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Actress Ellen Muth of “Dead Like Me” on Acting, Coffee & Life

Ellen Muth knows way more than you do about coffee beans and roasting

I like entertainment that is well-written and makes me look at things from another angle. Thus, my particular fondness for a show called Dead Like Me, which starred Ellen Muth, an actress who had previously made a name for herself, beginning in her early teens. She’s played many roles involving surprisingly heavy subject matter like incest and abuse, interracial families and secret abortions in the 1930s, and coming out as a lesbian to a parent and community that are not supportive.

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The character she played on the show, Georgia “George” Lass, exemplified the rudderless existence of the young but whip-smart underachiever who is suddenly thrust into life, or in her case by her death (seriously, watch the show, it is good) and her subsequent realization that the universe isn’t going to wait for her to feel like a grown-up before handing her the unwanted responsibilities of one. It was an irreverent way to look at a process that is assumed to be the most profound event in the existence of the individual.

So, when I saw that she was opening an eBay store, I was intrigued to see that it featured high-end coffee beans. I messaged her about it. She responded, describing how the quality is hugely improved by ensuring that the beans are “single origin” and why it makes that level of difference. I was struck by how well-informed she was.

I sent her another message letting her know that she was certainly the best actress from whom I had ever tried to purchase coffee. She sources, roasts, and grinds to order some amazingly wonderful varieties of beans which can be purchased at Muth Rosten Haus or through her eBay store.

I talked with her recently about acting and coffee.

On Dead Like Me, you were onscreen most of each episode. What did that translate into in terms of a normal workday?

I would get picked up anywhere between five to seven in the morning, and the trainer they sent me would come an hour before then and have me work out for forty-five minutes. Then I would go to set and go to hair, makeup, and wardrobe and all that stuff. Then you have a blocking rehearsal so the cameraman and director see where and how you will be moving so they know how to light the set and where and when to move the camera. It actually takes about three or four hours on set before you actually film anything.

Then you may have eight pages to film that day so you are working, including transportation to and from the set, anywhere from twelve to seventeen hours a day. Twelve was like extreme luck. That would be if I was not in the last scene of the day. It was usually about fifteen hours.

Wow. It seems like that would be a little wearing.

It was trying. When you start very young and you don’t have a sense of who you are yet, which you shouldn’t, because you are not yet a grown person—a child or an adolescent—you can sometimes sort of take on the personalities of your characters, or become very lost in who you are as yourself, because you haven’t had time to develop as your own person, because you have been spending all this time developing other people and characters. That became a problem for me in my mid-teens when I got to high school. I was there for my first month and I realized that—being with all these people my own age, I found it hard to identify with them, and difficult to socialize with them because I was so used to being around adults. I felt kind of like I had lost myself, and wasn’t a teenager, I was more of a mini-woman. I realized that it wasn’t what I should be doing at that time, I needed to go back and be with people my own age and develop myself—just to be home and be with people my own age and getting back to what that was like.

You have done a lot of projects with Bryan Fuller, and his work tends toward the macabre or dark. Do you prefer that sort of thing, where there is a little weirdness or creepiness to it? Is it fun to do that kind of story?

I do prefer the more dark and emotional roles; my very first role was in a Steven King movie where I played an incest victim! [slight chuckle] That’s not funny, but it was a very dark and emotional world to enter. And Dead Like Me was my first taste of a dark comedy mixed in with the emotional. So I got the best of both worlds, I got the emotional bit and the comedy mixed in there. I found it to be a bit of a relief to finally have some days where I wasn’t crying all day in every scene, or I didn’t have to be sulking and dealing with all of this heavy material all the time. Because that is what most of my roles have been, kind of dark and heavy with deep issues.

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I would say that it is weird that sometimes folks discount some genres of writing if it is too dark or macabre or in that type of genre. Like with Stephen King, some will say that his work is for “entertainment,” and I have always been puzzled when they say that, as if it was a bad thing.

Yeah, a lot of people, when they write articles or publish something on a podcast, they prefer to say negative things about people and their work rather than saying something nice. It’s almost like there is some sort of rule on the internet where if you have something nice, don’t bother writing it; we just want to know all of the dirt you have on people.

True, like when I was researching for this interview, I saw a lot of things out there on the net that were appalling. The license that people take amazed me, and it makes me think that they don’t realize this is an actual person they are writing about, instead of a character, like you were saying before.

Right.

Well, I did hear something from someone who was involved in the Star Trek franchise that what they would do to balance that kind of thing out is to go to a convention. Because that is where you see real fans, and an outpouring of genuine love, because these are people who have paid to come together and engage in a sense of community and be with those people who share their interests and all feel the same way.

Yes, that is very well said. I used to go to conventions a lot for a few years, probably about nine per year for three or four years. There were many more people coming to see me there than writing mean things on the computer. It was an outpouring of utter love and adoration from fans, which is amazing that people would take time out of their day just to come and say hi to me or shake my hand or stand with me for a picture. That’s—you know—touching.

You do have some eclectic things in your background, like racing school, molecular gastronomy, and now a very in-depth knowledge of and interest in coffee. Is that common to become really passionate and focused on something?

I tend to develop interests in new or different things, and they are usually thing that people wouldn’t expect me to get involved in. Like racing; or target-shooting, which maybe most girls wouldn’t be expected to like. I have always loved to cook, so molecular gastronomy was more like a sub-version, or sub-species of that. Still cooking, just a different type, and I found it interesting because I have always found science and chemistry interesting.

But I have never gone as far and as deeply into anything as I have with coffee and coffee beans as far as researching and learning so much about it; learning so much about roasting, and how to develop the best flavors that that bean has to offer. I have never gone this far with any of my passions other than acting.

So are you currently actively looking for new acting roles, or are you concentrating more on getting the coffee business up and running? Because the passion you have for that is very obvious.

Yeah, right now, I am focusing more on the [coffee]. Of course with acting, it is still interesting and I have a passion for it and enjoy it as well, but the coffee business is something that gives me a more stable environment. Eventually, I would like to settle down and have a family of my own, and that is hard to do when you are constantly traveling around as an actor.

That’s not to say I don’t ever want to act again. I have just hit the pause button on the acting for now.

But if someone asked you to do a quick guest shot on something, you might still be interested in that?

Sure. But I would make sure that the business is secure while I am away.

That’s good, because just for selfish reasons, I would hope so, because I wouldn’t want to run out of coffee.

Exactly! Fill those orders!

What would you like people to know about Muth Rosten Haus?

Ah, yes. Well, first of all, all of our beans are fair trade, which means that the farmers and their workers who plant and process the beans on the farms and plantations are paid a living wage, and they are not working for unfair prices.

And also very hard work.

It’s the farmers [to] whom Master Roasters and people who own coffee businesses owe most of our enthusiasm or accomplishments. Because they are the ones who know how to process and grow these beans that are such a high-value commodity in the U.S. and around the world.

People throw around the word “specialty” all the time to describe beans, but specialty has to meet certain criteria to which only two or three percent of all beans in the world qualify and should be called specialty or reserve. All of our beans are, and they are also single origin, which means that say we have a Brazilian coffee, all of those beans come from the same farm, and the same lot, and the same area.

Most people don’t realize this but when you buy a blend, say, for example, a Columbian blend, the laws in the U.S. say that as long as it contains a minimum of five percent of that type of coffee, you can call it a Columbian Blend. So they can put Columbian, and then in small print the word blend. So you are drinking the five percent and then they use fillers which are very cheap, poorly graded beans, usually Robusta.

Are those the ones from Africa?

Well, they are usually grown in Asia, but the thing is, you can grow great beans anywhere. It’s just that Robusta are crappy beans. Nobody drinks them if they have a choice. They are used because they are incredibly inexpensive in comparison. They do have higher caffeine content, but they are very bitter and they have absolutely no sweetness or complexity to them. When you talk about flavor notes, those are always Arabica beans.

How do you source the beans?

I first tried to find the best green coffee beans by looking up the Cup Of Excellence website and reading all of the farmers and coffees that took home awards and had high cupping scores. I researched all of the coffees that took home ratings of above 89 points. Anything above 85 is considered specialty.

I found four of the coffees that won the Cup Of Excellence award being sold by a farmer and vendor of raw coffee beans in El Salvador and I was able to translate my email into Spanish for them and they wrote back saying that they did carry those beans and they’d sell them to me. I still use them today, the vendor that is. In fact, I just got in this season’s harvest of their four [types of] beans.

I tried many different vendors but none were up to the standard I wanted; it was basically trial and error. I really wanted to find someone who wasn’t a big company; I wanted beans that came from the farmers’ hands to mine. While I was doing research on bean varietals I was reading about Geisha beans and came across this American farmer who has his own farm, though not for coffee beans. But he’s traveled the world trying all kind of specialty grade coffees at the farms they come from and drew up contracts with many different farmers and he gets the beans straight from the farmers and sells them as a hobby, and because it’s very interesting and fun for him.

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So when I saw he had three different types of Geisha beans, I had to try them. I tried the Costa Rica Candelaria Geisha and I was in love. I’d never experienced anything like that before. Never would I expect to be as astonished as I was when I first tasted that coffee. I was in awe; this was a different experience. Now I know why it’s been said that judges are often speechless when drinking Geisha [coffee]. I was the wondering what the “Most of All Geishas,” Panama’s La Esmeralda 1500 Geisha was going to be like? It was named “the World’s Best Coffee” by SCAA. It’s also been called the most expensive coffee and sold for the most money ever in history at auction. Since it’s extremely difficult to grow and there are so many variables that need to be perfect in order to get the tree to bear the coffee fruit, it’s extremely rare.

I found it from this particular vendor and you bet I bought it! The prices out there range from $50-$500, but I feel that the amount of money I get from selling it isn’t as important as is people experiencing such a coffee at least once, so I sell it for $30. That way, I’m not losing but I’m letting people know what perfect coffee could and should taste like. Who knows? People may be more apt to try other roasts of mine also after tasting this.

How much difference does correct roasting make?

Roasting and good beans make all the difference. If you don’t know what you’re doing or your machine isn’t working properly or you don’t understand the difference between all the beans you’re roasting and the type of roast that brings out their flavor the best, you could completely ruin the batch.

Most people think of certain flavors when they think of specific type of coffee. For instance, when you think of Ethiopian Coffee, most think fruity first and then maybe tea or other herbs and very light vanilla. It all depends on the type of Ethiopian coffee, too. Most fruity and herbal coffees do best with a light to medium/light roast. If you go any darker you’ll completely cook off the fruits and herbs and end up with a completely different flavor profile than is associated with Ethiopian coffee. So it’s very important for a roaster to understand the beans they’re working with thoroughly.

Now, when you’re working with beans that are dense, which are usually those from South America, with some exceptions, their flavors don’t even begin to develop until you reach a minimum of Full City but you can even take it to full city +, aka dark. Flavors that need darker roasts in order to develop are chocolate, nuttiness, and anything known as “bold.” If you only roast these coffees to a light or medium light they’ll have a hay-like grassiness to the aroma and taste, if you can imagine what that might taste like. (Ask a horse.) An excellent roaster can take some not-so-great beans or those of a very low grade or no grade, make a certain blend out of them, and develop a custom profile for them with their roaster and make them taste good. That’s a Master Roaster.

Well, there is a huge difference, I can testify, between even standard blends and the good single origin beans. Some friends and I were describing the difference as the higher quality stuff being like an orgy with supermodels, and then the coffee at my work after having the good cup in the morning being more like sitting alone in the dark in an abandoned little league baseball field dugout.

Yeah, it’s EXACTLY like that. [laughing] Yeah. It’s so true, the first time I had this kind of coffee I was ruined for grocery store coffee for life. Never again.

Yeah, me too, and actually I think that’s your fault for providing the source of such coffee. [laughs] So those were all the questions I had, but the question I always ask at the end of an interview is, “Is there another question you would have liked to have been asked in the interview?”

Oh. Um, that’s actually a good question! Hmm. Am I single and am I looking for a husband? And the answer is, “Yes!” [laughs]

Well, it is the internet, so that may be a leading question. Now that you have some stability, I assume you are going to have a place in your life for that.

Yeah, it’s hard to meet people when you are not going to a regular job where there are…people, and you’re not in school. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t have a problem flirting, but now that I am in my thirties, I just think that they are going to think I am old. Not that thirty-four is old, but—.

Well, that depends on the particular audience.

That’s true. If they say that, maybe you don’t want them.

Definitely. Well, thank you very much, this has been a lot of fun.

Yes, it was nice talking to you!

*****

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