The Unseen Bean: The story of how passion outwits obstacles
By Alice Ashmore, ANCHORA writer
Abstract: How many options does a man blind from birth really have in the world of work? Gerry Leary proves there are plenty.
Key Words: family, blind, career exploration, adult mentor
Editor's Note: I first learned of Gerry through a family in Pearland, TX. On their summer vacation in Colorado, they visited a blind coffee roaster in Longmont. In their posting on the Texas Visually Impaired Family Network, they encouraged families to contact Gerry—both for his coffee and his ability to give great advice to parents. "The Unseen Bean: The story of how passion outwits obstacles" originally appeared in the summer 2005 issue of the ANCHORA of Delta Gamma. Delta Gamma is a women's organization dedicated to Service for Sight since 1936. Reprinted with permission.
Gerry Leary is a man of passion; for both life and great coffee. The fact that he is blind from birth hasn't kept him from enjoying a 30-year career as an independent auto mechanic or from becoming a master coffee roaster.
Gerry, now 52, was born after only 24 weeks of development. His family moved from Chicago to Los Angeles shortly after he was born. His parents later learned a heartrending fact: Their infant son had developed Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). With the definitive ROP diagnosis, a surgeon decided to remove the eyes from Gerry's ten-month-old body and replace them with plastic ones.
Gerry spent just over two decades in California before an offer from a friend lured him to the Colorado's Front Range. With two years of study in Business Administration at L.A.'s Pierce College under his belt, he decided to open his first garage. Gerry's Auto Service opened its doors in Boulder in 1984. After all, Gerry's experience with cars spanned his entire life.
A Model of Determination
Gerry's precocious nature often made life interesting for his parents. From an early age, he was fascinated with his father's garage and cars. "I could play with them and take pieces off of them," he explained. Fearing that his blind son would inevitably get hurt, Gerry's father kept the garage door securely locked.
But Gerry was hardly deterred. At just three years old, Gerry and his older brother made a trip to a nearby hardware store. "I went back to the key thing and said I wanted a key blank so I could pretend to have a house key."
He soon found his parents' spare key and hatched a plan to get into the garage. Simply by feeling and comparing, Gerry scraped the blank key against the driveway, eventually making a match. "It took days and days and finally it worked. There I was back with the cars!"
Gerry made the most of his time exploring the cars, but soon the carefully executed plan was foiled. "My parents kept finding me all greasy," he said, and they took the key away. "I broke the lock with my next key." At that point his exasperated father decided to teach him the mechanic's trade.
His work as an automobile mechanic drew some interesting reactions. "Basically you'd hear people say, `a blind mechanic?' Sometimes people would just show up to watch," he said with an easy laugh. His skill as a mechanic was rarely in question. "In all my time of working on cars, I may have had a handful of unhappy customers."
From Cars to Coffee
Gerry became intrigued by coffee roasting while in San Francisco in 1994. "I heard this machine that sounded like a rock polisher," he said, remembering the noise emanating from a coffee roasting machine. He asked his friend and traveling companion Elizabeth Johnston what it was. "The owner took me over and showed me how it worked," he said. "I realized that coffee roasting was a true art form."
Gerry returned to Colorado and to his cars, but the experience stuck with him. In 2001, he decided to stop fixing cars. His hands were becoming numb, making mechanical work difficult. The advent of computerized car systems also dealt Gerry a harsh blow. "I couldn't open a book and read the diagnostic codes," he explained. "I realized I was becoming illiterate." It was then that coffee moved to the center of Gerry's attention. The search to find a coffee mentor was on.
In Search of a Teacher
Gerry began to cast about for a roaster willing to teach him the craft. "I thought the best way to do it was as a trainee." That idea met with resistance. "Everyone I talked to said, `Boy, you really have to see to do this. I don't know how to teach you.' One person said I'd never be able to roast coffee."
"I must have talked to 15 roasters," he allowed. He learned that most roasters relied on visual cues to glean information. "They would talk about color and structure and what was happening to the beans, how they broke open and how oily they were."
Gerry eventually received training and certification as a Master Coffee Roaster from the Coffee Training Institute and West Coast Specialty Coffee Company in San Francisco. With a future still unclear, the training came with a steep price and definite risk. "It cost me about $2,000. I borrowed the money and refinanced my house." With his new certification, Gerry returned to the roasters he'd talked to previously. No one needed any help, and no one was willing to take a risk on a blind man.
Undaunted, Gerry began experimenting with a quarter-pound "sample roaster" in a shed in his backyard. With each batching requiring about 15 minutes, Gerry literally prepared hundreds of roasts on his "practice" machine.
Learning to Adapt
Determined to go it alone, Gerry used his mechanical abilities in his quest to adapt sighted equipment for the needs of a blind coffee roaster. The first necessity was a talking kitchen scale. (He's since progressed to a talking digital scale with precision to one-hundredths of a pound.)
Another major concern was how he could read the temperature inside the roaster. He considered removing the glass from his gauges, cutting a series of notches and feeling where the needles pointed. The technique he developed served him well while working with cars.
One day, however, Gerry came across a talking multi-meter that included temperature measurements. He was dozing on his couch when his brain made a connection that "woke me out of a sleep." He attached a thermo-coupled probe to the talking multi-meter and found success. "That made me really excited. I could actually tell the temperature!"
As his roasting abilities grew, the demand for his coffee overwhelmed the small machine. His backyard wasn't adaptable to a larger enterprise, but Gerry was. He acquired a 20-pound roaster and commercial space in Longmont, Colorado in August 2004.
Inside his expanded roasting business, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee wafts through the air, greeting visitors at his doorway. Gerry is considered a "custom roaster," roasting only small quantities and adapting each to his customer's tastes. He prides himself on the quality and freshness of his gourmet coffees. "I try to roast and ship in a 24-hour period." His coffee travels to such far-flung places as British Columbia and Florida.
Man's Best Friend
A black Labrador retriever named Midnight is Gerry's guide dog and constant companion. Star of The Unseen Bean logo, Midnight's drawn version has sunglasses and a nose directed toward a steaming cup of coffee. On holiday packages, the dog sports a winter scarf against a backdrop of snowflakes. Gerry's slogan encourages customers to "Taste the passion in blind-roasted coffee."
The same friend who had accompanied Gerry on that fateful trip to San Francisco doubles as a graphic artist and was there when Gerry needed her expertise. Elizabeth Johnston and her company Lizzardbrand Inc. formed a sizeable focus group to help develop the company's identity. Her husband Jeffrey Hill supplied the name "The Unseen Bean."
"It made us laugh so hard we figured it had to be the right one," Elizabeth recalled. The name stuck, and a business was born.
You Don't Know Beans?
Neatly lined 55-gallon bins of green coffee beans stand in a row along one wall of his tidy, spacious workspace. Braille labels allow Gerry to distinguish between varieties. Others wait on pallets in their burlap bags for transfer into the bins. Beans whir and tumble in the barrel of his natural gas-fired roaster as the beans reach temperatures in excess of 400 degrees.
"There are audible cues," he explains. The coffee goes through two "cracks" when it roasts. The first crack releases the water in the green beans. Gerry leans in close toward the large metal machine. "They quiet down as they get to the water crack."
His talking multi-meter, a good nose and a practiced attention to sound tell Gerry when the beans should leave the roaster. The variety of coffee also affects roasting time and temperature. The release of beans into the cooling tray triggers a cloud of aromatic steam and smoke. As the beans cool, a slight crackling sound comes with the release of oil that dapples their surface.
Although his selection may vary with seasonal availability, Gerry offers a broad range of coffees from around the world, including selections from Zambia, Sumatra, Malawi, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Peru and 100 percent Kona Fancy from Hawaii. His personal favorites come from Panama, Malawi, Uganda and Zambia. "When it is possible, I try to buy organic, shade-grown, fair-trade beans. All of my decaf coffees are organic."
Gerry has developed several unique blends including one appropriately dubbed "Passion Blend." Ordering information and tasting notes on all of Gerry's coffee are available online: <www.theunseenbean.com>. He maintains meticulous notes of customer preferences using an East German Brailler and can consistently produce the exact coffee expected.
Cathy Miller, a longtime friend, joined the business in December 2003. "I called her when I needed help around Christmas," Gerry recalled. "We got an order for 90 pounds, and it took us about three weeks." Cathy weighs and packages the coffee, and prepares it for shipping.
But coffee wasn't the only thing brewing. Romance blossomed about a year ago, and Cathy now shares both work and life with Gerry.
Cathy's assistance has been just one factor in The Unseen Bean's growth in business. Gerry relies on word-of-mouth customers and public appearances instead of advertising to generate sales, but the media exposure helps, too. He's been featured in The Denver Post, on Denver's NBC affiliate KUSA, in 5280- Denver's Mile-High Magazine and many other area newspapers and magazines.
Not surprisingly, local Delta Gammas have become regular customers and big fans. "His coffee is amazing," raved Meredith Meyers, an initiate of Beta Tau-Miami and member of the Denver alumnae chapter. In fact, Gerry recently agreed to develop a special Delta Gamma blend at the request of area alumnae as a thank-you and nod to Delta Gamma's philanthropic project, Service for Sight. Using DG coffee-lovers as taste testers, Gerry readily played "bartender," tweaking the roast to the panel's delight.
Gerry has grown accustomed to bringing joy to his customers. With two very different careers to compare, Gerry finds he's happiest while making the beans he knows so well into a product his customers have come to love. "People hate spending money repairing their cars," he realized, "but with coffee, they come in and leave with a smile! It's a much happier work environment!"
Update: Gerry has just perfected a unique Delta Gamma blend with an anchor on the roast's label! And, to support the "Service for Sight" sorority, Gerry has also agreed to offer reduced rates for DG fundraisers