You have a lot of opportunities for fun names like “buffoonery.” There are so many of the vices and virtues that just make for great coffee names. 

I taught legal writing and appellate advocacy at the law school. I was reading and preparing for class and I ran across this list and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant! I love it. Let’s play with it.’ There’s a lot of opportunity to play around. The other thing too is the duality nature of it allows us places to go with it. I tease people that I’m “vice,” she’s “virtue,” but also the whole idea right now is we’re doing coffee but we really want to get into high-end craft cocktails. I think there are a lot of opportunities to let that cross over the vice side with the virtue and play on that concept. 

Photo by Justin Fox Burks

C901: All of this sounds complex and like you could lose yourself down a rabbit hole with all of the different variables involved. What keeps you energized for it? 

Tim: It’s a lot of fun. A lot of science and a whole lot of art. For instance, the coffee competition that we competed in, Coffee Champs… we all roasted the same coffee from Myanmar in Indonesia. Part of it was trying to figure out how to get this coffee to taste the very best in a cup and it was such a challenge. Coffees are notoriously fickle. They do crazy things in the roaster. You’ll sit there and everything’s going along smoothly and then all of a sudden you’ll have the temperature crash or spike and you’re trying to make adjustments to rein it in and keep under control, and those things affect how that coffee tastes. 

The things that make great wine usually tend to make great coffee.

If you have a temperature crash where it falls off really quickly, that typically happens if the bean releases a whole lot of moisture at once and it causes an evaporative cooling that can flatten the sweetness out of any coffee. So you lose all of that sweetness that you’re trying to retain.  

If it spikes up, you’ll get these really roasty notes and kind of ashy flavor, rubber, things that you don’t want in a cup of coffee. A lot of it is how each roaster can express themselves in a given coffee. Same coffee, two different roasters, side by side. You can roast for the same length of time and end up with a completely different tasting cup of coffee.

Photo by Justin Fox Burks

C901: Why is it important for Vice & Virtue to participate in Grind Coffee Expo?  

Tim: I love what Daniel and Rachel are doing. I think it’s fantastic. It is a really close-knit community. I think we know everybody in the Memphis coffee community from roasters to baristas. We have a lot of people from different places come and hang out with us and they might work for other roasters or other places, and we do the same. We were at Comeback Coffee last week. They’re getting ready to open at the end of March and it’s a great idea that they’ve got, and I think it will only grow from here.

I know there’s a lot of other budding young professionals that are kind of doing their own thing a little bit under the radar now, but I don’t think that will be the case a year or two from now. I think they’ll get their footing and kind of come out on their own as well and that’s only a good thing for the coffee community. 

Teri:  I’m excited to see how many people show up. We’ve kind of gotten into this Memphis coffee community of coffee professionals and we’re all super excited and passionate about sharing good coffee with Memphis. I don’t think people realize compared to some other large cities that are our size what a good coffee desert Memphis is. I’m excited to see people outside of coffee that just like a good cup. I’m excited to see how many show up and if they even realize that this is going on in this city, that we’re working on this and we’re trying to bring the city good coffee.  

Follow Vice & Virtue Coffee on Facebook, and meet Tim & Teri at Grind City Coffee Expo on March 9th at Memphis College of Art. Grind City Coffee Expo exists to highlight the amazing coffee community in Memphis from the roasters to the shops. Tickets are on sale now for $30. All proceeds go to benefit Protect Our Aquifer

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